Another Take on Reparations

History always has a way of surprising me.

In the turmoil of the Black Lives Matter movement and the widespread revelation of the details of the 1921 Tulsa Riot, one topic that comes up semi-regularly is reparations for the formerly enslaved. No matter what your viewpoint, you may be surprised to learn (as I was) that there is an example of slavery reparations in this country, but not in the way you would expect.

On April 16, 1862, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the “Act for the Release of certain Persons held to Service or Labor within the District of Columbia.” This new law gave more than 3,100 enslaved people their freedom, but the compensation went to their former masters for the loss of property! Each aggrieved owner was paid $300 per slave lost for a cost to the government of in excess of $930,000 (which would be almost $25 million today). And those former slaves? They received nothing unless they agreed to permanently leave the country. Emigrating entitled them to a one-time payment of $100 (about $2,683 in 2021).

Was this unusual? No, not at all. As a general rule, any time slavery was abolished anywhere in the world, it was the slave owners who received redress. The Wikipedia entry “Compensation Emancipation” lists 20 “nations and empires that implemented compensated emancipation,” including the U.S. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compensated_emancipation). When Great Britain abolished slavery in 1833, the slave owners were paid a total of £20 million (about £300 billion in 2018).

Probably the most egregious example was Haiti. In 1804, Haiti declared independence from France after what historians consider the most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere. Of course, France refused to accept loss of this important colony for another 20 years. Then in 1825, King Charles X decided he would recognize independence if Haiti paid 150 million francs (more than 10 years of total revenue) as compensation to former slave owners for the loss of their “property.” To comply, Haiti borrowed 166 million francs from French banks, with the money going to more than 7,900 former slave owners and their descendants. The payments were made for 122 years (1825 to 1947), and by the time they ended, none of the originally enslaved or enslavers were still alive.

So the next time you hear someone mention reparations for slavery, remember this history.

For more detail, see “There was a time reparations were actually paid out – just not to formerly enslaved people” by Thomas Craemer (https://theconversation.com/there-was-a-time-reparations-were-actually-paid-out-just-not-to-formerly-enslaved-people-152522?).

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