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The Price of Pain

illustration
Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Can modern-day America pay African Americans back for the scars of slavery and discrimination? Should we even try?

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor


"Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That the Congress apologizes to African Americans whose ancestors suffered as slaves under the Constitution and laws of the United States until 1865."

WHEN OHIO Congressman Tony Hall introduced this resolution in the House last June, he said that while he did not think an apology would "fix all that's wrong between the races," he felt "there is a wound here that's still festering. We need some healing." And the congressman probably thought an apology wouldn't be too hard to accomplish. First, given the state of race relations in the country, there seems to be a crying need for some national act of contrition just to break through the steadily growing barricades, if nothing else. Besides that, in the past few years the U.S. has officially apologized for such acts as the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II, the stealing of the homelands of native Hawaiians and, most recently, the conducting of syphilis experiments on African American men in Tuskegee, Ala., during the 1930s. One would think that if these acts merited an apology, then the enslavement of Africans in America should also qualify. And finally, how much does it take to say you're sorry for something almost everybody (at least publicly) agrees was wrong?

Perhaps more than this country presently possesses.

Three months after its introduction, Hall's apology resolution languishes in the House Judiciary Committee with no apparent discussions occurring, no hearings scheduled and the signing on of co-sponsors apparently stalled. Most Congressional Black Caucus members have kept away from the issue, on the theory that any apology would have far more meaning if blacks did not lobby for it, and are waiting to see what white members of Congress are going to do. Not surprisingly, the apology resolution is getting no support at all from President Bill Clinton, even though he has promised that a major theme of his second term will be a national discussion of racial problems. An apology for slavery is "not the place that [the President] chooses to begin this dialogue," a Clinton spokesman said. "It's not likely the place that he will go anytime soon." House Speaker Newt Gingrich was more direct, calling the apology resolution "backward-oriented." "Any American, I hope, feels badly about slavery," Gingrich said, then added, a little flippantly, "I also feel badly about a lot of things."

Locally, Congressman Tom Campbell's attitude toward the apology resolution is fairly typical. While he calls it "well-intentioned," he says he will not be supporting it because "there is a potential harm in assessing blame based upon who your ancestors are." Campbell says that, instead, festering racial wounds could be better healed "through jobs, through good education, through making real the opportunity in America to be equal."

Even early supporters of the resolution appear to be backing off as the issue turns controversial. Congressman Tom Lantos of San Mateo was one of the 12 original co-sponsors. But when asked over a period of a week and a half for a comment on the resolution for this article, Lantos could not seem to be located, even by his own press secretary.

Showing his disappointment in this turn of events, the bill's creator, Congressman Hall, recently told an Ohio newspaper that the apology resolution "probably won't even pass while I'm in Congress."

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A simple apology could ring hollow.

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SO WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL about an apology to African Americans? Aside from the usual suspect of racism, the bone that sticks in the national throat may be the money that it could cost.

Nationally, calls for reparations--financial or other compensation to African Americans for the evils of slavery--came immediately upon the heels of the introduction of the apology resolution. In an open letter to the president in Time magazine headlined "Sorry Isn't Good Enough," African American columnist Jack White said that "[w]ithout some form of reparations, apologizing for a historical wrong is an empty gesture." And in a keynote address to the national conference of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA), an organization that has promoted the idea for several years, veteran African American Congressman John Conyers of Michigan stated that "[t]he time is ripe now to push for a greater galvanizing of national efforts to put the reparations movement ... to the top of the American agenda." Conyers called for the passage of his bill, introduced every year since 1989, that would establish a national commission to study the feasibility of the idea.

While news coverage of the issue has been scant, the chairman of the African American Studies Program at San Jose State University, Cobie Harris, says you cannot judge the issue by what you might see on CNN. "It's not getting much national press," he says, "but it's the big talk in intellectual circles."

"An apology is symbolic," Harris continues. "It's a step in the right direction, but by itself it's not adequate. Something substantive is needed in order for African Americans to be included and equal in American society." He stares thoughtfully across a desk crowded with books and papers and file folders, clearing an imaginary path through the clutter with his eyes. "Reparations is next on the table."

Earl Black, program coordinator of the African and African-American Studies Program at Stanford University (who emphasizes that he is speaking only as an individual and not as a representative of Stanford or of the program), says that not only are the issues of apology and reparations intertwined, but the second could not be possible without the first. "In order to achieve reparations, you must establish that a moral wrong has been committed against us, a wrong so grievous that even today's population is still damaged by it," Black says. "An apology for slavery would establish that moral position. The next step would simply be to determine the material damage that we have suffered. After an apology, that would be relatively easy."

He points out that such a move has recent precedence. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan said "we admit a wrong" concerning the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans and signed into law legislation which provided $20,000 apiece to the internees or their survivors.

AT FIRST GLANCE, reparations seems like wishful thinking in the extreme, with about as much chance of occurring as the Mother Ship dropping down to earth and taking black people off to another, fairer planet. After all, isn't this a time when much of the old civil rights agenda and affirmative action are being busily dismantled throughout the country?

Earl Black admits as much. "Most people do not believe that reparations are going to be achieved," he says. "I'm not sure that this belief is based on logic or reality; it's probably more due to the fact that we're used to not getting everything that's supposed to come to us. After all, that's what it means to be a Negro." He admits that even he is among those who do not think reparations will ever be paid.

Harris is more equivocal. "If things get worse, there's no telling what could happen," he says. "If we get into a Northern Ireland-type situation, where you have sustained periods of civil unrest, then a lot of things might occur which seem strange right now."

WHEN WHITE AMERICANS discuss the issue of the wrongs of slavery, they most often think in historical terms, or legal, or moral, or sociological, or political. It is all done in the abstract, from a distance, with an uneasy look over the shoulder into a dark past. It is an issue of whether "we" should be responsible for what "they" did to "them." When asked about the issue of reparations last June, President Clinton gave it even shorter shrift than he had the idea of an apology. "[T]he nation is [too] many generations removed" from slavery for the issue to even be considered, he said.

But when black Americans discuss the issue of the wrongs of slavery, it is usually far more personal. It is an issue of family.

A few weeks ago, my father's side of the family held its second reunion. Like almost every African American I have ever met, we easily trace the lines of our family directly back into captivity.

On the cover of the reunion brochure is a picture of our family matriarch, Leontine Braud Allen. Everyone called her Mammúh. She was born in slavery in St. James Parish, La., in 1846 and died in 1948, the year of my birth. Family members describe her as a tiny lady with waist-length dark hair; a "sassy," intelligent woman fluent in both French and English, as was the norm in 19th-century Louisiana; a midwife; and a superb organizer of the activities of her large flock of children and grandchildren. Slavery left its imprint upon her, of course, but apparently never broke her spirit. Her portrait shows a light-skinned woman with a long, full nose so much like my own, trying to look stern and severe in the portrait fashion of the day but failing miserably, unable to hide a certain look of mirth about her eyes. She was the type of woman who could work all week and still find the mental energy to fix molasses-and-popcorn balls for her children and grandchildren on a Saturday night, or join in the sometimes raucous family songs.

There are fewer stories and memories of Mammúh's husband, George Allen, my great-grandfather, who died at the turn of the century. He was a free New Orleans black man who never lived in slavery, but who fought against it. He served as a sergeant in a black Louisiana regiment during the Civil War; he probably experienced combat in the vicious fighting at Port Hudson, La., part of Grant's successful siege of Vicksburg. My grandfather once remembered George, his father, as having been "very mean." The family history describes him as an "angry and brooding figure," reportedly with a fierce temper. Perhaps that came from the war--the things that he witnessed during that terrible time and the things he had to do in battle. But he was also a storybook romantic. The family legend is that he met my great-grandmother while the black troops were marching into liberated New Orleans. Like many others, Mammúh was standing by the side of the road watching the parade, and George was so struck by her beauty that he walked over and lifted her onto his shoulders and carried her with him into town. They had 13 children. Their last daughter died only a year ago.

I never knew George or Mammúh myself, of course, but I feel the mark of these slavery-era people upon me. George and Mammúh were the parents of my grandfather, whom I loved and knew very well. I heard tales of George's legendary temper reappearing in my grandfather; I witnessed it in my own father; I see it in myself. I see the image of Mammúh when I look in the morning mirror. For me, as for most African Americans, slavery is not part of the distant and forgotten past. It is my family's recent history. I can feel its slowly cooling last breath on the back of my neck, the last residue of an exploded star. I can almost touch it, within my own memory.

Where are the "too many generations removed" that President Clinton talks about?

IF A DEBT IS STILL OWED for the crimes of slavery, I do not think that we are too far gone down the line to collect it. I just don't happen to think that a debt is owed for slavery anymore. That was already paid, in the Civil War.

The argument has been made for years that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. One could offer large libraries of rebuttal, but only a paragraph is necessary. In 1862, the Confederate states seceded from the Union because they thought the newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, was going to abolish slavery. Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens declared that the foundations of the Confederacy were laid "upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth." Stephens said that the threat to slavery caused by Lincoln's election was "the immediate cause of the late rupture [the secession of the Southern states from the Union] and the present revolution [the Civil War]." At the end of four years of war, the Confederates' power over their African captives was broken and the 13th Amendment was passed, abolishing slavery throughout the country.

And at a terrible, terrible cost. The sacrifices of Union soldiers during the Civil War were horrific, even by "modern" warfare standards. Some 110,000 Federalists died in battle. Another 255,000 died of disease or other causes, and another 275,000 were wounded. In other words, the North suffered almost two-thirds of a million casualties. Countless numbers returned home with one or more limbs amputated. Many had internal shrapnel injuries that never healed, causing them to suffer horribly for the rest of their lives. A generation of the nation's best young men was ravaged, and some might argue that America's idealism was lost in those terrible days and has never fully returned. It is hard to imagine the country doing more to pay for the stain of slavery than it already did. For slavery, reparations are no longer due. But what about for the time that came immediately afterward?

THERE WAS ONE BRIEF AND shining moment, in that great stillness following the laying down of arms at Appomattox, when the African Americans could have been made whole citizens and set off on the right foot. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to the former African captives--made us African Americans, in fact--and granted us the right to vote. Blacks began filling public office all across the Deep South. In South Carolina, African Americans made up a majority of both houses of the state legislature during the early 1870s, passing progressive legislation that set up the state's first modern prisons and first public school systems.

What would have happened if this glorious experiment in black politics, education and entrepreneurship had been protected and allowed to continue? Would we be talking today about a crisis in the black family, would our prisons be overflowing with young black men, would our inner cities be held captive by drug-dealing young gangs? We will never, never know, because the experiment died aborning. Or, more accurately, it was smothered in its crib. Congress could have made good on Gen. William Sherman's wartime promise of 40 acres to each black family, mules to be given on loan, and our whole 20th-century history of black poverty and welfare dependency might have been avoided. But Congress did not.

Instead, the Northern states seemed to grow weary of worrying about black concerns within a decade of the close of the war. Republican candidate Rutherford Hayes made a pact with Southern Democrats that gave him the 1878 presidential victory, agreeing to withdraw federal troops from the South. The troops had been African Americans' only protection. And Northern sentiment began to turn to the opinion that it was important to reconcile with the former Confederate rebels, even in the face of breaking faith and promise with blacks who had fought on the Union side.

What followed was one of the most shameful periods in American history, rivaling even the destruction of the Indian nations or slavery itself. In what has been called the Hundred Years of Terror, white Southerners used fire and blood to drive African Americans out of political office, out of economic independence and eventually, in good numbers, out of the South itself.

Black officeholders were assassinated in broad daylight. Black political activists were killed or jailed, their homes burned, their land confiscated. Black access to decent education--the key to a people's progress--was squeezed virtually shut: African American students were shunted into separate schools that were then stripped bare of books or facilities. The 14th Amendment was effectively nullified when black citizens were denied their voting rights. South Carolina Gov. Ben Tillman later bragged that blacks were robbed of most of their constitutionally guaranteed rights through "fraud and violence." An interesting historical footnote to these times is that Tillman was advised and aided in these anti-black endeavors by his good friend and legal counsel, J. William Thurmond, the father of present U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina).

In 1871, the U.S. Circuit Court in Columbia, S.C., held trials of Ku Klux Klan members who had tried to steal the 1868 election by preventing African Americans from voting for the Republican ticket. The Republicans at that time stood for the black franchise, and almost all of the former Confederates were solidly Democratic. Lawson B. Davis, a white York County resident who briefly joined the Klan, testified against them. "Their object was to threaten and intimidate [black] people who held [Republican] principles," Davis said. "They said that those who belonged to the [Republican] League were to be visited and warned; that they must discontinue their connection with the league; if they did not on the second visit, they were to leave the country; and if they didn't leave they were to be whipped; and if after this they did not leave, they were to be killed. Charley Good, who was whipped very badly by the Klan, came to my house two or three days afterward; he was a blacksmith, and a very good workman, the best in that part; Charley Good was whipped so badly that he could not follow his trade for several days; two or three weeks after that he was killed."

HISTORIANS AND SOCIAL activists later mistakenly labeled this as the era of segregation, as if, in Malcolm X's famous words, "sitting down on the toilet next to white people" was the most important right that was lost. It was not. What was lost was economic and political independence, and when the era was finally over, generations of African Americans were doomed to dependence upon the welfare of the state.

My family lived through this terror. Like many other African Americans, it drove them out of the South.

My mother's father, Tom Reid, came to California from Griffin, Ga., in the 1890s. The family legend is that my grandfather got in some trouble with a group of white men, who "visited" his house with the intent of punishing him. In the growing dark of a summer evening, my grandfather and a friend are supposed to have made a dummy out of straw and old clothes, stuck it on a rocking chair on the porch, and then tied a rope to the leg of the chair so that it looked like the figure was rocking back and forth. They hid in the woods near the house and when the gang of white men arrived and rode up to the porch, Grandpa Reid and his friend opened fire with shotguns from the bushes. One of the white men is supposed to have died, and Grandpa and his friend took off on high horseback, not stopping until they reached the Sierra.

It is a common family story among African Americans from the South, North and West.

IN TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY Louisiana, times were hard for Mammúh, my father's grandmother. After her husband had helped in the fight to unify the country, the country turned its back on the family. Mammúh had to fight the federal government for George's veterans pension; the government doubted that the 13 children were actually theirs and demanded proof. The hardships drove several family members out of Louisiana and over into Oakland, Calif. They did not find the overt violence in the West that they had left in the South, but in many ways, racial conditions were very similar. Blacks in California were not considered or treated equal to whites in the first half of the 20th century, a fact far too often ignored in this state.

My father grew up in the Jingletown section of Oakland, a working-class community of mostly Portuguese immigrants. His was the only black familiy in the neighborhood. When my father was 13, in 1931, his school class took a Saturday morning trip to a local pool for a swimming party. All of the classmates were allowed to enter the pool except one: my father. I think of him now, a little shy and sensitive 13-year-old boy, walking home by himself, seeing the pool full of white children through the chain-link fence as he passed by. I will never know what he thought.

Many years later, in the year before I was born, my father passed the civil service test and joined the Oakland Fire Department. There were several black firemen in the department by then, but all of them were assigned to one station house in West Oakland. Shortly afterward, my older sister contracted polio. My father put in for a transfer, requesting that he be assigned to a station closer to our house so that he could be of some help to my mother in the crisis. The department refused to house him with white firemen and instead disciplined my father for insubordination. He had to take the matter to court, and his 1953 lawsuit ended segregation in the Oakland Fire Department. White supervisors made his life hell after that, of course, and he cashed in his pension and quit the force within a year.

Like so many other African Americans of his generation, my father did not allow racial discrimination to conquer him. Taking the pension money, he and my mother built a classic Mom and Pop grocery store in the deeps of East Oakland that stands to this day, and when my father passed away earlier this year, it was almost certainly with the satisfaction that the business had supported three children and helped to support eight grandchildren and a great-grandchild besides.

My parents' business was a success, but what could they have done had they not been held back by the discrimination against their race? What legacy could they have left for their family? A corporate law firm? A Napa Valley winery? A mayorship or a Senate seat, perhaps? Or what about my Grandpa Reid, who could not afford to call in sick to his job as a janitor at a Berkeley bakery, so he worked one last night, walked home in the damp Depression night air, lay down in his bed and died. Back in Georgia, his contractor brother put up buildings which the laws of segregation prevented him from entering once they were opened. What about him? Or my father's father, Gramp Allen, the son of a Civil War veteran, the son of an African captive, who worked all his life as a Pullman porter, a servant's job, because that was one of the only jobs open to California blacks. What would my grandfathers have done if they'd had the chance?

ONCE MY FATHER WAS driving my brother and me through West Oakland, and the car broke down beyond redemption. It was not an unusual occurrence, as my father had many cars in his time, and most of them broke down at one point or another. My brother called another relative from a pay phone, and then, since the car smelled of steam and burnt oil, the three of us sat down on the darkened curb to wait for help. Within a few moments, a pair of white Oakland police officers drove up. They did not come to help.

Instead, they approached us with the wary arrogance of Great White Hunters, hands brushing their billy clubs, flashlights blinding our eyes. These were the pre-Black Panther days, when Oakland cops had a dark reputation for beating black suspects and jailing black innocents. They were like attack dogs who could be set off by any ill-conceived or misunderstood word or gesture. Finally, after a long and silent scrutiny during which I was too frightened to take a breath, one of them said, "All right, what y'all boys doing out here this time of night?" My father was in his mid-40s at the time, a property owner, a respected businessman in our neighborhood, soon to be a grandfather. In order to protect his sons, he had to lower his voice and explain his place in the world.

Where do I go to buy back my father's dignity from that night? What amount of reparations can the government give me that would accomplish that? How much is owed for the stolen pride of all of the black men and women of this country within our living memory? How much is owed for their dreams deferred? Will money make us whole again?

I am skeptical that we will get our 40 acres and a mule. I am not certain that near-21st-century America has the moral capability of righting such enormous wrongs. I am not even certain that I would accept the offer of reparations if such an offer should ever come. Still, it would be nice to be asked.

But there is something more important than that, at least for me. Sometime, somewhere, it would be nice to have someone put out their hand and say, Hey, I'm sorry.

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From the Oct. 2-8, 1997 issue of Metro.

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