Written by Neil Johnston Rouse III
In determining the propriety of making ‘slave reparations’ one must first define the question of ‘reparations to whom,’ who were the slaves, where did they come from, how did they become enslaved? Perhaps the bigger question being, should the sins of the fathers be visited on their children? You cannot have one answer for DACA, and another for reparations. That is the core of the question, is there any legal basis at all to force people that have never owned a slave to give money to people who never were a slave based on events that ended a century and a half ago. The subject of ‘Jim Crow’ should be a separate issue, and one that may have standing, as there are living victims and living abusers. There is unlikely to be any surviving slaves, or even the children of slaves, which makes this a completely different issue than the Holocaust, or Japanese internment camps, as there remain living individuals personally injured by the actions of governments in those cases. As the slaves were never only Black, the owners were never only White, even though that was the usual occurrence, the idea that Americans of one color owe something to Americans of another color, based only on color, without any other qualifiers, is absurd, and might well be racist. The whole world was involved in slavery in one way or another, at one time or another, every race has taken their turn being slaves. Is America on one hand to give ‘reparations’ to the Cherokee for the Trail of Tears, and then take it back to give to the descendants of Cherokee slaves? Do the descendants of Black slave owners give or receive?
Certainly slavery was not something invented by Europeans, it has been a historic fact from the beginning of civilization, and although it would seem obvious that a man should not be able to own another man any more than a horse can own another horse, the practice of slavery has been universal, no culture is innocent of it. Which begs the question; if we are willing to go back a hundred and fifty years, why not three hundred, six hundred, or a couple thousand and let France sue Italy over Roman enslavement of the Celts of Gaul? Perhaps we might do better to deal with slavery, as it still exists in the world today, and finally, really, end it. But, if we are to concern ourselves only with New World slavery of over a century ago, than we should at least examine what we are talking about.
New World slavery began, not in the Caribbean with Columbus enslaving the Carib and other local tribes by telling the Pope they were cannibals, but it already existed; most notably among the Aztec, the Iroquois, the Yurok, and Klamath, long before the coming of Europeans. No one really has the moral high ground on slavery, including Africa. There was slavery in Africa long before the Portuguese set up business on the Slave Coast, and it was Africans, mostly the Alladah and Ouidah, that sold other Africans to mostly the Portuguese, and Dutch. Typically, the Alladah would sell war captives to the Portuguese who would sell to the Dutch who would transport them to the Spanish Caribbean, where most would end up in Brazil or English sugar plantations, or North America. No one had clean hands, including the African kingdoms; in fact, based on criminal law, it might seem the Africans were the thieves, everyone else simply in possession of stolen property. According to Snopes, which may obfuscate by diversion on political issues, but is generally studious in matters of history, tends like most to hide from the issue, even while confronting it.
“Apologists for the African slave trade long argued that European traders did not enslave anyone: they simply purchased Africans who had already been enslaved and who otherwise would have been put to death. Thus, apologists claimed, the slave trade actually saved lives. Such claims represent a gross distortion of the facts. Some independent slave merchants did in fact stage raids on unprotected African villages and kidnap and enslave Africans. Most professional slave traders, however, set up bases along the west African coast where they purchased slaves from Africans in exchange for firearms and other goods. Before the end of the seventeenth century, England, France, Denmark, Holland, and Portugal had all established slave trading posts on the west African coast”(Snopes.com).
In other words, Africans sold Africans, but they did it at trading bases so somehow it doesn’t count? The fact is raids by Europeans on interior villages were very rare, it would have likely ended in their own death or enslavement, and was utterly unnecessary, they need only to have stayed in the shade in some safe camp drinking wine, and the captives would be brought to them. However, to suggest that slave sellers somehow exonerate slave buyers is crap. The drug dealer would not be in business without the addict, there would have been no slave seller without slave buyers, the guilt remains, it is only that there is enough of it to go around.
How far back do we want to go to assign culpability, who is culpable, and how do we define a victim?
Ann Phillip Starkweather Wootonekanuske Pokanoket
The Starkweather family came to America before 1640, it is likely a made up name, and the reasons for settling in Massachusetts is likely political. All Starkweathers in America is descended from a John Starkweather (1646-1703), and his wife Ann Phillip, the daughter of Metacomet (King Phillip) and Wootonekanuske Pokanoket. After King Phillip’s War, Metacomet’s head was set on a pole in the middle of town, his two younger daughters, Ann, and her younger sister Prentice, were held hostage by the colonials.
“With Metacomet’s death, the war in the south was largely ended. Over 600 colonists and 3,000 Indians had been killed. Several hundred more natives who had surrendered or been captured were sold as slaves in the Caribbean. Members of the sachem’s extended family were placed for safekeeping among colonists in Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut. In Stonington, Connecticut, selectman John Starkweather married his Christianized captive”(World History Project). Ann and Prentice’s mother and brothers were all sold into slavery in the Caribbean. This is not a matter of Americans buying slaves; this is Americans actually making free people into slaves. The Starkweather family no doubt numbers in the thousands by now, over ninety percent of them are likely over ninety present ‘White,’ but the direct descendants of a free person sold into slavery by Americans. Do these mostly White descendants get reparations?
In the 1650s entire Irish families were convicted of treason under the Proclamation of 1625. Irish political prisoners were sent overseas and sold to English settlers in the West Indies. Although the Irish being ‘enslaved’ in North America is not exactly true, their term of indenture was effectively slavery, and the Irish sent to Brazil by Oliver Cromwell were likely actual slaves. The difference being that indenture was traditionally a voluntary contract with well-defined responsibilities binding on both parties, and a set limit of time or production. These indentures were not voluntary and not defined as to any terms of service. It was not chattel slavery, but it was not simple indenture either. Another difference was that they could not be freed, or sold, their indenture was a criminal sentence from which they had to serve or be pardoned, as they technically ‘belonged’ to the state. Punishments could be appalling. “Punishments for attempted escapes included branding the letters ‘FT’ (Fugitive Traitor) on the servant’s forehead″( Irish indentured labour in the Caribbean). Should the Irish be offered reparations, should the Irish have to pay reparations?
In 1861 there were four brothers living around Laurens NY. They were landed, educated, and besides farming and renting out their land, they all had learned a trade. Their family had been in America from the mid-1600s, their great grandfather had supplied two regiments to Rhode Island for the Revolution; their grandfather was a founding father of Otsego County and the town of Laurens NY in particular. The land owned by the extended family stretched across Otsego, Thompkins, and Jefferson counties. They were comfortable, and connected, and had no need of a military paycheck, nor any fear that a military draft could touch them. But every one of them volunteered and went off to fight the Civil War. They did not join over taxes and tariffs, not to ‘preserve the union,’ not even in retaliation for Ft. Sumter. They went off to fight for one reason, and one reason only…to free the slaves. Clark, the youngest at nineteen, joined the 121st NY Infantry and fought in The Maryland Campaign, The Battle of Crampton’s Gap/South Mountain, The Battle of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Franklin’s Crossing, The Battle of Maryes Heights/Fredericksburg, Salem Heights, Banks’ Ford, The Battle of Gettysburg, The Pursuit of Lee to Manassas Gap, The Bristoe Campaign, The Battle of Rappahannock Station, The Mine Run Campaign, Battle of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, The Assault on the Salient/“Bloody Angle,” Cold Harbor, Siege of Petersburg, Jerusalem Plank Road, Repulse of Early’s attack on Fort Stevens and the Northern Defenses of Washington, Expedition to Snicker’s Gap, Sheridan’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, The Battle of Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, The Battle of Cedar Creek, The Siege of Petersburg, Dabney’s Mills/Hatcher’s Run, Petersburg, Appomattox Campaign, Assault on and fall of Petersburg, Sailor’s Creek, and Appomattox Court House (121st New York Infantry Regiment). Clark made it home alive, but not whole, his leg had been shattered by a mini-ball. His brothers, David, Nicolas, and Hiram, had also survived, but had also been wreaked in one way or another. They could no longer farm or fall back on a trade, there were few people left healthy enough to rent farm land, or available as labor, they had spent the last four years at vastly reduced income. They lost most of their land. They had freed the slaves, but the family would never be the same with the brothers moving off in different directions. How much more should this family owe?
In Tonawanda NY several people tried to join the army to fight the Civil War and free the slaves, they were not allowed to join. One, a fourteen year old boy named Henry Deo walked about two hundred miles to south eastern NY, and at about fifteen years old joined the 16th NY volunteer cavalry. It was not his age that mattered back home, no more so than Ely Parker’s age. It took Ulysses S. Grant himself to demand Parker be allowed to join, and made him his assistant. Parker wrote the terms of surrender at Appomattox, Deo on the other hand, far away from the Tonawanda Indian Reservation only had to lie about his race. Although Parker claimed a full regiment of Seneca volunteered to fight, only a handful managed to do so. Henry was shot through the hand during a charge, but lived to become a canal boat captain; he never returned to Tonawanda. The war was none of his business really, except that there were some people that were even worse off than he was, and he was determined to do something about it. How much should his family pay?
And who should get?
In his article for The Atlantic Daily, the same publication in which the article by Ta-Nehisi Coates appears, David Frum states;
“The problem of “who qualifies?” is explosive enough with hiring and admissions preferences. As the benefits at stake expand to the vast dimensions urged by Coates, the question will become more explosive yet. Does a mixed race person qualify? How mixed? What about recent immigrants from Africa or the West Indies? What about future immigrants? What about illegal immigrants from Africa who subsequently gain legalization—would amnesty come with a check attached?”( Frum.2014).
Would Obama get reparations? He’s wealthy, his ancestors were never slaves in America, and he’s half white, would his black half get, and his white half have to give? Or would he simply have to give having no ‘slave blood’?
What of the non-white slave owners. “There were approximately 319,599 free blacks in the United States in 1830. Approximately 13.7 percent of the total black population was free. A significant number of these free blacks were the owners of slaves. The census of 1830 lists 3,775 free Negroes who owned a total of 12,760 slaves”(Snopes.com). The Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek owned slaves. What of immigrates after 1861, or 1865 for whom slave ownership was an impossibility, do they owe? Does it depend only on their color if they give or get? It has to be more complicated than that, in fact it would have to be unreasonably complicated to even approach any degree of fairness, in which case reparations might not amount to the value of the postage to send out the check.
Even Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the primary proponents of reparations admits in his article The Case for Reparations that the abuse transcended racial lines, stating;
“One hundred years later, the idea of slaves and poor whites joining forces would shock the senses, but in the early days of the English colonies, the two groups had much in common. English visitors to Virginia found that its masters “abuse their servants with intolerable oppression and hard usage.” White servants were flogged, tricked into serving beyond their contracts, and traded in much the same manner as slaves”(Coates.2017).
Yet he believes reparations should only be for African-Americans. Coates rightfully indicts Mississippi for the lynching of Blacks, but makes no mention at all of Michael Schwerner or Andrew Goodman who were murdered by the KKK with their friend Andrew Goodman for being White Freedom Riders, and damn Yankees, and helping to register minorities to vote. Coates claims that successful Blacks are at least twice as good as their White counterparts is unsubstantiated at best, and although one would not expect him to argue both sides in a piece meant to advocate a point of view, omissions of the extended facts are troubling. That the money would only be symbolic is an understatement. Even at a minimum of qualified recipients, the reciprocity would probably be less than one rent check or mortgage payment, and the bureaucratic mess would be unmanageable. It would amount to a meaningless and useless Act of Contrition, which would do no lasting good at all.
It is, however, undeniable that something has gone very wrong in intercity neighborhoods and Indian Reservations. As a national community, we need to be concerned with these social failings, even if only because like cancer, a small part can eventually have a devastating effect overall. As far as society today is concerned, those places might as well be on Mars, but they are truly in our own backyard. What we allow to happen there will absolutely be at our door eventually. A better use for ‘reparation’ money would be to bring those places home. The basic problems are known, and many of the answers are simple. Perhaps the most important (in so much as the rest depend on it being done), is to ensure the safety of the residents in their homes, schools, businesses, and on the streets. Companies and shops are understandably hesitant to establish themselves where there is a likelihood of being robbed and vandalized, kids are much less likely to finish an education where just coming and going to school is hazardous and where it appears that crime pays. Trust must be reestablished between police and residents. Tax incentives must be made available for business moving to the area and hire locally, individual incentives for finishing High School, government-sponsored college scholarships, and grants to neighborhoods to rehabilitate buildings, parks, and modernize the schools. It would cost less and accomplish much more to move into a brighter future than it does commiserate over a past that cannot be changed.
“121st New York Infantry Regiment.” The Civil War in the East.Web
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 17 Aug. 2017,
“Fact Check: 9 Facts About Slavery They Don’t Want You to Know.” Snopes.com | The definitive fact-checking site and reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.. Web. <http://www.snopes.com/fact-check/facts-about-slavery/>.
Frum, David. “The Impossibility of Reparations – The Atlantic.” The Atlantic. The Atlantic , 3 Jun 2014. Web. 15 Mar 2018.
“Irish indentured labour in the Caribbean | The National Archives blog.” Blog | The National Archives. Web.
Rouse Family History genealogical files.
“Sir Edmund Andros Negotiates Treaty with Northern Bands of Native Americans, Conclusively Ending King Philip’s War.” World History Project, worldhistoryproject.org/1678/4/12/sir-edmund-andros-negotiates-treaty-with-northern-bands-of-native-americans-conclusively-ending-king-philips-war.