The Environmental Justice League supports Sierra Club’s call for reparations for African-Americans. Tackling the climate crisis can only happen if we address systemic racism, including environmental racism and historic policies specifically designed to place Blacks at an economic disadvantage.

Why reparations? Because restorative action is needed to help reverse the twin evils of the low rate of wealth accumulation among Blacks, and persistently low wages resulting in large part from historic and systemic race-based economic discrimination, much of it government-sponsored. 

These discriminatory approaches have taken the form of redlining within the insurance industry, the availability of home loans (or the lack thereof) and attendant interest rates based on zip code in the financial services sector, predatory lending practices targeting the poor and communities of color, wage discrimination for similar forms of employment, and traditional union hostility to African-American membership. These are but a few examples of systemic race-based practices and policies that have significantly hampered the development of a robust economic base within the African-American community, from which the accumulation of wealth could ensue.

These policies have deep roots in American history.  One of the major impediments to the accumulation of African-American wealth in the United States has historically been the establishment of barriers to Black land ownership, both official and unofficial.  Under the federal 1862 Homestead Act, which was intended to give land grants to Americans seeking land to farm, Blacks were ineligible to own land in the United States, regardless of whether they were free or slaves.  Once the conclusion of the Civil War and the enactment of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution conferred the right of real property ownership upon African-Americans, efforts to sabotage that ownership under the guise of reform, many of them ultimately government-sponsored, took root and were ultimately victorious.

In her book Repair, Katherine Franke documents that during the Civil War one of the first Southern territories to be liberated from the Confederacy were the Port Royal Islands just off the coast of South Carolina, about 50 miles southwest of Charleston.  Port Royal was attacked by U.S. naval and infantry forces in November 1861, and although fiercely defended by South Carolina infantry and volunteers, backed by artillery, the Confederates were soon overwhelmed and Union forces quickly occupied the islands.  Port Royal was of strategic value, as it became a coal depot for U.S. ships fighting in the Atlantic, and its cotton and rice fields, worked by liberated slaves, could be harvested to help finance the Northern war effort.  What followed over the next four years was the first experiment in reparations for the freed African-American slaves who remained behind, once their white overseers fled to the mainland.

The Port Royal experiment, while initially promising, in the end all but crushed the aspirations of the freed slaves for land ownership, and tragically set the tone for all future discussions about reparations in the decade after the Civil War. 

Due to the fact that they were deemed “contraband” (property subject to seizure by Union forces), management and control of the freed slaves was the responsibility of the U.S. Treasury.  Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, an ardent abolitionist, viewed the seizure of the Port Royal Islands as an opportunity to demonstrate the value and productivity of freed Black labor. He and others hatched a plan to have the former slaves work the land for wages, and maintain Port Royal’s productivity in support of the war effort.  President Lincoln was unwilling to commit resources to the project, so abolitionists and missionaries from Northern states were sent to Port Royal on a voluntary basis to oversee agricultural labor and set up schools to educate the former slaves.

However, initially reluctant to work the land for wages, the former slaves had begun to plant crops for their own consumption, on land they claimed for themselves.  The Northern overseers were confronted by this reality upon their arrival, complicated by the fact that the federal government did not have the resources to pay the former slaves the promised wages in a timely fashion.

Treasury Secretary Chase, along with Brigadier-General Rufus Saxton, the new military governor of Port Royal, and other officials soon came to the view that “an essential part of their mission was the reallocation of confiscated land to the freed people so that they could till for themselves.”  Two acres of land were informally assigned to each working hand, and five-sixteens of an acre for each child.

To provide a cloak of legality justifying the seizure of land from treasonous Confederates, Congress in 1862 enacted the Confiscation Act, imposing a property tax in “insurrectionist districts” and authorizing seizure of land if the taxes were not paid.  Congress knew that Confederate land owners would not pay this tax, so all seized properties, including the Port Royal Islands, remained in Union hands.  The legal basis for these seizures would come under fire once Andrew Johnson became president.  The Act also provided for up to 32 acres to be sold at auction to loyal citizens.

In the end, since the Port Royal auction (held in February 1863) was open to anyone, freed Blacks were pitted against Northern white land speculators, who in most instances were able to outbid the former slaves, many of whom had to pool their meager resources to acquire what land they did.  This was partly due to the fact that they had not been paid the wages they were owed by the federal government for working the land up to that point, payment which would have provided them more funds with which to buy land.  Since the federal government was locked into the financing of the war and cash-strapped as a result, it could have simply deeded plots of land to the former slaves in lieu of payment.  This would have been a more equitable solution, but there is no record that it was even considered.  For these reasons, the then-widely held view that land auctions were a good way to convey land to former slaves as reparation for enslavement was both disingenuous and unrealistic.

The Confiscation Act combined with the land auctions simply replaced slavery with a regime of large, still-white-owned plantations that would continue to exploit Black labor, often by coercing former slaves into working the land for wages on a contract basis and no share in the profits.  Coercion took the form of the imposition of special taxes of two dollars a month (a hefty sum in the early 1860’s) against those who refused to enter into contract labor arrangements with white landowners.  In addition, in Port Royal alone there are at least two documented incidents of groups of former slaves filing lawsuits against white landowners for non-payment of wages.

President Lincoln sought to cure past ills in September 1863 by issuing orders to the tax commissioners in South Carolina to hold auctions in early 1864 for the remaining confiscated Port Royal land.  Parcels of up to 320 acres were to be sold, with a large block of land to be sold in parcels of up to 20 acres and earmarked for “heads of families of the African race” at a specified price of one dollar and twenty-five cents per acre.  

General Saxton and others sympathetic to the cause of meaningful reparations were alarmed by this decree, in part because it clung to the notion of auctions, but chiefly because the amount of land reserved for former slaves was inadequate and would not come close to satisfying their needs.  To a significant degree, the planned land redistribution program was initially undermined by the explicit instructions of the President of the United States.  However, after significant lobbying by allies of Secretary Chase and General Saxton in Washington, Lincoln amended his instructions to increase the land set aside for former slaves to a total of 60,000 acres.  The South Carolina tax commissioners’ office was soon inundated with freedmen’s claims for land, applications coupled with $8,000 in deposits.

In response, two of the three tax commissioners rejected the former slaves’ land claims, and refused to accept their money.  Contrary to Lincoln’s instructions, the land was sold at an average of $11 per acre and in some cases a high of $20 per acre, well beyond the means of the freedmen who had accumulated “sweat equity” by working the land, and submitted claims for it in good faith.  In the end, just over 1,000 families were able to buy land at the two auctions – a fraction of the African-Americans who had planted crops and submitted claims supported by down payments.  This occurred during a period in which the federal government was literally giving away millions of acres of land to white settlers out West.  

There would be still more efforts to reallocate land to former slaves in the Port Royal area up until the end of the war – but they too would ultimately be frustrated.  General William Tecumseh Sherman, whose Union troops had advanced through Georgia and into South Carolina, met with twenty Black leaders at his headquarters on January 12, 1865, asking their views on how to address their problems.  

A key issue was what to do with the Black refugees, all of them former slaves who had followed Sherman’s army as it swept through the south in the final months of the war.  Their numbers swelled to the point that it taxed the ability of Sherman’s army to care for them.  They were vocal and unanimous in their desire to settle on land that had been abandoned by the Confederates.  Sherman came away from the meeting impressed by the Black leaders’ arguments that the best way for them to take care of themselves was to have their own land and work it until they were able to buy it.  This is an important point in that the former slaves were not asking for a hand-out; they wanted the opportunity to accumulate equity in the land through their own labor, and to subsequently buy it.

On January 17, 1865, Sherman issued General Order No. 15 reserving land exclusively for Black settlement consisting of the entire Port Royal Islands area (also known as Sea Islands), “and a strip of land 30 miles wide from the coast inward and bounded from the north at Charleston and the St. Johns River on the south.”  Sherman’s order to this day is the source of the demand that freed people receive “forty acres and a mule.”

Sherman’s order, while it may have been a progressive move, was also problematic in that it only conveyed “possessory title” – the most vulnerable form of legal title in that it was only valid so long as no one else made a claim to the land by presenting a valid deed, something Confederate landowners were certain to do. 

Notwithstanding its deficiencies, under General Order No. 15 many claims by Black homesteaders went forward under the supervision of the Freedmens Bureau, a federal agency charged with supervising all relief to freed people, which included providing food, clothing and medicine.  The Bureau also assumed custody of confiscated Confederate lands.  But the federal law establishing the Freedmens Bureau (formal name Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands) stopped short of reserving confiscated lands exclusively for freed people, as the wording of General Order 15 had done.  The lands were to be leased for three years, at which point they could be sold on the open market.  This “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t” approach of the federal government was unfortunately typical of its efforts to provide redress to former slaves. 

The policy question on which the federal government waffled during this period was whether freed peoples’ transition from enslavement to free labor could be best accomplished by one of three avenues: Establishing government-owned plantations; Creating a class of independent Black farmers, who would work land they owned free of white involvement; or, Private, white-owned plantations on which freed people would work as contract laborers.  It was this final option, the worst of the three from the perspective of the former slaves, that would become the blueprint for Black “freedom” in the post-Civil War period, consigning tens of thousands of families to become sharecroppers who would work and live in perpetual poverty for generations. 

The Port Royal experiment was sadly a microcosm of what became the blueprint for a much broader federal policy with regard to righting past wrongs inflicted on African-Americans.

While efforts to convey land as the most effective form of reparations for former slaves would continue for some time, they were effectively and systematically crushed following the assassination of President Lincoln and the implementation of policies ushered in by his successor, Andrew Johnson. 

Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation of May 29, 1865 ended any chance of Black ownership of land once held by slave owners.  It not only granted full amnesty to all Confederates upon their signing of an oath of loyalty to the United States, it also expressly included “the restoration of all rights in property, except as to slaves.”  

What followed over the next several months was a series of maneuvers by the Freedmens Bureau to frustrate Johnson’s order, followed by ever more explicit presidential directives to restore without exception all confiscated lands to Southern planters and landowners.  The Freedmens Bureau was soon inundated by land claims of former slaveholders, who ultimately were allowed to reclaim their land despite having taken up arms against the United States. 

In 1866, Congress again attempted to provide an equitable remedy to former slaves by enacting legislation codifying General Sherman’s General Order No. 15, statutorily recognizing the resulting land grants, and authorizing the Freedmens’ Bureau, in the event lands granted to ex-slaves were restored to Confederate landowners, to procure alternate parcels for the freedmen for rent or sale.  It also authorized the President of the United States to reserve up to 3 million acres of land for the freedmen in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana, and authorized the Freedmens’ Bureau to act to protect the civil rights of the former slaves.  Although this legislation passed both houses of Congress by large majorities, Johnson vetoed the bill, justifying it in his veto message by expressing concern that “Bureau agents charged with adjudicating complaints may not be familiar with local custom.”

This explicit action by the President of the United States became a de facto expression of the federal government’s policy with regard to any reparations for former slaves.  It ended for well over a century any serious policy discussion about reparations being conveyed to a people formerly enslaved by force by the U.S. government.  It also quashed for nearly a century any meaningful discussion about federal action protecting their civil rights.

While again, some efforts were subsequently made by well-intentioned federal officials to convey meaningful reparations to ex-slaves in the form of land grants despite the President’s hostility to the cause, such lands as were made available for this purpose were overwhelmingly undesirable, so heavy in rock and sand content that they could never be used to cultivate crops – a key feature of any valuable plot of land at that time.

There is no doubt that this stain on American freedom and democracy helped perpetuate across multiple generations the dearth of Black land ownership and the attendant accumulation of Black wealth.  As the times changed to the point that the federal government at least was no longer so explicit in its discrimination, and so visceral in its hostility to the concept of Black gentry, such official policy remained in place in many states, backed up by mechanisms such as the private use of racially restrictive covenants which were incorporated into the terms of any transfer of real property.  Such tools, the language of which could still be found in legal instruments conveying real property 150 years later, achieved for many decades the same objective as the 1862 Homestead Act in terms of discouraging if not outright blocking Black land ownership.  Such covenants were not limited to southern states, but were employed in many different parts of the country. 

In addition to racially restrictive covenants, even though free Blacks were legally able to purchase real property in the South after the 14th Amendment, those who were actually able to do so were few in number, and many states erected barriers that either prohibited land ownership by African Americans outright, or imposed strict limitations on their ability to purchase real property.

In the absence of such legislative restrictions by states, there were de facto impediments that came in the form of violence against African Americans who either made land purchases or attempted to make such purchases and the outright refusal by Whites to sell land to them.  Finally, as has been described in detail above, in many instances the federal government forced the sale of land that would have been granted to former slaves, or inherited by their descendants, by means of a forced partition and sale or auction. This was perhaps the most insidious mechanism of land loss that severely disrupted the accumulation of wealth in the African-American community.

In the most explicit and coordinated act of violence against the accumulation of Black wealth in the 20th Century, in 1921 white citizens in Tulsa, Oklahoma, supposedly enraged by the refusal of the Sheriff to release a Black man for lynching who was being held for allegedly attacking a white woman in an elevator, went on a rampage.  They torched what was called “Black Wall Street,” the Greenwood district of the city known for its successful Black-owned businesses, aided by local civilian pilots flying surplus Curtiss JN-4 trainers who flew over the Greenwood area dropping dynamite and makeshift incendiary devices.  On the pretext of seeking justice against a single individual, Black Wall Street, a thriving business community which may have been a source of envy on the part of many Tulsa whites, was burned to the ground, and a budding source of legitimate, African-American wealth in the Midwest was destroyed.

This dark, and shamefully lengthy, chapter of American history is not pleasant to contemplate, but when honestly examined in the light of day it confers new legitimacy upon the current dialogue about reparations, which are both reasonable and long overdue. But one of the key arguments put forth by critics of the concept of reparations, even those who agree they are appropriate, is that implementation would be utterly impractical. How would you determine who was entitled to reparations?  They maintain that this question stops the discussion in its tracks.

In a CNBC interview on June 1, 2021, Robert Johnson, the world’s first Black billionaire and the founder of Black Entertainment Television, called for $14 trillion in payments to the descendants of African slaves.  His proposal would amount to payments of $350,000 each to an estimated 40 million descendants, paid out at $10,000 to $11,000 per year over a 30-year period.  Johnson referred to his plan as “simple math” with the $350,000 figure being the average personal net worth of a white American family, taking into account factors including home ownership and income. Johnson maintains that this figure currently dwarfs the average personal net worth of an African-American family in America, which is around ten times lower at $30,000.  

The BET founder asserts that such a plan would tackle the vast wealth gap between Bl ack and white Americans that he says can be traced back to the slave trade.   “Reparations is a debt owed by the nation as a whole because all of the wealth that was taken from slaves. Free labor is a transfer of wealth,” Johnson said.

2021 marks the 100th Anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre and the firebombing of the Black Wall Street.  We here at the Environmental Justice League can think of no better time for an honest, serious, and sober policy discussion about reparations for African-Americans whose government deliberately and systematically victimized them and blocked their path to wealth for generations.