Today we begin with an examination of the movement to provide reparations to black Americans over their ancestor's slave status. Demands are growing. It's raising difficult questions about a dark side of America's past and whether - going on two centuries later - people who never met a slave should be paid by people who never owned any. And if so - how much is enough to atone for the unthinkable?
When Mélisande Short-Colomb walks the campus at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., she sees a troubling history and the fruits of her ancestor’s slave labor.
Sharyl: How did you learn that information?
Mélisande Short-Colomb: I got that information, that I was part of the descendant families, in July of 2016. I was contacted by Judy Riffel, who is the lead genealogist for the Georgetown Memory Project, which was started by Georgetown alum, Richard Cellini, for the sole purpose of identifying descendants of those families who were trafficked in 1838.
Going on two centuries ago two Catholic “Society of Jesus” or “Jesuit” priests sold 272 slaves at auction for what amounts to about $3.3 million in today’s value.
Slave labor, and profits from slave sales, helped the Jesuits finance churches, schools, and America’s first Catholic college, which became Georgetown University.
Now, the Jesuits have launched the largest efforts of its kind to make amends and provide equity to descendants like Short-Colomb whose great great great great grandparents were among the slaves.
Sharyl: So how do you apply equity? It's just a huge job, what you're talking about.
Short-Colomb: Right. Maybe you should ask yourself and your peers that, because you are inheritors of this as well. So I don't have those answers. I am being an active participant in what makes America better while there are active participants who are opposed to that. So I can't be okay if there are still people out there who want to see me oppressed and deprived of my rights to vote, to freedom, to liberty. And it is saying that these people can have nice things and those people can't.
The Jesuits began reckoning with their past a few years ago when confronted with protests by Georgetown University students.
Jesuit leader Timothy Kesicki.
Timothy Kesicki : In 2017, around emancipation day, in Washington, DC. There was an event at Georgetown in which, amongst other things, I apologized for the Jesuits’ history of slave holding.
Kesicki: (April 2017) Today the Society of Jesus, who helped to establish Georgetown University and whose leaders enslaved and mercilessly sold your ancestors, stands before you to say that we have greatly sinned. We are profoundly sorry.
Kesicki: And some might ask what does an apology do? And I mean first and foremost, it's a recognition that this happened, that we did this and that it was wrong. But I think that that act of apologizing of admission and contrition can lay the ground for a fruitful partnership.
The “partnership” included consultations with three slave descendant groups.
Joseph Stewart: What I will say to you, Sharyl, is we are excited about this opportunity.
Joseph Stewart is working on the project with the Jesuits.
Stewart: It’s time we put this dehumanizing legacy behind us and it's put justice, equality, love, self-respect, and human dignity in front of us in our future. And that's our goal to impact the future, not to relive the past
The collaboration has produced the Descendants Truth and Reconciliation Foundation. It will offer reparations ranging from education opportunities to elderly care. So far, Kesicki says the Jesuits have put $15 million into a trust and will raise $100 million more over the next few years.
Sharyl : So reparations in the context of what we're talking about today means moving forward with healing and opportunities and education, rather than paying cash to the descendants?
Kesicki: That is correct. With descendant leaders, they were very clear, "We want you to make a bold investment in something forward. There is no price." They said to me, "There's no price we can put on what you did in the past, but we expect you, using your largesse to invest in the future.”
In many American cities and states, there’s growing talk of providing reparations —with no single vision of the form it should take.
Evanston, Illinois is using money from a sales tax on marijuana to give some black residents who experienced housing discrimination $25,000 in housing assistance.
In California, a task force made up of slaves’ descendants is in a two-year process to propose reparations.
Other recent efforts include scholarships from Catholic nuns for black students in Louisiana, a $27 million plan at Princeton University, $1.7 million dollars from the Virginia Theological Seminary, $1.1 million from an Episcopal Diocese in New York, and $13 million from another in Texas.
But there is formidable opposition to the new efforts— and some of it comes from the very people who would benefit from reparations.
Robert Woodson: I really think that this being, it's white guilt, and what they're demanding is extortion money.
Robert Woodson led civil rights demonstrations in the 60s. Today, he heads a group that helps poor, high crime neighborhoods devise their own recoveries. And he’s an outspoken critic of reparations.
Sharyl: If you could briefly define reparations, what is that to you?
Woodson: Reparations is supposed to be some material compensation for slavery. Back in the '60s, we would talk about the hand, clenched fist, black power and self-determination. Today, we have devolved to Black Lives Matter with the hand out asking for compensation. So I just think reparations is really a distraction. It deflects attention away from the real challenges facing the black community in the country.
Woodson raises questions for which he says there are no good answers. How does one settle on an amount? Who, exactly, gets it? How would the millions of biracial families factor in?
Woodson: The very fact that there were thousands of freed blacks who owned slaves, there were native Americans, these five civilized tribes, there were 5,000 slaves when they were on that trail of tears, they took with them thousands of African slaves. Now, do the offspring or the families of those Indians who owned slaves, do they pay? How about the descendants of the free blacks that owned slaves, do they pay? Here again, what is the purpose? Is it to punish white people for the incidences of the past? Are we seeking cosmic justice? I think we have to be clear as to what is the purpose of it.
Sharyl: There might be people who say, you could be right, this may not be helpful, but if it doesn't hurt, what's the harm?
Woodson: Well, the harm is it really presents the critical problem as somehow being external. The problems that black Americans faces is external, and that white people have the power to change it if we can make them guilty enough. That’s a complicated, confusing, self-destructive message to send to young people, that somehow all the problems that they face, under employment, out of wedlock births, drug addiction, babies being shot to death, that all of those problems are within the control of white America to change. That's the danger of the message.
You might not have heard as much about them, but billions of dollars in reparations have been paid throughout American history.
In 1848, a freed black woman named Henrietta Wood was working as a housekeeper when a white man kidnapped her back into slavery. Freed again after the Civil War, she sued for damages and wages and won an award from an all white jury.
Since then, federal and local tax money has been given for black scholarships, cash payments and community development. In 1971 Alaska Native Americans received $1 billion and 44 million acres of land. And in 1988, American taxpayers gave $1.2 billion— $20,000 per person, to 60,000 living Japanese-Americans who’d been held in detention camps during World War II.
Whether there will ever be one big national settlement for slavery remains to be seen. A Congressional proposal to study a federal reparations program hasn’t gone anywhere since April. But the debate is stirring longstanding resentments and even dividing civil rights allies.
Woodson: Where in the world does anybody identify someone as their victimizer who knocks them down and they demand that the victimizer come and lift them up? If somebody does, they ought to take you to a mental institution. The victimizer might have knocked you down, but the victim has to get up. And it also prevents black America from adjusting the enemy within. The black-on-black murder rate that is occurring— white people can do nothing about that. That is an internal enemy that must be addressed internal to the black community. So what I'm recommending, there be a one year moratorium on talking about white people at all. Stop talking about white people for one year and come together within the black community and talk about what we can do to address the enemy within
Sharyl: It doesn't make things right.
Sharyl: It doesn't mean things are forgiven.
Sharyl: What does it do?
Short-Colomb: Georgetown has stepped up in a leadership position. I expect them to use all the expertise that they have at their fingertips, and in their students, and their alumni and connections in the world to figure that out.
Sharyl (on-camera): One economist from Duke University has estimated that a comprehensive reparations program would cost the federal government and taxpayers at least $11 trillion.