A few months ago the United Nations conference on Racism was held in South Africa. The result was "disappointing" to American officials who walked out. But during the event African leaders called on the United States and Europe to apologize for slavery but not all of the officials went so far as to say slave descendants should be compensated for unpaid labor. The idea of compensation for slavery is as old as practice itself. Some freed slaves intended to leave their plantations with at least 40 acres and a mule. But payment was never made. Today some African American groups are trying to garner support for the idea of reparations - monetary compensation to slave ancestors. But not everyone is supportive of the effort. Even some African Americans say reparations are not something they need to focus on. 90.3 WCPN's Tarice Sims reports.
Tarice Sims: The campaign for reparations in the United States came about more than one hundred years ago. Some historians say the first attempt came in the form of an anti-slavery pamphlet written by a free man of color by the name of David Walker around 1828. Walker wrote the nationally distributed appeal to the citizens of America. Within the work Walker described the conditions in which slaves lived and even called for the establishment of a black colony. Sam Black is associate curator for African American History with the Western Reserve Historical Society. He says the appeal also helped establish the basis for reparations.
Sam Black: Reparations as it pertains to African Americans, is the atonement for the nearly 500 years of enslavement, suffering, exploitation bondage, oppression. In today's terms reparations are looked upon as an economic aspect of what it's worth to the western world not just to America but, to the Western world.
TS: Black has studied the issue of reparations and is also involved with N'COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. He says he believes reparations should be paid to African Americans.
SB: I definitely think it's owed and I think it's owed in a number of different ways that a lot of organizations especially N'Cobra have address not only monetarily and people have to understand is that just in America alone. Although some people say the government shouldn't have to pay reparations because the government wasn't involved with slavery the government of United States, the United States as it exists as a nation is directly the result of enslaving Africans.
TS: But, Black says the movement goes beyond the United States. In 1999 the BBC Network reported that the western world was asked to pay $777 trillion within five years for enslaving Africans. That would include Europe and the Americas and institutions that participated and benefited from slave trade and colonialism. But not every descendant agrees that reparations are needed. In a nationally televised interview, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, commented African Americans should not be compensated past slavery and that it was more important to focus on current problems. Rice herself is one of several African Americans in the George Bush administration and the first woman to hold the position. And although her comments were attacked by some, others say they agree. Raymond Pierce is a local attorney whose former focus was civil rights. He also worked under the Clinton administration in 1998 when the former president acknowledged the United States was wrong to benefit from slavery - but he never apologized. Pierce says African Americans shouldn't look for an apology or compensation, instead concentrate on future opportunities for blacks.
Raymond Pierce: I'm not quite sure you can compensate someone or a population of people for an atrocity of such inhumane proportions as the enslavements that took place for 300, 400 years. And to even to talk about compensation in a monetary sense it almost trivializes it.
TS: In 1990, Clevelanders who support the reparations effort held a conference to explore the history of the concept. Khalid Samad was one of the organizers of the event. He says the idea lost steam as many leaders of the African American community turned their attentions to other issues like youth violence and promoting education. Still, Samad says it's important to education people about the reasons why reparations are needed.
Khalid Samad: In America, unfortunately, people have to be compelled through some type of consciences that there is benefit and people understanding the history of what took place during that 250 years of the enslavement and what has been the devastation not only to the community that were the victims of it but also that those who perpetrated it you know.
TS: Although the federal government has not recognized the need for reparations for African Americans, some members of Congress feel it's worth researching. Congressman John Conyers and several others appealed to his colleagues last year to pass a new bill investigating the issue. The Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for the African Americans Act would examine the institution of slavery as well as lingering effects of the practice. The cost of the proposal is estimated at $8 million. So far there's been little movement. The bill was subsequently referred to a subcommittee on the constitution. In Cleveland, Tarice Sims, 90.3 WCPN News.