By Hill, Walter B., Jr.
Negro History Bulletin , Vol. 59, No. 4
When America moved from a society with slaves to a society based on slavery, human life descended to its lowest depth. Slavery emerged as a strict dehumanization process for Africans and contaminated the humanity of Europeans who migrated to the new country. While the institution operated systemically in many ways, its' most dominate characteristic consisted of a gross exploitation of human labor. Slavery studies have proliferated in the last twenty years as scholars have examined among several topics the Atlantic coast littoral, the convergence of nationalities on the west coast of Africa, the emergence of the European slave to the western hemisphere, the early origins of slavery in colonial America, the convergence and clash of Native Americans, Europeans and Africans on the north American mainland, the emergence of a slave culture that help feed a slave economy, an American Revolution that inextricable fastened slavery to American society, the subsequent contradiction of American freedoms and slavery, and the relationship between master and slave.
All studies of slavery have dealt with in some fashion, the question of exploitation of human labor and the economic engine for American industrialization and mercantilism that emerged in the mid 19th century into American capitalism. One cannot talk about the emergence and growth of capitalism without reference to slavery - the labor of slaves. Few studies have discussed a missing question and exploration - Upon gaining their freedom, did the slave population deserve compensation for their exploited labor?
This essay will not explore this question. It will examine a reaction to the question in terms of a resolution sought between 1890 and 1920. This resolution makes for an intriguing story and inquiry, and some fascinating genealogical possibilities and investigations. In the last decade there have been any number of calls from African Americans for reparations based on the exploitation on slaves. Historically, groups have petitioned the Federal Government to consider such a case for the generations of loss labor of slaves. Various formulas were entertained to resolve this historical suggestion to compensate African Americans.
The reparation question has evoked emotion and tension because many in African American communities felt strongly and compelled to promote the idea through individual or community empowerment. Many African American communities desperately need an infusion of capital, employment, health and housing services, and some African American leaders argued and believed that the government should offer some form of restitution to African Americans for generation of exploitation. The arguments have been plausible from the perspective of African Americans, however; the Federal Government, for whatever reasons, have never seriously entertained or considered the implementation of such idea.
Ironically, there exists another case and argument contrary to the one posed by African Americans. Property in mid 19th Century America received guarded protection, but the momentous forces of the war threatened and dislocated southern property owners, particularly slaveholders. In the early stages of the war, the Federal Government went to unusual lengths to protect slave property. History is filled with untold stories of slaves escaping and leaving plantations seeking the protection of Union forces. These dynamics, and the convergence of war and freedom intersected to change initial policies to protect property. However, once Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freedom became a major focus of the war, and little or no-discussion emerged for compensating slave owners for their slave property.
The Federal Government did make arrangement for the slaveowning class in the District of Columbia. There, Congressional acts of 1862 that allowed for the emancipation of slaves provided direct compensation provisions for slave owners through the work of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation in the District of Columbia. …