In Little Known Part Of U.S. History, Slave Owners Received Reparations
As talk of reparations for the descendants of former African slaves picks up pace ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Tera W. Hunter reminded Americans in a New York Time op-ed that when slavery ended, it was actually the slave owners who received compensation.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862, granting long-awaited freedom to African American slaves. But to appease slave owners’ pain in losing their chattel — and “buttressed by the Fifth Amendment, which required ‘just compensation’ for government seizure of private assets — the act paid $300 per freed slave to all slave owners loyal to the Union.
What did African-Americans receive? They “got nothing for their generations of stolen bodies, snatched children and expropriated labor other than their mere release from legal bondage.”
Lincoln’s stance was common among moderate anti-slavery advocates of the time, Hunter wrote. They believed any plan to free the slaves must include compensation for slave owners’ loss of property, and Lincoln formed a board of commissioners tasked with overseeing the process.
A total of 1,000 slave owners petitioned for the payout, claiming to have lost 3,000 slaves to freedom, and nearly all of them were granted the full amount. “The largest individual payout was $18,000 for 69 slaves,” according to Hunter.
As for the newly freed slaves, despite attempts to win reparations — or “freedom dues” — and asking for land with which to begin their new lives, most efforts went unrewarded.
Instead, the majority of white Americans believed it was the slave owners who deserved compensation, and the only reward for slaves that drew wide support was a trip “back to Africa,” Hunter said.
The act signed in 1862 allowed $100,000 to be spent on the voluntary removal of freed slaves — $100 per person — if they would return to Africa or Haiti, but this was a rare occurrence.
In the end, Hunter wrote, protecting “sacred property rights and moving the Negro problem offshore meant that there was no justice for enslaved African Americans,” and that is why the issue of reparations is still relevant today.