Reparations for descendants of slaves move forward

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN, June 23, 2019

National reparations for slavery is a touchy topic whose time may be coming. About a quarter of Americans support direct reparations to descendants of slaves — not enough to adopt a policy, but enough to expand the conversation.

Last week , the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held its first hearing on H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act that would authorize $12 million for a 13-member commission to study the effects of slavery and make recommendations to Congress.

The goals of the bill are “to address the injustice of slavery in the U.S. and the 13 colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery.” That is rather clear, but the goals go on to ask the commission to examine “its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”

This second set of goals is too ambitious and more complex than the first. Using the term “African-American” rather than “descendant of slavery” potentially expands the focus of the commission up to the present day. I prefer a narrow focus on descendants of slavery. There were about 4 million slaves and estimates are that there are 30-40 million descendants in the United States today.

The simplest reason for studying and amending the legacy of slavery is that black wealth in the United States is less than 20 percent of white wealth. There is no level playing field in education, social services, medical care or elections. Efforts to promote equal opportunity have been blocked or overturned by charges of “reverse discrimination.”

Our founders, including Thomas Jefferson, did not adequately deal with citizenship and slavery. They failed. Reconstruction after the Civil War was not completed because of white opposition. It was also a failure.
Efforts to promote equal opportunity through piecemeal policies in education, employment, and consumer and home finance have had some impact but have been largely insufficient. They have been national failures.

Reparations are not new. In the United States in 1988, after a congressional study, descendants of Japanese internment camps during World War II received $20,000 and a formal apology. In Germany, reparations to compensate victims of the Holocaust are still in effect.

Two economists estimate that a reasonable program of reparations would be about $80,000 per descendant. They start with the “40 acres” promised to slaves at the end of the Civil War and estimate that a family of four would be entitled to 10 acres per person, or about $100 for each of the four million former slaves.

Accounting for compounding interest and inflation, they estimate the present value at $2.6 trillion or about $80,000 for each of 30 million descendants.

A National Study Commission on Reparations could bring together the best minds in the land to deliver some practical proposals. Their agenda should include at least the following topics:
1. Require institutions of higher education, corporations, churches, to double check their history for slavery injustices.
2. Define “descendants of slaves” eligible for direct compensation. Using a narrow definition Obama, the son of a white mother and African father who came to the United States as a student in the 1950s, would not qualify, for example.
3. Require a review at all levels of government history land acquisitions once owned or share-cropped by slaves and compensate the rightful owners.
4. Consider non-monetary compensation, including general programs like establishing federal education parks, proposed by Martin Luther King, in areas of historically segregated schools with high concentrations of slave descendants.
5. Specify how a reparations program should be funded and assure that related social, education and health programs are not simultaneously reduced.

My ancestors, mostly Irish who came to U.S. during the 1840s potato famine, were never slave owners, but we have benefited, even thrived, due to America’s resources, stable political system, social services and public support. My ancestors often had jobs considered off-limits to African Americans. Despite being only of modest means, my parents were able to migrate freely, received benefits of the GI bill in the 1950s, were able to have consumer credit and had eight children who received good K-12 schooling, good health care and higher education through grants and low-interest loans.
Most of my siblings are nearing retirement with adequate — several even extraordinary — pensions and investments. Our children will likely inherit a good deal of assets. America has been very good to us. There are millions, an estimated 30-40 million, of citizens not so blessed or lucky due the legacy of slavery.

I hope current opponents of reparations reflect on their lives and their blessings, asking how American public policies benefited them.
Further, I hope proponents of some form of reparations avoid rhetorical overkill and keep the conversation civil and productive until a political feasible proposal for slavery reparation takes shape.

The James Scott lynching and its stain on Columbia

David Webber, Columbia MISSOURIAN June 9, 2019

James Scott, who was lynched in 1923 at the Stewart Bridge, is the subject of a thought-provoking new book by the late Patricia L. Roberts.
She wanted to write a biography of Scott but also aimed to “lift a cloud” she thought hung over her family and Columbia because of the unjust act.
For details of the actual lynching, Roberts relies heavily on MU English Professor Emeritus Doug Hunt’s “Summary Justice: The Lynching of James Scott and the Trial of George Barkwell.” She wanted to focus on who Scott was and what Columbia was like back then.

In 2003, Roberts learned from a Columbia Missourian article that her aunt, Regina Almstedt, was the 14-year-old girl who had been assaulted and raped near the MKT tracks by Stewart Road. The young girl incorrectly named Scott on three occasions as her assailant in part because he had a Charlie Chaplin mustache.
In her book, “A Lynching in Little Dixie,” Roberts, who never lived in Columbia but visited her aunt in the summer and on holidays, concentrates almost entirely on Scott. She writes little about her aunt other than to say she apparently went on to live a happy and productive life without any more racial incidents.
George Barkwell, who threw Scott off the bridge, was charged with manslaughter but was quickly bailed out by community leaders. Barkwell was acquitted after the jury deliberated for just 11 minutes.

Another man was later convicted of the attack on Almstedt, so there is little doubt that Scott was innocent. Nevertheless, a mob broke into the jail at the Boone County Courthouse, marched Scott to the Stewart Bridge, tied a rope around his neck and threw him over the side.

Most amazingly, an estimated 1,000 people looked on. Only two — including Almstedt’s father — spoke up to try to prevent the mob murder of Scott.
Like many Columbians, I probably first became aware of the lynching in 2010-11, when members of the Second Missionary Baptist Church gathered a history of Scott, held several memorial events and provided an appropriate headstone for Scott’s grave,which had been unmarked. In 2016, the Association of Black Graduate and Professional Students at MU placed a permanent plaque along the MKT trail near Stewart Bridge to commemorate his life and death.

Roberts presents an eye-opening history of the development of Columbia. Columbia looks like other college towns, e.g. Bloomington, Indiana, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, or Ames, Iowa, but it might be different. One significant difference is Columbia’s history as a Civil War border state, and its history of slavery. Roberts recounts the patterns of slavery, housing and segregation after the Civil War until the 1930s.

Among the new history I learned is that ironically Judge John A. Stewart, after whom the bridge and road are named, was a friend of James Lang, Jr., an early financier of the Second Missionary Baptist Church, which was the center of black religious and cultural life.

The lynching would have been wrong even if Scott did not have a wife and two children, a job at the University of Missouri, a car (unusual for both blacks and whites in 1923) and service in the military in France during World War I. Scott was 35 years old and had only lived in Columbia for about three years.
Roberts carefully establishes that Scott was born in New Mexico and lived most of his life on the north side of Chicago, where he apparently avoided the city’s racial violence during the early 20th century.

Scott apparently lived a peaceful life in Columbia’s Stewart Road neighborhood. Perhaps one activity that may have earned him adverse white public attention was a lawsuit he had filed a year prior to his death to receive his rightful pay as a ride equipment operator at the Emancipation Day Fair.

Scott’s killing left a wife, two children, a mother, a job and the wealth accumulated in his automobile, which he had used to pay an attorney. Roberts reports that his wife, Gertrude, moved in with her parents and died in 1951 in Columbia. A son, Carl, died in 1993 in Indiana. Scott’s family was robbed of his earning potential, as well as family security, due to his wrongful death. American law and public policy have not provided a solution to that injustice.

There were certainly outrageously irresponsible civic and government leaders who allowed Scott’s lynching to happen. For starters there was the editor of the Columbia Tribune, Edward Watson, who wrote: “There has been much talk of mob activity and many men of sound judgement who do not believe in mob law are of the opinion that if it is positively proven that the negro is the man who committed the crime the taxpayers should be saved any costs that might accrue from a trial and that summary justice should be dealt to him.”

Another is the sheriff, Fred Brown, who allowed the mob to congregate on the courthouse lawn and rush the county jail, taking Scott from his cell. Brown was tardy in calling for help from government officials, including the governor.
Roberts is not definitive about the role played by public and higher education prior to the lynching. The university would not graduate its first black student until 1950, and Missouri law required segregation in schools until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

One thousand people passively witnessed the lynching, and only two spoke up. How many citizens would it have taken to stop this summary injustice? I’ll bet not many. I imagine if 10 more citizens with a conscience had spoken up, James Scott would have gone to trial. By then, passions may have cooled. Or maybe not.

Note: There will be a community discussion of Roberts’ and Hunt’s books at 7 p.m. June 17, in the Friends Room of the Columbia Public Library. The public is welcome.

David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and write his first column for the Missourian in 1994.