Douglass and Reparations

In his book on Frederick Douglass (starting on p. 64), Timothy Sandefur outlines Douglass’s attitudes toward various forms of assistance for freed slaves, which today I’d bundle with the reparations debates.

Charles Sumner, Sandefur writes, had a plan “to confiscate plantation land and divide it among the former slaves.” Here’s how Sandefur summarizes Douglass’s view: “Although government could legitimately provide the freedmen with less intrusive forms of aid, the power to redistribute land, however well intentioned, was dangerous: it could easily fall into the hands of the politically powerful—which meant racist whites—who would then exploit that power for their own benefit.”

At this point Sandefur offers a note (#10): “That is ultimately what happened a century later, when racially restrictive zoning laws, and then federal and state ‘urban renewal’ projects, sought to sequester and then evict black landowners to eradicate ‘urban blight.'” Sandefur recommends Clarence Thomas’s dissent in Kelo v. New London.

Douglass’s refrain, with respect to what whites should do with freed slaves, was, “Do nothing with us!” Still, Douglass “supported the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau, established by Congress to protect blacks from violence and to promote their economic status by providing them with clothing, food, health care, and jobs. He even proposed a plan to use government funds to buy southern land and sell it in small lots to freedmen at discounted rates.” He said, “It is not fair play to start the negro out in life, from nothing and with nothing.”

Of course Douglass called for equal treatment under the law, which was not achieved then.

The discussion about compensation involves concerns about justice and about political expedience. If I could go back in time and make my will hold, I’d require former slave holders to seriously compensate former slaves, which in many cases probably would mean selling off plantations, or distributing plantation lands among former slaves, to cover the costs. This no doubt would leave many former slave holders destitute. It’s easy to see how such an outcome would have meant political trouble in those precarious times.

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