Monday, March 22, 2010

The Myth About African American Genealogy & Reparations

In a recent discussion with several genealogists about why descendants of slave owners are reluctant to share their family slave era documents, the issue of reparations for slavery was mentioned. It was explained that some descendants are fearful that if they share this information, they themselves will be held liable for the atrocities of their ancestors. Although issues of guilt, shame and embarrassment were also mentioned, the issue of reparations is what stood out to me. I found this very interesting considering the fact that reparations are not paid by individuals but by companies and/or governments.

In jurisprudence, reparations are replenishment of a previously inflicted loss by the criminal to the victim. Oxford Dictionary defines the word as the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged. Now whether one’s ancestor owned slaves or not, the institution was only able to survive and flourish due to the laws established by the United States government. U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens understood this when in 1867 he introduced the first Reparation Bill for Slaves, H.R. 29, during the First Session of the Fortieth Congress. Although the bill did not pass in Congress, he continued to introduce several more reparation bills to no avail.

A little less than a century later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his book "Why We Can’t Wait," would make an appeal for reparations. Dr. King argues “[f]ew people consider the fact, in addition to being enslaved for two centuries, the Negro was during all those years robbed of wages of his toil. No amount of gold could provide adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries…The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for the American Negroes.”

Our passion for researching our family has nothing to do with reparations but a desire to learn about our unique family history here in the United States and beyond. Unlike other Americans, most African Americans interested in uncovering their family history must face the history of slavery. It is not an option for us, especially once we reach beyond 1865. At the point, our journey becomes the journey of the slave holding family. We must follow and trace every move they make through census, court, deed, marriage, military, probate, tax and other records - both public and private - in hopes of finding the name(s) of our ancestors. In fact, we must become expert of these families.

By working together descendants of slave owners and slaves will be able to create a much richer history as we learn about our families’ collective experience.


  1. Thanks for this post and referencing King's book, "Why We Can't Wait" which I wasn't familiar with. This topic is so important as we as a country come to turns with our full history, not just the one we're taught in school.

  2. In light of our recent discussions in the genealogy community, very timely and well written.

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