By LaKeshia Myers
June 19, 2019, marked the one hundred fifty-fourth anniversary of formerly enslaved people getting notice of their emancipation in the state of Texas. It is in remembrance of this day that we celebrate Juneteenth (a combination of “June” and “nineteenth”). I can only imagine how good freedom felt for the formerly enslaved, but history teaches us that freedom came with a unique set of challenges and came at an incredible cost.
The emancipation of millions of freed blacks proved to be an arduous task and one that was not well executed by the union army. In many southern cities, union encampments doubled as tent cities filled with the formerly enslaved.
The Freedmen’s Bureau, formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, was established in 1865 by Congress to help millions of former slaves and poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Freedmen’s Bureau provided food, housing and medical aid, established schools and offered legal assistance. It also attempted to settle former slaves on land confiscated or abandoned during the war. This agency was weakened and ultimately unable to complete its mission due to a lack of funding, personnel, and political gamesmanship, the latter of which eventually ended Reconstruction.
The plight of the formerly enslaved was at the forefront of my mind last week as I watched the congressional hearing on House Resolution 40 (which was aptly numbered to remind the public of the Reconstruction-era promise of forty acres and a mule for formerly enslaved families), which would establish a study committee for reparations for American Descendants of Slaves.
The hearing provided much needed dialogue on the plight of African Americans in the United States since 1865. Poignantly, scholar Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded us that the case for slavery reparations is neither far-fetched nor inconceivable, especially since the United States has paid reparations for egregious actions toward other ethnic groups.
In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate more than one hundred thousand people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The legislation offered a formal apology and paid out $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim.
The law won congressional approval only after a decade-long campaign by the Japanese-American community. Similarly, even here in Wisconsin we honor the sovereignty of Native American tribal governments, which are grounded in treaties signed many years ago.
Slavery was an egregious institution whose stench still lingers today. The trauma associated with slavery that has been passed down through the genetic makeup of American Descendants of Slaves is something that cannot be calculated in any fiscal number. And while there is no price tag that can effectively make up for what was done, I do believe the study should be completed and reparations paid that include not only monetary benefits but education, social programming, and policy changes that are fully funded to even the playing field for our people. Then and only then will we truly actualize our freedom.