Citizens Weigh in on Reparations Quest in Detroit
By Makalani Hakizimana
The quest for reparations for the evils of slavery traces a wide arc starting in the 19th
Century all the way to today. Any dictionary will tell you that reparations means making
amends for a wrong and compensation for such. Union General William Tecumseh
Sherman began the attempt in 1865 during the Civil War with Special Field Order No.
15, approved by President Lincoln, which would have awarded 40 Acres and a Mule each
to 40,000 freed slaves, thus attempting to make amends for and compensate some
Africans in America for their wretched enslavement here. That attempt at reparations
went nowhere, as you know, because after Lincoln’s assassination, his successor, Andrew
Johnson, rescinded the plan. This first reparations proposal would conservatively be worth a total of $640 billion in today’s currency.
Fast forward more than a century later, the trajectory for reparations winds up in
Congress in 1989 with the introduction of House Bill H.R. 40. That bill led by the late
Congressman John Conyers is one to address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, and
brutality of slavery in the United States and the 13 colonies before it. This would be done
by creating a commission merely to consider a national apology and proposal for
reparations for slavery and the ensuing discrimination suffered by African Americans,
and then, significantly, make recommendations to Congress for appropriate remedies.
But H.R. 40 has been stalled for years in Congress, never even having made its way to a
president’s desk for signing into law.
For Detroiters, the arc of attempted reparations has landed here with the overwhelming
approval by voters in November 2021 of Proposal R, an initiative to establish a
reparations task force “to make recommendations for housing and economic development
programs that address historical discrimination against the Black community in Detroit.”
This reparations initiative was spearheaded some time ago by Detroit City Council
President Mary Sheffield; however, the task force, which is intended only to make
recommendations to the Detroit Council, has only recently been staffed by said body, if
only partially. Lauren Wood, Keith Williams, Rev. JoAnn Watson, and Dorian Tyus
have all been recently appointed by Council to the Reparations Task Force executive
committee, according to The Detroit News. More task force members are forthcoming.
But what do ordinary Black people think about reparations? To try to answer that
question, a small sample of Black Detroiters was interviewed. Mrs. Geneva Phillips, Ms.
Lisa Battle, and Mr. Nguvu Twalibu were each asked four questions dealing with the
general subject of reparations. Their answers did not jibe well with the prospects of the
Reparations Task Force in Detroit, but none said they were against the Task Force’s
Sample members were each asked first what their view on the need for reparations was.
Mrs. Phillips answered that all African-Americans have a need for reparations after
hundreds of years of slavery. Mr. Twalibu said, “What we need to do is have a
commission to do research on the federal level like H.R. 40 envisions.” Mr. Twalibu
added, moreover, that “Reparations are something you receive once you win a war. We
won’t win the battle for reparations until we win the struggle for Black liberation.” On
the question for the need for reparations, Ms. Battle was a little stumped. She said, “I
don’t know. There’s a need (for reparations) but I can’t elaborate now. I need to study
more.” The Detroit Task Force should be able to help citizens like her with that, as it is
charged with studying the plight of Black Detroiters historically discriminated against.
The second question that these Detroiters were asked was: Can any reparations bring
closure in your mind to the sins of slavery? Mrs. Phillips was emphatic and succinct with
a one-word answer, “No.” Mr. Twalibu said, “Reparations by itself can’t, but it will
help” as reparations are part of the healing process. Ms. Battle took a decidedly different
tone when she answered, “No, not at all,” to the question can reparations bring closure to
slavery’s sins; adding, “You can’t put a price on it (slavery). No money can pacify us for
the things our people went through.”
The answers to the next question don’t line up at all with the mandate of the Detroit
Reparations Task Force, which, again, is charged with studying and making
recommendations for housing and economic development programs that attempt to make
amends for historical discrimination of the Black community here.
Thus the third question asked of our sample of citizens was: What kind of reparations for
slavery would you like to see in Detroit and America? Mrs. Phillips said that her vision
for reparations in America should ideally be one of education – all education, public and
private, secondary and collegiate, should be free to all Black people. Mr. Twalibu
answered that “Once we win the struggle for liberation, I’d like to see land and industry
given as reparations in Detroit, America, and throughout the world so that Black people
can be self-determining.” Ms. Battle had a dark answer to what kind of reparations she
would like to see and said, “Can you let some of their people go through what we went
through.” The author suspects this answer is not an isolated one.
The final question asked of our citizen sample was: Do you envision any reparations for
slavery being made in the near-term, mid-term, or long-term in Detroit? Mrs. Phillips’
optimism was tamped down by the real world, saying, “Reparations will bear fruit only in
the long term, because too many white politicians will be against it.” Mr. Twalibu was
more hopeful, saying that the success of reparations in Detroit will be “an ongoing
process,” with success in the near-, mid-, and long-terms. Ms. Battle was pessimistic,
saying, “I don’t see it. Reparations will come in the long term at the earliest. We’ve been talking about this for a very long time.”