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Reparations Quest in Detroit

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Johnson, rescinded the plan.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

mandate either.

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.”

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