Americans Have Received Reparations Before For Historical Injustices. Here’s How That Went

Written by Ann Brown
Photo via Wiki Commons: Dorothea Lange – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Hayward, California. Members of the Mochida family awaiting evacuation bus. Identification tags are used to aid in keeping the family unit intact during all phases of evacuation. Mochida operated a nursery and five greenhouses on a two-acre site in Eden Township. He raised snapdragons and sweet peas. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.

Reparations in America aren’t anything new. They have been given out to various groups throughout history. But now as the talk of slavery reparations heats up among the 2020 presidential candidates, the question is will they finally be given out to African Americans who are descendants of slaves?

Recently, “lawmakers in Washington addressed reparations for slavery for the first time in more than 10 years…A House Judiciary subcommittee discussed a bill to create a commission that would make recommendations concerning “any form of apology and compensation” to descendants of enslaved African-Americans,” the New York Times reported.

Here’s a look at how reparations have worked in the past, and while they may have been an apologetic gesture on the part of the United States, often times, they were insufficient in terms of monetary payback.

Native Americans

Yes, the government did decide to give reparations to the Native Americans following World War II. But the reparations were doled out as the government saw fit, giving the Native Americans no real control on how the money would be distributed. 

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At the time, Congress formed the Indian Claims Commission to “pay compensation to any federally recognized tribe for land that had been seized by the United States.”

Overall the tribes were not happy with the result. “The commission paid out about $1.3 billion, the equivalent of less than $1,000 for each Native American in the United States at the time the commission dissolved in 1978,” the NYT reported.

“On one level, it was remarkable,” said Melody McCoy, a lawyer for the Native American Rights Fund, a nonprofit group that has represented tribes in hundreds of major cases. “Congress listened to the claims of tribal leaders.”

On the downside, McCoy noted, was that the government took a “paternalistic” stance. Native Americans had no direct control of the funds.

“They did not make those awards, whether it was $200 million, $20 million or $20,000 — they held that money in trust accounts,” she said.

Then in 1971, there was a separate agreement made with Congress that resulted in the biggest award — $962 million worth of land in Alaska (or about 44 million acres) returned to Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts. Still, the Natives Americans were not given control of the compensation. The land was put in the control of corporations, with the beneficiaries given shares of stock in them.

Victims Of Forced Sterilizations

“In 2013, North Carolina became the first state in the country to pass a law intended to compensate the surviving victims among the 7,600 people who were sterilized under a decades-long eugenics program. The victims were largely poor, disabled or African-American. State lawmakers set up a $10 million fund to compensate them,” the NYT reported.

But there were problems with figuring out who was eligiable, with claims from relatives of victims who had died being denied. Then others who were sterilized by county welfare offices and not the state eugenics program, also did not receive compensation.

“They got left out,” Bob Bollinger, a lawyer who represented some of those victims, said. “You’ve got to draw your reparations law broadly enough that you don’t leave out the people you’re trying to help.”


During World War II Japanese Americans were rounded up and put in internment camps under the argument they could be enemy combatants in disguise. 

Payments were finally awarded to them on separate occasions 40 years apart.

“The Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act of 1948 offered compensation for real and personal property they had lost. About $37 million was paid to 26,000 claimants. But no provision was made for lost freedom or violated rights,” the NYT reported.

In 1988 Congress voted to extend an apology to Japanese Americans and awarded $20,000 to each Japanese-American survivor of the internment. In all, more than $1.6 billion was issues to 82,219 eligible claimants.

Police Abuse Victims In Chicago

“The men who survived brutal treatment by a Chicago police commander and his “midnight crew” of detectives wanted more than money.

As part of a $5.5 million reparations measure enacted by the city in 2015, Chicago agreed to compensate 57 victims — nearly all African-American men from the city’s South Side — who said the police had beaten, shocked, suffocated and psychologically tortured them to obtain confessions,” the NYT reported.

The city also financed a Torture Justice Center that offered counseling to victims of the commander, Jon Burge, as well as to other survivors of police brutality. 

Additionally, the city built a public memorial, and approved of public school students being taught about police torture in history class.

“Reparations have been and always will be more than an apology and a paycheck,” said Joey Mogul, a lawyer who wrote a draft of the reparations ordinance and represented several survivors. “We have to consider all the harm people have endured.”

Florida Massacre Victims

Not much money was given to the relatives of massacred Black residents in Rosewood, Fla. In one case, 70 years after the horrific incident Lizzie Jenkins’s mother received exactly $3,333.33 as recompense.

Florida did, however, became the first state to pass a reparations law in 1994 acknowledging a need to respond to racist violence that government officials failed to stop.

“The law set aside $2 million for those who survived the 1923 massacre, which began with an allegation that a Black man had assaulted a white woman. A white mob that included Ku Klux Klan members swarmed into the largely Black hamlet of Rosewood and killed at least six Black residents, and perhaps many more. Churches and houses were burned, and the residents scattered, never to return,” the NYT reported.

Georgetown University

In an effort to right the wrongs of the past, students at Georgetown University voted in April to actually increase their own tuition to aid descendants of the 272 enslaved Africans whom the school sold nearly two centuries ago to solidify its financial future.

“The school wouldn’t be here without them,” said Shepard Thomas, a junior from New Orleans who is part of the campus group, Students for the GU272, that urged reparations to be issued. 

“Thomas, a psychology major, is descended from enslaved people who were part of the 1838 sale. Thomas said the amount of the fee, $27.20, was chosen to evoke the number of people sold, while not being too onerous for students. (A semester’s tuition and fees for a full-time student come to $27,720.00.) The university has about 7,000 undergraduates, so the fee would raise about $380,000 a year for the fund,” the NYT reported.