Reparations Mean More Than Money For Family Who Endured Slavery, Japanese American Internment

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Written by Ann Brown
Reparations mean more than money for one family who endured African slavery as well as Japanese American internment during World War II. Mrs. Shigeho Kitamoto had no time for tears when she was evacuated along with other Japanese from Bainbridge Island in Washington State, March 30, 1942. She has too busy looking after her four children. Corporal George Bushy, member of the military guard which supervised the departure of 237 Japanese for California, gave her a hand with the youngest. (AP Photo)

Many people think reparations are all about money. For one family who went through slavery and Japanese-American internment during World War II, reparations mean more than just monetary compensation.

Robyn Syphax has Japanese-American family on her mother’s side and African-American family on her father’s side. Her mom’s family, the Yamamotos, were imprisoned and lost everything including their home, their leased strawberry farm, and their dignity after the U.S. government labeled them “the enemy.”

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Japanese Americans lost as much as $6 billion in property and income because of their forced removal and incarceration, according to a 1983 federally commissioned study that adjusted for inflation and interest. The government froze bank accounts, labeling them “enemy alien assets.” Speculators took advantage of wartime prejudices to buy land for a fraction of its value, The Washington Post reported.

Four decades after the internment, Japanese Americans received reparations in the form of a presidential apology and a $20,000 check. African Americans have yet to receive reparations.

Syphax’s African-American ancestors were enslaved at Mount Vernon. When the Syphaxes became landowners, it took an act of Congress for their property rights to be fully recognized.

“Whether they were families that were uprooted from Africa and brought here as slaves or families that were put in internment camps, they did not have the same opportunities that everyone else had at the time,” the 28-year-old Robyn Syphax said. “The government should say, ‘I’m sorry,’ just like they did for Japanese Americans. This is the only way to start the healing process.”

But Syphax’s father, Robert Syphax, isn’t sold on the idea of reparations for Native Black Americans. He feels it has been too long ago to determine who should benefit from reparations, even though there has been a renewed push for reparations.

Syphax’s ancestors were able to hold on to 17 acres of land after slavery ended, but it was a long fight. The family had to reclaim the land through a Congressional act. The Syphax land, which is located adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, was acquired by the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.

“Our family is actually a case study in what would have happened if people had gotten their 40 acres,’” said Scott Syphax, Robyn’s uncle.

Scott and Robert’s great-grandfather, Charles Sumner Syphax, became a Howard University dean and a mathematician. Their grandfather, Charles Sumner Syphax II, became a doctor after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1924. Their father, Charles Sumner Syphax III, became one of the first African-American developers in Detroit in the age of redlining, The Washington Post reported.

For Scott, reparations are still due to the ancestors of slaves in America. “It’s like the equivalent of a very layered cake of actions and laws that have led to the economic disparity that we have today,” said Scott, a retired CEO of a real estate development firm who runs a foundation to diversify corporate boards.

“When we were freed, not only did Black people not receive anything,” he said, “there were active pieces of discrimination — both cultural and statutory — that blocked us from being able to create enough in assets to transfer onto successive generations.”

The growing wealth gap between Black and white Americans is proof, reparations advocates say, that things have not been made equal. The net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times that of a typical Black family, according to Federal Reserve data. Homeownership for African Americans has remained virtually unchanged in the 50 years since housing discrimination was outlawed.

For Robert, 61, any form of reparations should be used to benefit the community, such as educational opportunities and community programs for systemic change.