The California task force on reparations for slavery voted recently to limit reparations to those who can trace their ancestry to slavery in the U.S.
Since the vote, the debate has heated up over why all Black people won’t be eligible and also how lineage or ancestry will be traced.
Some say it’s impossible to trace slave ancestry by lineage. Others, such as wealth inequality expert William Sandy Darity, say tracing lineage might take time and money but it is more than possible. Darity co-wrote the book “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the 21st Century” with author and folklorist Kirsten Mullen.
Organizations such as the Coalition for a Just and Equitable California (CJEC) agree that lineage can be traced. CJEC is a statewide, grassroots coalition of California community-based organizations whose mission is to achieve reparations and reparative justice for Black American descendants of U.S. slavery living in California.
During the Civil War period, about 4 million African Americans could establish their lineage to American slaves. There were also about 400,000 free African Americans, according to the Burns Archive. Descendants of both groups will be eligible for reparations, the California task force decided. The lineage framework has two options including descendants of those who were free before 1900.
The Burns Archive is one of the world’s largest private collections of early medical photography and historic photographs, housing more than 1 million photographs.
Tracing ancestry is “a lot easier than people think,” said Evelyn McDowell, president of the Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage (SDUSMP), in a KTLA report. SDUSMP is a nonprofit that helps African Americans discover their ancestry and connections to slavery.
“We use birth certificates to connect to current generations,” she said. “We can use those kinds of documents, then once we run out of those documents, probably around early 1900s, we start using the censuses to connect to the next generation.”
Documents such as bills of sale, wills, and deeds are also helpful, as are the estimated 6,000 slave narratives that exist, McDowell said.
Here are five things to know about exposing the myth that lineage can’t be proven at scale for reparations.
1.CJEC: 4 ways to trace lineage
The reparations advocacy group Coalition for a Just and Equitable California or CJEC fought for the California Reparations Task Force to vote for lineage-based reparations. There are “4 things California can do to make tracing your lineage easy for Reparations eligibility so that 100% of the Community of Lineage Eligibility receives Reparations,” CJEC said in a tweet.
The four things are:
- Hire genealogists to put together the necessary documents.
- Offer state funding for lineage tracing.
- Establish an agency, or fund African-American-owned genealogy associations to administer and manage eligibility processing.
- Pass and enact Assembly Bill AB-1604 requiring California to collect data specifically for African-American U.S. slavery descendants.
2. Fact sheet on California lineage reparations eligibility
The Coalition for a Just and Equitable California or CJEC recently posted a fact sheet on California reparations eligibility on its Facebook page.
According to the fact sheet, the task force will soon propose what documents and records will be required to trace lineage and ancestry. The organization stressed that funding will be needed to help those who need research support.
The fact sheet stated:
- The task force will make reparations proposals soon, which can include money to make tracing lineage/ancestry cost-free.
- Depending on what types of records are required, many will not have trouble tracing their lineage/ancestry. For those who have trouble tracing their lineage/ancestry, extra support will likely be provided for them.
- The task force can hire genealogists to do the paperwork for you, make tracing lineage free by proposing money for lineage-tracing, and create a state agency or partner with Black-owned genealogy associations to manage the process.
3. Myths about reparations based on lineage
Well-known writer Michael Harriot has been pushing back against lineage-based reparations. In an opinion piece for TheGrio, Harriot went through the “Top 10 reasons why lineage-based reparations is a bad plan.”
Many say Harriot, author of the book “Black AF History: The Unwhitewashed Story of America,” is spreading misinformation that goes against established reparations experts.
According to Harriot, the California reparations proposal excludes actual descendants of enslaved people such as Haitians and free people of color who lived in Louisiana before America purchased it from France. “They are Americans; they are descendants of slaves, but they were not Americans when they were enslaved nor were they enslaved by American citizens,” Harriot pointed out.
Yvette Carnell, co-founder of American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) has repeatedly said that enslaved people from the Caribbean, for example, can seek reparations from their enslavers. This is something that the Caribbean Reparation Commission is seeking for Caribbean descendants of slaves.
Harriot also insisted that reparations for African Americans “should not be limited to slavery.” In the case of California, which did not participate in the slave trade, reparations are for the legacy and racist policies that were the result of slavery. Even on the federal level, reparations, Darity has stressed, are not just for slavery only but would be for repairing the damage done by slavery and its legacy.
So many points of confusion and distortion. The Cal lineage standard doesn’t use DNA to gauge degree of African ancestry. You must be a descendant of an enslaved or a free black who was in the United States prior to 1900. it’s not perfect, but it’s not what Harriott describes.
In response to Harriot’s article, Darity tweeted, “So many points of confusion and distortion. The Cal lineage standard doesn’t use DNA to gauge degree of African ancestry. You must be a descendant of an enslaved or a free black who was in the United States prior to 1900. it’s not perfect, but it’s not what Harriott describes.”
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4. The industry of reparative genealogy
There is an industry of reparative genealogy — the act of researching heritage, connection to slavery, and documenting the history of those our ancestors enslaved.
“While we can’t change history or our ancestors’ actions, we can take responsibility for finding slavery-era family records,” according to Reparations 4 Slavery, an information and research platform. “We can provide them online so that descendants of the enslaved can begin to find their ancestors. Repatriation of these records is not just symbolic – engaging in this form of repair connects the present to the past, and the living with those who came before them.”
5. Government resources available
There are federal records available to help identify former enslaved people and slave holders, such as the National Archives and records from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Tracing can be challenging. Researching African-American ancestors who lived before the American Civil War (1861–1865) poses unique challenges, the agency noted on its website. Enslaved individuals rarely had surnames and created few records themselves.
Also, Southern states lost records during the Civil War and in courthouse fires, and often didn’t start documenting births, marriages, or deaths until after 1900.
The National Archives and Records Administration suggests investigating all types of records — federal, state, county, local, church, newspapers. It features a wide variety of records that may help African Americans identify slave holders and ancestors who were enslaved before 1865.
Photo: Motapa of Houston, Texas, demonstrates for reparations for slavery on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Aug. 17, 2002. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)