In 1920, Ocoee, FL was a sleepy town, more like a village with a population of just over a thousand people, half of whom were black. Ocoee is just outside of Orlando, FL; placed in the same county. This was long before Disney World when orange groves were the central feature of the area.
1920 was a Presidential election year. Warren G. Harding the Republican was running against Democrat James M. Cox. It was the first election since the end of World War One and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment; giving women the right to vote.
Black Americans had the right to vote since the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments in 1868 and 1870. During Reconstruction that led to the election of black representatives to Congress and state legislatures throughout the South and even statewide office in Mississippi. In 1877, the Party of Lincoln (Republicans) turned their back on the South in trade for winning a contested 1876 Presidential Election. Republicans got a President, Democrats got removal of Federal troops from the South, effectively ending Reconstruction. As icing on the cake, President Rutherford B. Hayes implemented Posse Comitatus, ensuring Federal Troops would never return to the South to protect one set of Americans from another.
Although blacks had been entitled to vote for half a century according to the Constitution. Jim Crow and the KKK had other ideas. Attempts to vote often led to lynchings and threats of harm. The people who should have offered protection, local law enforcement, were often part of the problem. Using their guns and badges to block the polling places. In 1920 there was an organized effort statewide in Florida to prevent blacks from voting. There were incidents in Jacksonville and Miami. None worse than what occurred in Ocoee, FL. Site of the “single bloodiest day in modern U.S. political history.”
There was a semi-organized effort to get blacks to vote in Florida. Two Ocoee men, July Perry, and Mose Norman, with guidance from a white Orlando judge; attempted to vote that day. It was alleged one of the men had a shotgun. When white vigilantes, led by a former Orlando police chief came to the home of July Perry. Two white men were killed by those inside trying to protect themselves. The call went out to the surrounding communities of Orlando, Apopka, and Winter Garden. They took July Perry to an Orlando jail, then the next day a mob took him from the jail and lynched him. The white mob shot and killed black people indiscriminately. They burned two black churches, a lodge meeting hall and 25 homes of black people. The Orlando newspaper reported on the “Ocoee Race Riot, Two Whites Killed.” The number of black people killed is unknown, estimates range from 35–100. All the black residents that weren’t initially killed were driven away. Ocoee remained an all-white town for 41 years.
“At the time that I visited Ocoee, the last colored family of Ocoee was leaving with their goods piled high on a motor truck with six colored children on top. White children stood around and jeered the Negroes who were leaving, threatening them with burning if they did not hurry up and get away. These children thought it a huge joke that some Negroes had been burned alive.”
Walter White — NAACP
In 1994, consideration was given to reparations for Ocoee victims. Citizens of Rosewood had been given a $2 million settlement after their town was burned out by whites in 1923, after Ocoee. In fighting the efforts to compensate Ocoee victims, lawyers claimed the state had no responsibility for Ocoee. They had “no way of knowing in advance” and were not liable. Because some of the landowners had received compensation, (some less than $1 per acre). They had already been reimbursed. The effort to compensate victims then failed miserably.
State Senator Randolph Bracy (D-Ocoee) is planning to introduce legislation for reparations to descendants of the Ocoee Massacre. He is proposing a $10 million settlement to direct descendants that step forward. He thinks the State which recently apologized for the Groveland Four who were innocently jailed or murdered (in one case both) in another Central Florida town for allegedly raping a white woman in 1949. This later proved to be false. Bracy believes that the state which voted for Trump in 2016 might have a change of heart. What do you think?
“It is time for us to simply realize that … when it comes to the economic gap between blacks and whites in America, it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with. If you did the math today, it would be trillions of dollars, and I believe that anything less than $100 billion is an insult.”
Reparations are in the news thanks to a few minutes in the limelight at the recent Democrat debate. Marianne Williamson whose name is usually followed by, “bless her heart,” made the profound statement above. She summed up in a paragraph what Ta-Nehisi Coats wrote in an 8,000-word essay in the Atlantic. He said it better with documentation but she was on prime time television.
America has given reparations before, to Japanese Americans who were taken from their homes during World War II and placed in Internment camps. To Native Americans for lands seized by the Federal government. To victims in North Carolina of forced sterilizations under a decades-long Eugenics program that would have made Hitler proud. The State of Florida paid descendants of the town of Rosewood to acknowledge the states failure to act when blacks were killed and/or burned out of their town. They failed to address reparations for blacks killed and/or burned out in the city of Ocoee. Once was apparently enough.
The general response from white people has been to suggest that black people are owed nothing as a result of generations being held in slavery, enduring beatings, rape, and building this country for free while their owners reaped the benefit. Some sympathize but suggest there’s no way to distribute the money fairly and the wrong people would benefit. Almost none know that white slaveholders received reparations from the government while at the same time, denied former slaves their promised 40 acres and a mule.
Andrew Johnson was never supposed to be President. He wasn’t even Abraham Lincoln’s first Vice-President. Lincoln, famously a Republican, crossed Party lines and chose Democrat Johnson a segregationist. His selection was an olive branch to the South with hopes it would quicken reconciliation after the Civil War. Johnson was the only sitting senator from a Southern state that didn’t resign after his state’s secession. He got off to an auspicious start as Vice-President, giving a rambling inauguration address while allegedly drunk. He was Vice-President for less than six weeks before Lincoln was assassinated and he became President of the United States. A Southerner from Tennessee found himself in charge of unifying the nation. The fox was in charge of the hen house.
On January 16, 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order №15 which provided for confiscation of 400,000 acres of land on the Atlantic Coast of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Other orders and Acts were intended to distribute lands throughout the South to freed slaves. Congress also directed that confiscated lands be given to former slaves, in some cases loaned mules to work the farms.
President Johnson, however, was partial to any former Confederate who swore a loyalty oath. At one point, there were conflicting orders that confiscated lands be distributed to former slaves and loyal Southerners. After complaints from his Southern friends, Johnson soon cleared that up and gave practically all that land to its former owners, taking the land back that slaves had made improvements on, granting it without compensation to the men that formerly owned them
Reparations to white people haven’t been a single act, it’s a process. Even sincere attempts to provide land to freed slaves were countered by state laws (the Black Codes) that prevented black people from owning land. The Freedmen’s Bureau regarded those laws as Unconstitutional and acted as if they didn’t exist. Federal troops remaining in the South helped keep the peace although their existence contributed to a festering resentment. Other programs throughout the South attempted to make land available to freed slaves yet
President Johnson and those who followed were intent on restoring lands to white people. The Freedmen’s Bureau changed its focus to education opportunities and wage controls. The first dozen years after the Civil War ended up being reparations to white people that lost the war and now declared loyalty to the union. In 1877, reparations went into overdrive.
The Compromise of 1877 meant the Federal government abandoned the South and removed the Federal Troops. In 1888, Posse Comitatus ensured that Federal Troops would never return. Reconstruction was over and Jim Crow was ushered in. Slavery begat the Black Codes which begat Jim Crow, all a form or legalizing the racial inequality benefiting white people, in other words, reparations for white people.
Would that this be the only example in history? The GI Bill is credited with being the vehicle that did more to create wealth in the middle-class and educational opportunities for veterans and their families. While theoretically available to all that qualified, the all-white administers in the government ignored the inability to blacks to get loans from banks or acceptance in segregated colleges. Another case of reparations to white people for their service while black people were denied.
America’s history is replete with reparations to white people, now centering mostly on the rich as in the 2017 Tax Cut ushered in under Donald Trump. The inference that black people don’t deserve reparations requires one to ignore that white America has always depended on them. While the issue of reparations is complicated, we can start by being honest and acknowledge it has not only always existed, but white people have benefited most.
Every once in a while I read a story that reminds me of how little I know about subjects I think I’m pretty well versed in. I’m not mad about it, it just reminds me how much more there is for me to learn. The story I wish I could write about reparations requires a comprehensive knowledge of American and world history, knowing how events are interrelated and the intent and impact of laws, court decisions, and even Acts of Congress. Although I have an Economics degree from Fisk University, I am unable to document both the benefits to the nation from 250 years of free labor which literally helped build this nation and the negative impact on slaves AND their descendants as a result of not only slavery but all the laws that replicated slavery as best they could.
Ta-Nehisi Coates set the standard in his June 2014 article in the Atlantic; “The Case For Reparations,” a story he worked on for almost two years. When I read that story five years ago. I recognized I couldn’t have written it in twenty years, I wasn’t qualified.
“ Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
Felice Leon from, “The Root,” produced a video, “We Built This” documenting the financial impact of slavery and how the very infrastructure of the nation and the economic advantage America had vs. other world powers. I previously knew some of what Felice put together so well, but was missing too much information. I couldn’t have put together this video, I wasn’t qualified.
“According to Cornell history professor Edward Baptist, author of The Half Has Never Been Told,cotton-producing slaves were just 6 percent of the population but created almost half of the year’s economic activity.”
The House of Representatives judiciary subcommittee on the constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties held hearings on Reparations including testimony from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Danny Glover. Republicans were predictably against the concept of Reparations. Black writer Coleman Hughes said, “If we were to pay reparations today, we would only divide the country further, making it harder to build the political coalitions required to solve the problems facing black people today.” Former NFL player Burgess Owens added, “What strangers did to other strangers 200 years ago has nothing to do with us because that has nothing to do with our DNA.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who has demonstrated his willingness to block any manner of legislation from reaching the Senate floor said this, “It would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate,” and claims “none of us currently living are responsible for what happened 150 years ago.” He makes the case which seems to represent the view of most white Americans. “Why penalize me for something I had nothing to do with?” The primary argument against Reparations is that individuals today shouldn’t bear the brunt of what happened long ago and that enough time has passed since (choose one); the end of the Civil War, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the end of Jim Crow, the end of school segregation… that equality should have been achieved. Although I’m admittedly not qualified to make the case on the overall economic impact of slavery; beneficial to the country and detrimental to the slaves and their offspring. I’m on solid ground when addressing the political response in opposition to Reparations.
The case for Reparations has never been to exact retribution from generic white people for the harm done to slaves in time past. The case is best made against the United States Government, which has been part of every effort to suppress black people since they came to this country until the present day. The much-beloved Founding Fathers provided for slavery in the Constitution. In addition to the widely-known counting of slaves as “three-fifths” of a person. The lesser-known Article 1 Section 9 forbade the elimination of importing slaves for over a quarter of a century, until 1808. The Constitution gave black people none of those “unalienable rights” slave-owner Thomas Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence. They did outlaw the International Slave Trade in 1809 but only to protect and keep up the prices its Domestic bred slaves. They literally supported the slave breeding farms which were the feeder system to Southern plantations.
The government assuaged any guilt it might have felt about slavery by doing what politicians do, they compromised. As the nation expanded they decided in the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery in some new states while allowing it in others. It banned slave trading in Washington DC while still allowing slavery. Four years later that was undone by the Kansas-Nebraska Act that let territories decide for themselves. After several states seceded from the Union over the issue of slavery, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This wasn’t from any sense of altruism, he only freed the slaves in those states that had seceded, leaving it in place in multiple states and territories without issue. Lincoln himself at various times was in favor of sending slaves back to Africa or having them colonize Central America. In one of his famed debates with Stephen Douglas, he said:
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races.”
The two primary reasons for the Emancipation were to disrupt the economy of the South which was stronger than that of the North and to keep France and Britain from siding with the South in the Civil War.
With the war almost over, in the first recognition that some sort of Reparations were due, General Sherman issued Special Field Order #15 authorizing that 400,000 acres be set aside for the freed slaves, each family receiving 40 acres. Later it was decided the army could loan families a mule which is where 40 Acres and a Mule comes from. After Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson rescinded the order, returning the land in South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, to the original slaveholders. Many slaves had already been transported to the lands and started working in the fields. The government issued Reparations, then took them back.
For those that feel that equality was achieved in 1865 at the end of the Civil war, I submit it was only the presence of Federal Troops throughout the South which helped maintain the peace. Black men at least gained the right to vote and during what was called Reconstruction began a period which arguably saw the freedmen on a trajectory toward equality. They started businesses, owned land, elected local officials and Representatives of Congress. Mississippi elected someone to a statewide office. The year after the war ended also saw the birth of the Ku Klux Klan but the troops partially kept them at bay. After a contested Presidential election in 1876, in yet another compromise, the Republicans were awarded the Presidential victory (Rutherford B Hayes) while the South got what they wanted most, removal of the Federal Troops.
That action, The Compromise of 1877, effectively ended Reconstruction, empowering both Democrats and the Klan to take back all the gains made in the previous decade, primarily through violence. The US Government through its actions and inactions led to the reversion to an underclass, buttressed by the Jim Crow laws that defined the next ninety years.
One might believe that oppression and suppression was a purely Southern thing and the North was exempt. The primary means most American families attained wealth was housing. Banking laws, approved by Congress, provided for red-lining and segregated housing. Sanctioned discrimination kept black people in many cases from obtaining loans and otherwise dictated they live in inferior neighborhoods, generating less wealth. While numerous Civil and Voting Rights Acts have been passed by Congress throughout the years. Every single one without exception has been diluted by the Supreme Court which has always found something Unconstitutional to legislate in favor of black people or minorities. Let’s remember that the Constitution gave no value to black people originally so why would any interpretation of it later find differently?
The case for Reparations isn’t one where your white co-worker, or neighbor, or struggling white family that Mitch McConnell is appealing to should sacrifice part of their earnings for a black person that was never a slave. The case must focus on the US Government and its systemic policies that didn’t end with slavery, or Jim Crow, the government that deprived black people of benefits from the G.I. Bill. Discrimination didn’t end under the Federal Housing Act of 1968 or the most recent of Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s. As it always has, discrimination simply took another form, not always based on race, sometimes on class like the 2017 Tax Cut.
I wish I were qualified to make the case I really want to. Backed by statistics, laws, and dates. While writing this piece I heard a talking head dismissing Reparations as morally sound but a political loser. That’s the problem with politics that simply doing right is always measured against the potential reaction of those who don’t want to see right done. Maybe, if the government hadn’t reneged on 40 Acres and a Mule, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.