“The time is at hand for reckoning with the past, recognizing the truth of the present, and moving together to redeem the nation for our future.”—Dr. Michael Eric Dyson
America has a long and shameful history of racial violence and injustice, going back 400 years to the earliest settlements of English colonists in the 1600s. There were over two centuries of chattel slavery, followed by a century of Jim Crow oppression, during which former slaves and their descendants were systematically deprived of their freedom, dignity, political power, educational opportunity, physical and financial security. This should be self-evident to all Americans, but it is not. Amazingly, over 150 years after the Civil War, we are still arguing over how, and even whether, slavery was bad for African Americans.
The Reckoning is a public radio project that will examine the many ways in which America continues to be affected by its tortured history regarding race, and how that history has affected many of today’s most troubling social issues—immigration, mass incarceration, drug policy, and inequality in income, housing, education, and criminal justice. But this project isn’t just about defining the problem, it is about finding real and tangible ways to make meaningful restitution for the past. And it’s about finding a realistic path that can be followed by families, businesses, and communities to make those amends.
To make this less abstract and more personal, we will look at two families from Kentucky that have been intimately affected by the institution of slavery. One is a prominent family descended from both a major slave trader and one of Kentucky’s largest slave owners, the other is descended from two of the enslaved people owned by that family. The white family has been an integral part of Kentucky’s history since its founding. There have been generations of doctors, lawyers, judges and bankers, attending the finest colleges and living comfortably, if not luxuriously. The black family, by comparison, struggled for decades just to get their children a high school education, to own a home, or develop any kind of financial security.
Through the process of looking closely at these families and how their circumstances progressed through the decades after Emancipation, we will be able to explore just about every significant issue related to race in America. In particular, we plan to carefully follow the money that was made through slavery and how that wealth was passed down to subsequent generations of white families and, conversely, how American society made that kind of wealth creation difficult, if not impossible, for most African American families.
Kentucky has a unique status for those who study slavery. It was a slave state that remained part of the Union, and due to its proximity to the Ohio River, it was a key shipping hub for both the slave trade and the raw materials that were being produced by slave labor. And, significantly, it was the number two exporter of slaves to the Deep South cotton plantations. This was especially true during the 1850s, when the price of enslaved people nearly doubled and the slave trade became a very lucrative business.
Kentucky was also an early adopter of slave mortgages, which allowed already wealthy slave-holding families to increase their wealth by borrowing against the market value of their slaves. This allowed them to invest in land, business ventures, or purchase more slaves. Some of these slave mortgages were then turned into bonds which were traded internationally, allowing investors in the North and in foreign nations which had outlawed slavery to continue to benefit from it.
Governments throughout the slave-owning states also benefited from the institution of slavery. By 1860, approximately 20% of all Kentucky state tax revenue came from taxing the value of its enslaved population. County and municipal governments also depended on slave taxes. In Louisville, it represented about 20% of its tax revenue. And local governments also made money from auctioning enslaved people that were part of legal proceedings—lawsuits, foreclosures, bankruptcies and estate settlements.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, Kentucky’s legislature passed a series of black codes which enabled formerly enslaved adults to be imprisoned for vagrancy if they could not prove they were gainfully employed by a white person. In a similar way, formerly enslaved children could be taken from their parents and forced into slave-like apprenticeships, with the child’s former enslaver given priority as their new master.
The white family at the center of this first part of the series prospered tremendously from its ownership of enslaved people—from their free labor, as commodities to be borrowed against, and from the profits made in buying, selling, and leasing them. And now that they have been informed of this history, they are grappling with a just and appropriate way of repairing this past.
But what effective amends can be made to contemporary African Americans for centuries of slavery and racial oppression that would significantly improve their lives and that of their descendants? Some have suggested direct financial reparations, or targeted investment in long-term initiatives proposed by communities of color. Others have proposed giving African Americans outsized political power to offset the long period when they were denied full citizenship. Perhaps truth and reconciliation commissions could be organized, as they have been in South Africa and Canada.
Over the course of this series we will look at these and several other possible options for how such reparations could be approached, some of which have been tried to varying degrees of success in the past. We will also talk to those, including some in the African American community, who think that reparations are inappropriate, impossible to administer, or even counter-productive.
We will interview numerous writers, historians, social scientists, legal scholars, activists and others who can help us better understand the ways that slavery was integral to the United States and its economy, how racial violence and oppression were used to control African Americans after slavery, and what, if anything, can be done to atone for this history. In addition, we will speak with people from other countries around the world who have dealt with similar legacies of violence and injustice toward certain groups. We will find out if they have arrived at successful initiatives which the United States could emulate.
The final product will be a series of four hour-long specials for public radio, also available as a podcast, with a robust website providing listeners with a detailed bibliography, links to related resources, and specific actions they can explore in the area of reparations. We are partnering with Louisville Public Media as the presenting station of this series, which will be available in March 2020. Louisville Magazine will publish print articles of local interest drawn from our Kentucky research, and we are seeking a publisher for a companion book.
The series will be produced by Dan Gediman, who has been producing award-winning programming for public radio for over 35 years, including the NPR series This I Believe, the Audible documentary series The Home Front: Life in America During World War II, and 50 Years After 14 August, which won the duPont-Columbia award, one of the highest honors in broadcasting.
Public radio veteran Loretta Williams will be editor, bringing a personal connection to the project as a descendent of enslaved people, plus her recent experience working as editor for the Peabody Award-nominated podcast series on race in America, Seeing White.
The series is a production of Spotlight Media, LLC. In order to support this project, please consider making a tax-deductible donation of any amount through our 501 (c) 3 fiscal sponsor, Fractured Atlas, Inc. Donate now!