“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.”—Michael Eric Dyson
America has a long and shameful history regarding racial violence and injustice, going as far back as 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 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 media project that will examine the 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 vexing social ills—mass incarceration, chemical addiction, 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 that our country can make meaningful amends for its past offenses. And it’s about finding a realistic path that can be followed by families, businesses, and communities around the country to make those amends.
To make this pursuit less abstract and more personal, we will look at two families intimately affected by the institution of slavery. One is a prominent family in 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, with one ancestor its first lieutenant governor. There have been generations of doctors, lawyers, judges and bankers, all attending the finest schools, with trust funds and large inheritances the norm. The black family, by comparison, struggled for decades to get their children even 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 the white families and, conversely, how American society made that kind of wealth creation nearly impossible for African American families.
Kentucky’s 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—cotton, hemp, coal, iron, and other commodities. And, significantly, it was the number two exporter of slaves, after Virginia, to the deep south cotton plantations. This was especially true during the 1850s, when the price for slaves nearly doubled and the trading of slaves was so lucrative that it drew in many of the most prominent families in the state (sometimes through syndicates of wealthy men who quietly bankrolled slave trading operations).
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, and/or purchase more slaves. These slave mortgages were then turned into bonds which were traded internationally, allowing investors 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. Municipal governments also got involved. Louisville, Kentucky’s largest city, depended on slave taxes for about 20% of its tax revenue. And cities like Louisville also made money from selling enslaved people that were part of legal proceedings—lawsuits, foreclosures, estate settlements.
The white family at the center of this 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 African Americans for centuries of systematic abuse and imprisonment that would significantly improve their lives and that of their descendants? Some have suggested direct financial reparations; others have proposed giving African Americans outsized political power to offset the long period when they were denied full citizenship. Still others point to truth and reconciliation commissions used in South Africa and Canada as a possible model for the United States to follow.
Over the course of this series we will look at several possible models for how such amends could be approached, all of which have been tried to varying degrees of success in the past:
• Legal: One option is to use the courts to bring class-action suits against certain entities that historically profited from slavery and/or Jim Crow oppression. This has been tried repeatedly, but each time the cases were thrown out due to some combination of lack of standing and the expiration of statutes of limitations. Perhaps there is another, better way to do this.
• Legislative: While there is some precedent for Congress passing legislation that provided financial reparations to certain injured groups, such as Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII, no bill regarding reparations for descendants of the enslaved has ever been passed—most never even got out of committee. In this time of stark political divisiveness, is this approach at all realistic? And if such laws were passed, could the backlash trigger even worse political demagoguery?
• Voluntary: This is perhaps the most promising approach, and one that we will be following most closely in this series. In this model, individuals and families whose wealth can be clearly traced to the proceeds of slavery voluntarily choose to give some portion of their wealth to benefit the descendants of enslaved people. The family we are following is exploring this scenario, trying to figure out the best way to do it.
We will interview numerous writers, social scientists, legal scholars, activists, and politicians who can help us better understand this complex situation, as well as the pros and cons of certain solutions. In addition, we will speak with people from 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 public radio series, also available as a podcast, with a robust online component providing listeners with a detailed bibliography, links to related resources, and specific actions they can explore in the area of reparations. Louisville Public Media has agreed to be the presenting station for this series, to distribute it nationally, and to provide seed money, office space and studio time for the project. Local periodical Louisville Magazine is also providing seed-money and will publish print articles related to the project.
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.
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!