Reparations in Context Series

“Reparations for Slavery: History and Current Debate”

Ana Lucia Araujo, Howard University

October 10, 2019

The Luskin Center for History and Policy kicked off its 2019-2020 “Reparations in Context” series with a lecture delivered by Ana Lucia Araujo, Professor of History at Howard University on October 10, 2019. The lecture was co-sponsored by the UCLA African Studies Center, the UCLA Latin American Institute, the UCLA Promise Institute for Human Rights, and the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA. Professor Araujo’s talk was entitled “Reparations for Slavery: History and Current Debate.”

Professor Araujo is a social and cultural historian who specializes in history and public memory of the Atlantic slave trade. In 2017 she published Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History.

Professor Araujo began her lecture with the observation that the demands for reparations for slavery emerged long before to the 20th and 21st centuries. Many governments, including the United States government, have – eventually – responded favorably to pressure urging them to offer symbolic reparation, in the form of museums, monuments, and commemorations. However, to date no governments in the Americas, in Europe, or in Africa have paid material or financial reparations to former slaves or their descendants.

In the first segment of her lecture, Professor Araujo presented evidence that demonstrates the long history of demands for symbolic, financial, and material reparations of different kinds. Already by the 18th century, argued Araujo, slaves and former slaves had conceptualized the idea of financial reparations. In one case, former slave Belinda Sutton successfully petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for financial restitution from her former enslaver in the late 18th century. By the 20th century, the question of reparations began to appear in debates about human rights and international law. Nevertheless, from the 18th to the early 20th century, across the globe the issue of reparations was superseded by the demand of former slave owners that they receive financial compensation after abolition.

The major change in the debate came at the end of the Second World War. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and victim’s families were awarded reparations, which inspired renewed calls for financial and material reparations for slavery worldwide. These demands grew stronger in the 1960s. By the beginning of the new millennium, initiatives like CARICOM Reparations Commission Ten Point Action Plan proposed options for implementing reparations, though, Professor Araujo pointed out, even this plan focused largely on symbolic rather than financial reparations.

Since the earliest calls for reparations, demands and debates in different countries have been shaped by the way that individual slave societies were originally organized, how early demands for citizenship occurred, and by contemporary conditions. Despite broad differences in the way that these debates have evolved, one fact remains the same across Europe, the Americas, and Africa: no country has yet paid financial or material reparations to formers slaves or their descendants.

Questions about who ought to receive reparations, who should pay reparations, and how these reparations might be administered are complex and unresolved. Professor Araujo is adamant that the case in favor of reparations has been made, for centuries and in many different contexts. Whether these demands will be answered is a question for policymakers, activists, and societies worldwide.