By Elizabeth Scorsello
Growing up, Schiffon Wong listened to her grandmother talk about reparations for the country’s Black citizens. The family had been sharecroppers and her grandfather’s parents were enslaved, and they could barely make a living. “She used to say we never got our reparations and it always stuck with me,” Wong said.
Today, Wong heads the newly formed Reparations Committee of the Mystic Valley Branch of the NAACP, which seeks to provide the larger community with a better understanding of the issue of reparations.
The committee has launched a drive to send copies of the book From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, by William A. Darity, Jr. and A. Kirsten Mullen to every member of the U.S. Congress to keep the subject of reparations in the public discourse.
“It is our hope by sending this really important book to our congress it would give us the opportunity to educate them and engage them,” Wong said. “We want all of us to have a shared understanding anchored in the history, also anchored in economics as a basis in order to advance this policy conversation.”
The University of North Carolina Press has offered a below market rate price for the cost of each book, and to send one to every member of Congress minus the shipping costs.
The Mystic Valley Branch hopes to partner with other branches of the NAACP across the country and hold a series of discussions of the book with members of the community and legislators in their areas.
“Dr. Darity (one of the authors) was kind enough to publicly say that he fully supports this project.” said Wong. She said that he endorsed this “great” project “unequivocally” and was amazed at what Schiffon and the Branch have done.
In From Here to Equality, Darity and Mullen confront historical injustices facing African Americans and make the most comprehensive case to date for economic reparations for U.S. descendants of slavery. Darity and Mullen look to both the past and the present to measure the inequalities borne of slavery. Using innovative methods that link monetary values to historical wrongs, they assess the literal and figurative costs of justice denied in the 155 years since the end of the Civil War and offer a detailed roadmap for an effective reparations program. Reparations are a program of acknowledgement, redress, and closure for a grievous injustice, the authors argue.
The plan to send the book to Congress was sparked by a virtual book discussion, which was held by the Reparations Committee of the Mystic Valley branch of the NAACP in the summer of 2020. The book’s authors joined the well-attended event, and later, the diverse community of participants energetically responded by sending emails and photos of highlighted sections of the book to Wong, the Committee Chair.
“So, after the event, I said to myself, you know, I felt that the book worked on people’s hearts and minds,” Wong said. “If people in their private space can read the book, it gives them an opportunity to digest it, reflect and maybe come back and have some conversation.”
Wong has been familiar with the subject of reparations since childhood,. “My grandfather was a sharecropper and his parents had been slaves,” she said. “He had to work the land and he always told me how he never got to go to primary school because he had to work the land, and they were robbed as sharecroppers, and what they went through, and it always stuck with me when I was a little girl of about 10, that we had been denied sustenance, we had been denied access, we had been denied compensation, for all that was taken from us, and what that cost them and what that continues to cost, now, this very unique lineage.”
It was only when I became an adult. . . that I really understood the depth of what that really meant, and the breath of the violation, and the depth of the injury. The actual engine of the entire development of this country was my ancestors. There needs to be acknowledgement of that,” she added.
In January of 1989, Rep. John Conyers introduced the bill H.R. 40, Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. I. In 2019, the local governments in Asheville, North Carolina, and Evanston, Illinois, offered apologies for slavery and financial support to Black homeowners and businesses. In 2020, H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African American’s Act, was co-sponsored by 143 members of Congress, in contrast with only two in 2014. (CNBC August 2016) It is the hope of the NAACP’s Reparations Committee that its program of sending the books to Congress will keep the reparations topic in the public conversation.
“We really haven’t had any advancement in this policy. So we don’t want to find ourselves in this situation as we come to 2021 Juneteenth. We think that this is our contribution to advance the discourse,” said Wong.
In the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, in 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., described how our government had, through an act in Congress, given away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest to white European peasants as economic support, built colleges to teach them farming, provided county agents to increase their expertise in farming, provided low interest rates for mechanizing their farms, and later, many received millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm.
Meanwhile, Wong said, the government refused “to give to black peasants, who had been in chains, and working for free, for 250 years.”
King also said, “Now, when we come to Washington in this campaign we are coming to get our check.”
Jennifer Yanco, a member of the Reparations Committee and author of the book, Misremembering Dr. King, said, “He was definitely advocating for reparations, for repairing ongoing, continuing, exclusion and disenfranchisement. It is compounded over time and reinforced over time. Even recently the massive foreclosure crisis. The sub-prime lending crisis. It defunded the Black community in an enormous way.”
For example, “The Color of Wealth in Boston,” a joint publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Duke University, and the New school in 2015, reported the median net worth for non-immigrant African American households in the Greater Boston region was $8 compared to $247,500 for whites, as was reported in the Boston Globe’s Spotlight series on race, in Boston, in 2017.
From Here to Equality analyzes the early days of Reconstruction after the Civil War when the U.S. government temporarily implemented a major redistribution of land from former slaveholders to the newly emancipated enslaved. But, the authors contend, neither Reconstruction, nor the New Deal, nor the civil rights struggle led to an economically just and fair nation.
“Not dispossessing them of land, giving them compensation for relinquishing their slaves, not de-confederalizing us as a nation, not removing them from positions of authority in congress, or locally,” Wong said.
“They were never dealt with — this really not only devastated Reconstruction, it was the gateway to all of the other subsequent institutionalized ways of continuing the oppression of the descendants of slavery,” Wong said. “But it really set the trajectory for what we saw [on Jan. 6] So, for me, it is eerily timely.”
On January 6, a violent mob stormed the United States Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election defeat of Donald Trump. “The photo that stood out to me most, was the photo of the Confederate flag outside of the senate chamber and it really elicited a very visceral reaction from me. I think that photo stands out because it reminded me of how the very failure to hold the Confederates accountable devastated reconstruction,” Wong said.
Yanco added, “ I think it is also extremely important at this moment because so many in the congress are white people in an older generation, like myself, who have come up in an education system that has miseducated us. We are easily operating under the illusion of the narrative that we have been taught and it has been reinforced in film, books, media, religion, everything and so having this book as a resource, it tells a different narrative. It provides information that white people often don’t have.”
The Mystic Valley Branch of the NAACP is continuing to accept contributions toward their goal of purchasing and sending a copy of the book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty First Century, to each and every member of the 117th U.S. Congress.
The Mystic Valley Branch represents the towns of Arlington, Everett, Malden, Medford, Winchester, and Woburn.
Malden Community Organizing for Racial Equity (MaldenCORE) will host a Fourth Wednesday Conversation on the topic of reparations this Wednesday evening, February 23 at 7:00 via Zoom. Visit this link for more information and to register.