As Democratic presidential candidates ponder the practicality of paying reparations for slavery, a new book adds a refreshing, powerful, and radical idea that harkens back to what freed slaves once demanded: collective land ownership.
In Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition, Columbia Law School professor Katherine Franke examines past attempts by Union military commanders and northern abolitionists to create models for a new Southern order. This began, as she describes in the book, when they confiscated Confederate plantations years before the end of the Civil War—an
d turned them over to liberated slaves in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and in Davis Bend, Mississippi.
As cotton fields were abandoned by plantation owners, the Union hoped to use freed slaves to plant, harvest, and continue to produce the crop as a cash stream to fuel the war effort. But the freedmen, for the most part, thought otherwise.
Those in the Sea Islands began planting food for themselves, resisted entering contract labor agreements to grow cotton, and even destroyed existing cotton gins. In Davis Bend, an already “progressive” plantation structure (where the enslaved had their own justice tribunal) fueled high expectations about what emancipation promised.
Land ownership for freedmen became the key element in getting them to keep the cash crop going. The phrase, “40 acres and mule,” was actually hatched by Union General William Sherman in Field Order No. 15, directed to the Sea Islands that he liberated in 1861.
For the most part, Franke tells us, idealistic Union officers were able to ensure, before the war’s end, that freedmen controlled the land they had previously farmed. But the prom
ises that the freed would eventually own land evaporated when northern (and other) real estate speculators became involved, using their political influence at land auctions and on land transfers. And after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Jackson reversed any progressive elements of Reconstruction and restored almost all plantation land back to confederate owners.
Franke, who directs Columbia’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law and is the faculty director of its Law, Rights and Religion Project, examines what a just transition might have looked like at the time. At least, it would have involved paying former slaves accrued wages in cash or in land, but Franke refuses to romanticize the remedy. She notes how racism and speculative land practices thwarted attempts to remedy the treatment of Native Americans, and speculates that freedmen would have faced similar obstacles.
The denial of land ownership rights to freedmen and to all black people precluded them getting in on the land grabs of the twentieth century, and left whites to gain wealth through real estate.
The denial of land ownership rights to freedmen and to all black people precluded them getting in on the land grabs of the twentieth century, and left whites to gain wealth through real estate. Franke also notes the litany of racist policies and practices that marked the twentieth century, well documented in recent books such as Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
Franke uses the term “freed” people throughout the book—the “d,” she says, emphasizing this intergenerational disadvantage and marking “a person as a former slave, a label that carried forward the stain of the past as an enduring badge of inferiority.”
Drawing on this history, Franke turns her attention to modern times. Perhaps the best way to deliver reparations today, she writes, would be “through creative new forms of collective land ownership in which property is placed in trust for a community, removing it from the speculative market and place it in the hands of community-controlled non-profits.”
Franke argues that putting land into Community Land Trusts, Limited Equity Co-ops, and Land Banks for collective ownership would honor the demands of the freed in the Sea Islands and Davis Bend, replicate the practice of many of the freed who bid on land and owned it collectively, and emulate the civil rights movement’s creation of the first such trust in rural Georgia. (See also Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard.)
Franke cites Jackson, Mississippi, as an example today of a collective ownership vision, one that is being moved though political mobilization and policy. She quotes Sacajawea Hall of Cooperation Jackson, writing, “We’re not about getting in on the American Dream, we want to get beyond individual ownership of property. We want control of our own dreams.” She also cites similar efforts in cities including Baltimore, Oakland, Miami, and New York City.
According to Franke, land reparations can be achieved through the significant real estate transfers projected to occur between 2007-2061, involving an estimated $59 trillion. She makes moral the case that some of this land be put in trust for collective ownership.
She closes her book by distinguishing history from collective memory. History, she writes, is “self-consciously a story we tell about and coherence we give to a period or epic over now.” But collective memory helps lay a foundation for identity, on an individual and cultural level.
Her conclusion cuts to the bone: “The problem we have in this country when it comes to making amends for slavery is that we have relegated it to history, thereby vanquishing it from memory and its horror from any relevance to our present.”
Repair challenges white people to begin making slavery part of our collective memory—identifying with its experience, owning its legacy, and taking concrete step to repair the “intergenerational wreckage that slavery inflicted on black people.”