Katherine Franke’s Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition

Katherine Franke’s Repair: Redeeming the Promise of Abolition (2019, Haymarket Books) is a detailed study of two failed reparative justice projects that took place during the US Civil War (Port Royal in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Davis Bend in Mississippi), the US government’s role in why these projects failed, and the ways in which reparations can still be applied to the African American population in the present moment. Franke is the Sulzbacher Professor of Law, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Columbia University; her book is incredibly nuanced, well-researched, and gives a thorough historical analysis in regards to the ways that the US government and white people (missionaries, antislavery activists, government officials, tax commissioners, former Confederate plantation owners, Northern businessmen, and military officers) failed to bring justice to the freed Black people who endured the horrors of slavery. Franke gives an account of the consequences of these failed reparations experiments and how they have unfolded over the decades since Reconstruction, creating a climate of racial inequality, poverty, and discrimination within the American landscape. In this book, Franke addresses three essential, well-grounded questions/arguments: 1) “At what junctures were other, more robust, forms of Black freedom imaginable, and indeed possible?” 2) “…property rights serve a keystone function—they are the rights upon which all other rights rest…” and 3) “Freedom is much more than the absence of bondage; it requires the tools, the capacities, and opportunities that make independent human action possible.” The third point is especially poignant, highlighting the overall idea that freedom within a structured system consists of more than just an ideological conception of freedom; it has concrete components to it that are economically complex. Repair is noteworthy not only because it documents the process of how the reparations project failed to take root, but more importantly, how it can be taken up again, reinvented, and applied to the present moment in order to account for and heal past wounds that African Americans have been dealing with as a collective group (economically, psychologically, and psychically) for generations. There are tangible solutions to remedying the damages done by slavery and the ongoing neglect that continues to impact African Americans, and they can be enacted in the current moment.

Franke examines two reparations projects that became operational during the US Civil War and both had an identical aim: to allow newly freed peoples to own and work the land they had been tied to as formerly enslaved peoples. Many government officials and antislavery activists saw this as being the most basic and immediate form of reparations that could be awarded to the freed peoples aside from larger concerns that involved preparing them for becoming active agents in American civilian life. However, each project had its different challenges that led to their ultimate failures. Davis Bend—eleven thousand acres total—consisted of plantations owned by Joseph and Jefferson Davis as well as others, was confiscated by the Union army, and five thousand acres were set aside for formerly enslaved peoples to operate collectively without white intervention. The project was largely successful, but lasted only a year, after the land was reclaimed by their former owners. However, the main focus of Repair deals with the Port Royal experiment. Missionaries and antislavery activists came to the confiscated plantations in Port Royal in order to guide and assist the formerly enslaved peoples in operating and working the land, and aided them in the purchase of land that had been seized and portioned off by the US government after The Land Confiscation Act of 1862 in order to be sold to interested parties in an open auction. Advocates for the freed peoples felt that they were entitled to the land they worked on as slaves and rallied for various methods that would allow them to become property owners, such as setting sections of land aside for the sole purpose of selling them specifically to formerly enslaved people at cheaper rates as well as encouraging freed peoples to squat on lands they felt they had a right to own. However, these methods did not guarantee that the majority of the freed peoples would be able to purchase the land they had been tied to through slavery for generations. Franke explains the results:

The land was sold at an average of $11 an acre and a high price of $20 per acre, well beyond the means of the freed people. White buyers, mostly outsiders to the Port Royal experiment, bought close to one hundred thousand acres, while 110 Black families bought 2,750 acres of land, both individually and collectively, largely from the tracts that had been reserved for subsidized sale. Few freed people were able to meet the prices that had been established in the open auction, given the competitive bidding and the land being sold in very large plots.

The major failure of the Port Royal experiment resulted from the fact that not nearly enough of the newly freed peoples were able to purchase land because they were competing with mostly white speculators from the North who could easily afford to outbid them:

The open auction resulted in overwhelming heartbreak for the freed people of the Sea Islands. Pooling their resources for the open auction, they bid two thousand dollars for the Ashdale tract but were outbid by a white man who got it for $2,550. The people who resided on a three-hundred-acre farm on Dathaw Island bid $3,100 for their home but lost it when the property went for $3,500. The freed people of Bluff farm lost out to a white Northerner when he bid $3,025, besting their $2,000 bid.

As a result of this unequal balance between collective freed peoples scrounging for money to buy land and white speculators who already had massive amounts of wealth and could easily afford to outbid them, the formerly enslaved peoples “were faced with either entering into labor contracts with the new white owners or being ejected from the land altogether. Given their attachment to the land and their poverty, most of them entered into written labor contracts to work their land for wages.” Since many of the Confederate plantation owners were able to reclaim their land due to President Andrew Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation, freed peoples who had bought their land through auctions were not granted refunds. Through this legislation, the land remained in the hands of former white slaveowners who were free to use it however they deemed appropriate. According to Franke, “Many of Beaufort County’s largest plantations were ultimately sold by their former Confederate owners to white Northerners, who used these sprawling estates once or twice a year for hunting and other recreation, otherwise they sat empty. By the mid-twentieth century they had been subdivided into much smaller lots and sold to full-time white inhabitants.” In 1891, Congress passed a law that offered monetary compensation to former white slaveowners who did not reclaim their land: “Court of Claims records indicate that the US Treasury settled these interests in land in Beaufort County for a total of $207,166.58 ($5,518,373.73 in 2018 dollars).” Keeping land in the hands of former slave owners ultimately created a cycle of racial inequality that continues to this day in the form of property ownership: “The Tombee plantation, owned in the 1860s by Thomas Chaplin, who fled the Island when the Northern troops invaded in 1861, remains largely intact. It was listed for sale in 2011 at $3,250,000. The Sam’s Point plantation was listed for sale in 2018 at $2,695,000.” Franke gives detailed accounts of other plantations that have been handed down from one wealthy white owner to the next. Here is one example:

The Coosaw Plantation had been owned by Alexander Robert Chisolm, who in 1852 inherited the land and 250 enslaved people from his father. In 1861, Chisolm brought some of his enslaved men to Charleston upon the request of the South Carolina governor to help build batteries to protect against a Union invasion. Coosaw was seized by the Northern government as part of the Port Royal experiment and the freed people living there filed preemption claims to the land on January 29, 1864. The land was returned to Chisolm after he was pardoned by the federal government in December 1865. He sold the plantation in 1877 to the Pacific Mining Company. In the early 1900s most of the property was sold to William and Michael Keyerling, who then sold it to Edward Hutton, founder of the stock brokerage firm E.F. Hutton, in 1917. Hutton gave Coosaw plantation to a stockbroker friend Juan Ceballas in return for introducing him to his second wife, General Foods heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post. (Edward and Marjorie Hutton’s collective wealth allowed them to build Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, several years later.) Hutton also gave his long-time dog handler, Marshall Smith, six hundred acres of other land. In 1965, Dr. Marshall Clement Sanford, Sr., father of former South Carolina governor and former US senator Mark Sanford, bought the Coosaw plantation and bought back the six hundred acres that had been given to the dog handler. Mark Sanford wrote in his Furman University senior thesis: “Thus Coosaw Plantation has come full circle, returning to its original use as a family farm.” The Sanford family placed the property, 1,584 acres, under a conservation easement worth $2,500,000 in 2011.

What becomes clear through these failed experiments is that freed people were never compensated by the US government for the injustices of being enslaved. Rather than give them the land they were entitled to as a way to repair the damage done by slavery, freed peoples were forced to compete with white Northerners for land, and even in instances where they did succeed in purchasing plots, they were at the mercy of white former slaveowners who were awarded the right to reclaim the confiscated property by the US government. The decision to favor white plantation owners over freed peoples is due to governmental policies that took a major shift after President Lincoln was murdered. As Franke explains, “Both of these early and unrealized experiments in land-based reparation exemplify what it would have meant to take repair seriously. Yet in the end Johnsonian politicians structured Black freedom around contract labor and other legally mediated relationships with white people.” It becomes explicitly clear that “Government and white enterprise were not only complicit in but directly responsible for the failure of an approach to Black freedom that would have set four million newly freed people on an entirely different course of self-sufficiency, wealth accumulation, and full citizenship.”

A significant portion of the book also discusses what form reparations could have taken (monetary compensation, land rights, etc.) and how these various options, while imperfect and incomplete, would have signaled to formerly enslaved peoples that the US government was willing to support their right to live as free citizens and serve as an official acknowledgment that slavery is an immoral, violent, and brutal system that destroys life. Since no reparations were officially made, the damage to African American lives through racial hatred and violence, segregation, and inequality has caused the debt owed to them to multiply throughout the decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. However, various options have been put forth by individuals as a way to keep the conversation about reparations in the public consciousness in an attempt to enact tangible change. Franke gives one example:

In 1972, economist Jim Marketti offered one of the first rigorous calculations of the debt owed for enslaved labor performed between 1790 and 1860: between $448 billion and $995 billion—in 1972 dollars. (The difference between the lower and the higher numbers here turned on the rate of compound interest that should be applied.) Marketti arrived at these numbers not by calculating the amount of money the slaves should have been paid in wages, but by assuming that the purchase price paid for each slave was a reliable proxy for the net income or profit stream derived from that slave. Of course, these figures represent the lost value owed to enslaved people only up to the point of emancipation. Others have urged that the reparations owed Black people should include not only lost wages, but also the amount of underpayment after emancipation due to the persistent and brutal discrimination against Black workers. Marketti’s calculations also neglect a calculus for compensating for physical torture, including rape, death through hard labor, forced reproduction, separation of families, and the systematic degradation of enslaved people’s dignity as humans.

Franke also makes it clear that even if formerly enslaved peoples had been given compensation, it would not have necessarily erased the vast racial gap that exists today, saying that “…I want to resist the urge to construct a utopian counter-narrative that, had it taken place, everything would have been great for Black people of the South. Eradicating the deeply ingrained sense of racial superiority felt by most whites was, and continues to be, a hugely intractable problem.” She uses the US government’s handling of Native American reservation land as an example:

In 1887, Congress systematized the allotment reservation land to Native Americans with the General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act. This authorized the Bureau of Indian Affairs to survey reservation lands and allot 160 acres to each head of family, 80 acres to each single adult or orphan child, and 40 acres to all other children. For at least twenty-five years the allotted land would be held in trust by the federal government on the Native peoples’ behalf, and it could not be sold or leased by its owners. In short order the government came under strong pressure to allow whites to lease the land that the Native Americans were not fully exploiting. At the same time, it became clear that the Native people were unable to purchase the equipment they needed to farm the land allotted to them. If they could lease part of the land they could use the proceeds to buy materials to farm the remainder. So, in 1891 Congress amended the Dawes Act to allow the land to be leased for farming or grazing for three years, or mining for ten years. Within a matter of a few years, significant amounts of Native-owned land were leased to white people, and by and large the proceeds from those leases were not used to productively develop the remaining land, but instead went to alcohol and other non-productive ends.

Franke goes on to say that “The end result of the Native American allotment program was that less than fifty years after the Dawes Act was passed the vast majority of land held and controlled by the tribes had been sold to non-Native white people, or divided into parcels owned by Native people that were so small that they were not practically usable for grazing or mining.” This example shows that land acquisition does not necessarily mean that racial equality will take root, especially when the US government is weighted towards the interests of white people. However, it does show that property ownership is a key factor in what it means to be an empowered citizen within the American conception of freedom.

Although awarding reparations in the present moment appears to be a challenging project to undertake, there are viable options worth considering. Franke points to the example of communal land projects currently taking place in Jackson, Mississippi (cooperationjackson.org). She gives a summary of what their aims are and how they serve as an example of what Port Royal and Davis Bend would have looked like had they been given a chance to flourish:

In the aftermath of the election of African American mayor Chokwe Lumumba in 2013, progressive activists in Jackson developed a political program to implement a revolutionary and reparative vision of the city. This vision was based in a commitment to cooperative, bottom-up democratic governance and included the creation of a community land trust and “freedom farms”—urban, worker-owned cooperative farms that would produce organic vegetables for the community. The movement has purchased almost forty lots in West Jackson, a working-class, predominantly Black, and underdeveloped neighborhood not far from the downtown Capital district. They named it the Fannie Lou Hamer Community Land Trust. Echoing the land redistribution project in the Sea Islands, most of the land they have purchased in West Jackson was acquired through state tax auctions—the state is able to confiscate and then auction off land for which taxes have not been paid for three years. The plan is to build and run housing for the community as a self-sustaining collective. Collectivized ownership and energy independence (stressing solar power) are designed to hold off gentrification, displacement, and housing vulnerability for the working-class and poor members of the community.

Other options consist of coming up with ways to better utilize funds that have been previously used to uphold a variety of systems that oppress African Americans and their communities:

The Movement for Black Lives has adopted a divest/invest approach to justice—urging divestment from the structures that produce and perpetuate race-based inequality and investment in Black community institutions that enable human flourishing rather than waste. They demand “investments in the education, health and safety of Black people, instead of investments in the criminalizing, caging, and harming of Black people. We want investments in Black communities, determined by Black communities and divestment from exploitative forces including prisons, fossil fuels, police, surveillance and exploitative corporations.

Franke also discusses the idea of rethinking wealth inheritance. She proposes that white people who stand to benefit monetarily from real estate ventures their parents profited from in ways that African Americans couldn’t due to racial discrimination relinquish some of that wealth as a form of reparative justice. She also explains that reparations in other forms already exist as a means to make amends and can be applied immediately toward healing the lingering pain of slavery:

In contemporary contexts, healing and justice have been pursued through the use of prosecutions (domestic and international); truth and reconciliation commissions; lustration (the shaming and banning of perpetrators from public office); public access to police, military and other governmental records; public apology; public memorials; reburial of victims; compensation or reparation to victims and/or their families (in the form of money, land, or other resources); literary and historical writing; and blanket or individualized amnesty.

She also suggests making slavery more visible within the American collective memory: “…the collective memory that plays an important role in our present sense of national identity inevitably skips over the enslavement of millions of Black people. Our national integrity grants us no license to cherry-pick the stories we like while denying—or closeting—the ones we don’t. They are all ours.” Another form reparations can take is for white people as a whole to acknowledge that a huge debt is owed to African Americans regardless of whether or not their ancestors owned slaves or benefited from slavery. At this point in the contemporary moment, the responsibility to atone for the damage done by slavery belongs to all white people and steps need to be taken to remedy this issue in the form of reparations. As Franke so intelligently puts it: “The lingering debt owed to the freed people should not be viewed as having been extinguished by the passage of time. Crimes against humanity should not have a statute of limitations.”

One important point that becomes apparent through Repair but isn’t explicitly stated is how limited white people were in their thinking about how freedom should be applied to formerly enslaved peoples. They simply went from being free labor to cheap labor and often antislavery advocates failed to see how formerly enslaved peoples were tied to the land they had worked on for generations because of the very fact that they were slaves—it was their only option. There is no doubt that property ownership should have been the preferred method of reparations rather than the actual path that was taken which locked formerly enslaved peoples into low wage work that further benefited white land owners. However, part of the reparations process requires that white people as a whole think seriously about what it means to be human and how those qualities of humanness should be honored for all groups of people. Humans need more than land and material comforts; they need to be able to pursue paths that affirm and empower their personal selfhoods. If any lessons can be learned from Repair from an ideological standpoint, it is that people are not merely sources of labor; they deserve to live fully-realized lives, to be able to embark on personal pursuits that allow them to grow into complete beings. Slavery destroyed this possibility for millions of African Americans in the United States and continues to do so in the form of racial oppression. Reparations should be approached with this understanding in mind so that real justice can be done to Black people who still suffer from the psychic damage done by slavery. Whatever form these reparations take, they need to be holistic, multi-faceted, and unconditionally compassionate.

March 23, 2020