After the Civil War, millions of freed enslaved people were left without land or money to build a future. Now, 200 years after slavery was officially abolished in New York, a controversial bill sits in committee that would study reparations for descendants of slaves. Even among supporters of reparations, there’s debate over what should be done to remedy hundreds of years of injustices.
In the Roosevelt Public Library, Loretta Butler pulls out a copy of the United States Constitution from her purse and begins to read.
“‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within United States.’ So that means, if you're convicted of a crime, you're still considered a slave,” she said.
Butler has been advocating for equal rights for Black Americans since the ‘60s. She says reparations should address and remedy 400 years of inequality — from slavery to Jim Crow to unfair imprisonment and racial profiling. In 2001, her photo appeared in a Newsday article about reparations.
“I had on a purple shirt with white lettering and a picture of a slave ship which said ‘Imported from Africa,’” Butler said.
And that led to an ugly backlash.
“That's when I received hate mail,” she said. “I received a ticket back to Africa. coupon for some bananas, noose and some other stuff.”
Butler hasn’t been deterred by the threats. She now criticizes the New York state reparations bill for not doing enough to remedy the injustices Black Americans have faced. The bill would allocate $250,000 to a commission, which would study ways to compensate for slavery. But Butler is frustrated by a lack of change in how Black Americans are treated and thinks studying reparations is unnecessary.
“The people who can do something about it, they feel that if we say we're going to study it, then they've done something to help. But no, there's no help,” she said.
Assemblywoman Taylor Darling of Hempstead is one of the cosponsors of the bill. She said she’s not sure how to implement reparations, but thinks the bill is a good start.
“I don't know what reparations will look like, but it's definitely something where I'm willing to have the conversation and continue to do the research and advocacy,” she said. “Just because something is difficult doesn't mean that it does not need to happen. That is a cop out. Excuse. Other groups don't take that crap. And we're not going to take it.”
Darling says that reparations should not be a blank check to individuals. Instead, money should be invested in Black communities so that they can build wealth.
“You want wealth because that's something that you really can pass through generations,” she said. “And wealth is knowledge, wealth is opportunity. Wealth is, again, liquid assets, land, things that you're able to, again, pass down that appreciates in value that helps people.”
Reparations is a divisive subject, even in the Black community. Dr. Georgette Grier-Key is the executive director and chief curator at the Eastville Community Historical Society. And she’s an expert on African American and Native American history on Long Island. She says it’s too soon to talk about making amends.
“I do not like to have the same conversation about slavery and reparations at the same time. You know why?” she said. “Because to me it's like, we’re done with slavery, let's move on.”
Dr. Grier-Key says that society needs to come to grips with slavery and its legacy before we can talk about reparations.
At a Brookhaven NAACP meeting in Port Jefferson, Membership Chair Nicole Christian said she supports the New York state reparations bill. But she’s worried that a lack of education about slavery in New York is a major barrier to getting it passed.
“We've been completely miseducated about slavery, completely miseducated,” she said. “That is one of the main issues about reparations, is not explaining it as a policy, but educating people about what slavery really was socially, politically and economically.”
Loretta Butler agrees that most people are unaware of the contributions Black people have made to society, and don’t understand why reparations should be paid.
“Our country became great because of all the free labor,” she said. “So until the masses are aware that we made this country great, not me personally but my ancestors, then until it happens, people are not going to believe that we even deserve it.”
Butler isn’t optimistic about reparations happening in her lifetime. However, she hopes the fight will go on so her grandchildren will benefit.