The Reparation Plan, Part 1- HBCU endowment

On this Juneteenth weekend 2022, I decided that I would start a small series of blogs dealing with the issue of reparations for African Americans. It has been an issue in this country since the 18th Century, when the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers, first proposed that freed slaves should receive compensation from their previous enslavers/owners, loosely based on Biblical Scripture (Deuteronomy 23: 15-16; 24: 14-15). Warner Mifflin, a Quaker who freed his slaves in 1774, is considered the first vocal supporter of reparations, advocating for restitution in the form of cash payments, land and shared crop arrangements. In 1783, Belinda Royall, who was 70 years old at the time, petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for a pension from the proceeds of her enslaver’s estate, which he abandoned. The court granted her an annual pension of 15 pounds and twelve shillings, which is the equivalent of $2,785 in 2022 US Dollars. She only received the pension for two years. By the way, her enslaver was Isaac Royall, Jr., whose will bequest led to the formation of Harvard Law School.

The closest the Federal Government came to reparations was the formation of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which provided relief assistance to newly freed slaves (1865-1872), and Special Field Orders, No. 15, where we get the phrase “40 acres and a mule” from. Around 40,000 freed slaves had settled on 400,000 acres of land in Georgia and South Carolina before President Andrew Johnson, the first US President ever impeached, rescinded the order and returned the land back to its former owners. Senator Thaddeus Stevens, R-Massachusetts, sponsored a bill for the redistribution of Confederate land to African Americans, but it did not pass, while Southern Democrats did everything they could to strip the Freedmen’s Bureau, operating under the Department of War, of its necessary funding.

As Black Codes and Jim Crow segregation became a way of American life, talk of reparations basically just became social chatter within African American communities, while Black intellectuals debated more publicly about how to co-exist in America, or even entertaining leaving the country altogether. After the Black Power Movement and the passage of Civil Rights legislation, the subject of reparations started to gain interest, however, it was not until 1987 when the first national organization, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) was formed. I was a member of the Jackson, Mississippi chapter for a number of years.

Still very little was done outside of HR 40, first introduced by Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, in 1989 (now sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D Texas, and under committee consideration some 32 years later) and a 2002 federal lawsuit that was dismissed in 2006. Then 2020 happened. Between the murder of George Floyd and the exposure of health and wealth disparities brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, renewed calls for reparations have been at the forefront of American politics, even as a question posed to presidential candidates. Despite its popularity amongst African Americans, 63 percent of Americans, as a whole, are opposed  to offering reparations to African Americans for previous historical injustices. There has also been a debate about who should qualify for reparations that has escalated in the 21st Century, with one group starting a movement that only non-immigrant descendants of Africans enslaved in the United States should receive a settlement.

Here’s what I believe: Every African-American citizen of the United States should receive reparation for the  historical injustices colonial America, the United States Government and its respective states has inflicted on them and their ancestors. The Peculiar Institution, as American slavery has been referred to, was one of the cruelest and most influential events in world history. It has had generational impact on African Americans and, as a nation, our relationships with other nations globally. Haiti not being recognized by the United States an independent nation after the successful slave revolt in 1804 set that nation’s growth back for centuries as an example. Therefore, it is imperative that we give African Americans reparation now and it must be done in several ways to be truly restorative. To paraphrase Malcolm X, taking the knife out of one’s back is not justice, it is temporary relief. Helping one heal from the wound is the just and right thing to do.

So my first proposal in the healing process is for the United States Government to provide a $1 billion endowment to every Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in the United States. Endowments are the life blood of universities. I know many of you thought it was tuition, especially if you had to pay student loans, but tuitions are actually tools to exclude students in private, well-financed institutions and as a stop-gap for publicly funded state institutions, in which endowments vary. Many HBCUs became state institutions strictly for survival after the American Baptist Home Mission Society, which was responsible for the creation of many HBCUS (and the University of Chicago), pulled out financially due to the Great Depression. State funding helped keep tuition at HBCUs affordable but without a substantial endowment to moderate the cost of operating and expanding these institutions, tuitions have risen and have become a barrier to the very community they seek to elevate.

Historically, large university endowments start with a generous benefactor, such as the aforementioned Mr. Royall, or William Marsh Rice, whose will created Rice University in Houston, Texas. Rice University and Jackson State University, my alma mater, has approximately the same student population, over 7000. Rice’s endowment is over $8 billion. Jackson State’s endowment is over $60 million. Rice is private and has been producing engineering graduates since 1912. Jackson State is public, was initially set up to produce Black teachers and ministers, and didn’t have an engineering school until the 21st century, after the Ayers Settlement in 2002. I bring up this distinction for a simple fact: Jackson State’s mission was similar to the majority of HBCUs, therefore the alumni, who became very successful educators, didn’t make the same amount of money, or more correctly, didn’t attain the same amount of wealth, as their Rice counterparts, who became very successful engineers. Endowments are bolstered primarily by their alumni, therefore the wealthier the alumni, the larger the endowment.

Thus it is not a mystery that the largest endowment for any American university is Harvard University’s, valued at over $53 billion. The largest endowment of any HBCU is Howard University’s at over $713 million. So it is clear that one of the steps that will lead to repairing the racial wealth divide in the United States is to provide every HBCU with an infusion of $1 billion to each of their endowments. Since there are 107 HBCUs in the United States, then that means an investment of $107 billion.

To some that may seem steep, and to be honest I’m only getting started as this is only part one of the plan, keep in mind that it was estimated that the actual cost of labor from 1619 to 1993, when the estimate was calculated, of enslaved African Americans was over $97 trillion!

If every HBCU is awarded an endowment of $1 billion, it will almost guarantee that every HBCU in existence now, will be in existence for generations to come, providing thousands of African American children the opportunity to attend college and improve their chances of building personal wealth that would shorten the wealth gap between White and Black Americans. Black Americans with more personal wealth will be able to attain assets like property, savings accounts and other investments. 

More African Americans gaining generational wealth over time means not only a better African American community, but a better nation overall. Also with a larger endowment, HBCUs can expand, without needing political influence and approval, and strengthen their academic research capabilities, which is essential to universities.

Repairing the breach is going to cost money. Policies can only do so much, but financial investment shows  commitment to a better society. This is just the first step.


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