Reparations for slavery debate in the United States

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Reparations for slavery is a proposal that some type of compensation should be provided to the descendants of slaves from the Atlantic slave trade.

This idea has been recurring in the politics of the United States, from the 1865 Special Field Orders No. 15 ("Forty acres and a mule") to the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries.[1] This compensation has been proposed in a variety of forms, from individual monetary payments to land-based compensation related to independence. The idea remains highly controversial and no broad consensus exists as to how it could be implemented. There have been similar calls for reparations from some Caribbean countries[2] and elsewhere in the African diaspora, and some African countries have called for reparations to their states for the loss of their population.[3][4]

U.S. historical context[edit]

The arguments surrounding reparations are based on the formal discussion about many different reparations, and actual land reparations received by African Americans which were later taken away. In 1865, after the Confederate States of America were defeated in the American Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15 to both "assure the harmony of action in the area of operations"[5] and to solve problems caused by the masses of freed slaves, a temporary plan granting each freed family forty acres of tillable land in the sea islands and around Charleston, South Carolina for the exclusive use of black people who had been enslaved. The army also had a number of unneeded mules which were given to settlers. Around 40,000 freed slaves were settled on 400,000 acres (1,600 km²) in Georgia and South Carolina. However, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order after Lincoln was assassinated, and the land was returned to its previous owners. In 1867, Thaddeus Stevens sponsored a bill for the redistribution of land to African Americans, but it was not passed.

Reconstruction came to an end in 1877 without the issue of reparations having been addressed. Thereafter, a deliberate movement of segregation and oppression arose in southern states. Jim Crow laws passed in some southeastern states to reinforce the existing inequality that slavery had produced. In addition white extremist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan engaged in a massive campaign of terrorism throughout the Southeast in order to keep African Americans in their prescribed social place. For decades this assumed inequality and injustice was ruled on in court decisions and debated in public discourse.

In one anomalous case, a former slave named Henrietta Wood successfully sued for compensation after having been kidnapped from the free state of Ohio and sold into slavery in Mississippi. After the American Civil War, she was freed and returned to Cincinnati, where she won her case in federal court in 1878, receiving $2,500 in damages. Though the verdict was a national news story, it did not prompt any trend toward additional similar cases.[6]

Profit from slavery was not limited to the South: New England merchants profited from the slave trade. In a 2007 column in The New York Times, historian Eric Foner writes:

[In] the Colonial era, Southern planters regularly purchased imported slaves, and merchants in New York and New England profited handsomely from the trade.
The American Revolution threw the slave trade and slavery itself into crisis. In the run-up to war, Congress banned the importation of slaves as part of a broader nonimportation policy. During the War of Independence, tens of thousands of slaves escaped to British lines. Many accompanied the British out of the country when peace arrived.

Inspired by the ideals of the Revolution, most of the newly independent American states banned the slave trade. But importation resumed to South Carolina and Georgia, which had been occupied by the British during the war and lost the largest number of slaves.

The slave trade was a major source of disagreement at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. South Carolina's delegates were determined to protect slavery, and they had a powerful impact on the final document. They originated the three-fifths clause (giving the South extra representation in Congress by counting part of its slave population) and threatened disunion if the slave trade were banned, as other states demanded.

The result was a compromise barring Congress from prohibiting the importation of slaves until 1808. Some Anti-Federalists, as opponents of ratification were called, cited the slave trade clause as a reason why the Constitution should be rejected, claiming it brought shame upon the new nation. ...

As slavery expanded into the Deep South, a flourishing internal slave trade replaced importation from Africa. Between 1808 and 1860, the economies of older states like Virginia came increasingly to rely on the sale of slaves to the cotton fields of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. But demand far outstripped supply, and the price of slaves rose inexorably, placing ownership outside the reach of poorer Southerners.[7]

Proposals for reparations[edit]

United States government[edit]

Some proposals have called for direct payments from the U.S. government. Various estimates have been given if such payments were to be made. Harper's Magazine estimated that the total of reparations due was about "$97 trillion, based on 222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and 1865, regardless the United States wasn't a recognized independent country until after the Revolutionary War in 1787, compounded at 6% interest through 1993".[8] Should all or part of this amount be paid to the descendants of slaves in the United States, the current U.S. government would only pay a fraction of that cost, since it has been in existence only since 1789.

The Rev. M.J. Divine, better known as Father Divine, was one of the earliest leaders to argue clearly for "retroactive compensation" and the message was spread via International Peace Mission publications. On July 28, 1951, Father Divine issued a "peace stamp" bearing the text: "Peace! All nations and peoples who have suppressed and oppressed the under-privileged, they will be obliged to pay the African slaves and their descendants for all uncompensated servitude and for all unjust compensation, whereby they have been unjustly deprived of compensation on the account of previous condition of servitude and the present condition of servitude. This is to be accomplished in the defense of all other under-privileged subjects and must be paid retroactive up-to-date".[9]

At the first National Reparations Convention in Chicago in 2001, a proposal by Howshua Amariel, a Chicago social activist, would require the federal government to make reparations to proven descendants of slaves. In addition, Amariel stated "For those blacks who wish to remain in America, they should receive reparations in the form of free education, free medical, free legal and free financial aid for 50 years with no taxes levied," and "For those desiring to leave America, every black person would receive a million dollars or more, backed by gold, in reparation." At the convention Amariel's proposal received approval from the 100 or so participants,[10] nevertheless the question of who would receive such payments, who should pay them and in what amount, has remained highly controversial,[11][12] since the United States Census does not track descent from slaves or slave owners and relies on self-reported racial categories.

On July 30, 2008, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution apologizing for American slavery and subsequent discriminatory laws.[13]

There have been 7 states that have officially apologized for their involvement in the enslavement of Africans. Those states are:

  • Alabama – 04-25-07
  • Delaware – 02-11-16[14]
  • Florida – 2008
  • Maryland – 2007
  • New Jersey – 2008
  • North Carolina – 2007[15]
  • Virginia – 2007[16]

In April 2010, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates in a New York Times editorial advised reparations activists to consider the African role in the slave trade in regard to who should shoulder the cost of reparations.[17]

Private institutions[edit]

Private institutions and corporations were also involved in slavery. On March 8, 2000, Reuters News Service reported that Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a law school graduate, initiated a one-woman campaign making a historic demand for restitution and apologies from modern companies that played a direct role in enslaving Africans. Aetna Inc. was her first target because of their practice of writing life insurance policies on the lives of enslaved Africans with slave owners as the beneficiaries. In response to Farmer-Paellmann's demand, Aetna Inc. issued a public apology, and the "corporate restitution movement" was born.[not specific enough to verify]

By 2002, nine lawsuits were filed around the country coordinated by Farmer-Paellmann and the Restitution Study Group—a New York non-profit. The litigation included 20 plaintiffs demanding restitution from 20 companies from the banking, insurance, textile, railroad, and tobacco industries. The cases were consolidated under 28 U.S.C. 1407[18] to multidistrict litigation in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The district court dismissed the lawsuits with prejudice, and the claimants appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

On December 13, 2006, that court, in an opinion written by Judge Richard Posner, modified the district court's judgment to be a dismissal without prejudice, affirmed the majority of the district court's judgment, and reversed the portion of the district court's judgment dismissing the plaintiffs' consumer protection claims, remanding the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.[19] Thus, the plaintiffs may bring the lawsuit again, but must clear considerable procedural and substantive hurdles first:

If one or more of the defendants violated a state law by transporting slaves in 1850, and the plaintiffs can establish standing to sue, prove the violation despite its antiquity, establish that the law was intended to provide a remedy (either directly or by providing the basis for a common law action for conspiracy, conversion, or restitution) to lawfully enslaved persons or their descendants, identify their ancestors, quantify damages incurred, and persuade the court to toll the statute of limitations, there would be no further obstacle to the grant of relief.[20]

In October 2000, California passed the Slavery Era Disclosure Law requiring insurance companies doing business there to report on their role in slavery. The disclosure legislation, introduced by Senator Tom Hayden, is the prototype for similar laws passed in 12 states around the United States.[citation needed]

The NAACP has called for more of such legislation at local and corporate levels. It quotes Dennis C. Hayes, CEO of the NAACP, as saying, "Absolutely, we will be pursuing reparations from companies that have historical ties to slavery and engaging all parties to come to the table."[21] Brown University, whose namesake family was involved in the slave trade, has also established a committee to explore the issue of reparations. In February 2007, Brown University announced a set of responses[22] to its Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.[23] While in 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for the "sins" of racism, including slavery.[24]

In December 2005, a boycott was called by a coalition of reparations groups under the sponsorship of the Restitution Study Group. The boycott targets the student loan products of banks deemed complicit in slavery—particularly those identified in the Farmer-Paellmann litigation. As part of the boycott, students are asked to choose from other banks to finance their student loans.[25]

In 2005, JP Morgan Chase and Wachovia both apologized for their connections to slavery.[26][27]

Pro-reparations groups such as The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America advocate for compensation to be in the form of community rehabilitation and not payments to individual descendants.[12]

Arguments for reparations[edit]

Accumulated wealth[edit]

In 2008 the American Humanist Association published an article which argued that if emancipated slaves had been allowed to possess and retain the profits of their labor, their descendants might now control a much larger share of American social and monetary wealth.[28] Not only did the freedmen not receive a share of these profits, but they were stripped of the small amounts of compensation paid to some of them during Reconstruction.[citation needed]

The wealth of the United States was greatly enhanced by the exploitation of African American slave labor.[29] According to this view, reparations would be valuable primarily as a way of correcting modern economic imbalances.


In 2019, VICE magazine published an article that argued racial health disparities, from slavery through Jim Crow until today, have cost Black Americans a significant amount of money in health care expenses and lost wages, and should be paid back. [30]


Advocates have used other examples of reparations to argue that victims of institutional slavery should be similarly compensated.[31]

In several cases the federal government has formally apologized to or compensated minority groups for past actions:

U.S. state governments have made reparations in some specific circumstances:

  • Virginia established a compensation fund for victims of involuntary sterilization in 2015.[32]

Other countries have also opted to pay reparations for past grievances, such as:

Arguments against reparations[edit]

Relocation of injustice[edit]

The principal argument against reparations is that their cost would not be imposed upon the perpetrators of slavery, nor confined to those who can be shown to be the specific indirect beneficiaries of slavery, but would simply be indiscriminately borne by taxpayers per se. Those making this argument often add that the descendants of white abolitionists and soldiers in the Union Army might be taxed to fund reparations despite the sacrifices their ancestors already made to end slavery.

In the case of Public Lands, European colonizers forcibly relocated[33] many Southeastern Native American tribes. One argument against reparations is that in assigning public lands to African-Americans for the enslavement of their ancestors, a greater and further wrong would be committed against the Southeastern Native Americans[34] who have ancestral claims and treaty rights to that same land.[not specific enough to verify]

In addition, several historians, such as João C. Curto, have made important contributions to the global understanding of the African side of the Atlantic slave trade. By arguing that African merchants determined the assemblage of trade goods accepted in exchange for slaves, many historians argue for African agency: that Africans were not just enslaved by whites, because some Africans were willing participants in the slave trade. This implies a shared responsibility.[35] Whites seldom went inland as Africa was regarded as the white man's grave: slaves had to be brought to them by Africans.[citation needed]

Comparative utility[edit]

It has been argued that reparations for slavery cannot be justified on the basis that slave descendants are worse off as a result of slavery, because it has been suggested that they are better off than they would have been in Africa if the slave trade had never happened.

In Up From Slavery, former slave Booker T. Washington wrote,

I pity from the bottom of my heart any nation or body of people that is so unfortunate as to get entangled in the net of slavery. I have long since ceased to cherish any spirit of bitterness against the Southern white people on account of the enslavement of my race. No one section of our country was wholly responsible for its introduction ... Having once got its tentacles fastened on to the economic and social life of the Republic, it was no easy matter for the country to relieve itself of the institution. Then, when we rid ourselves of prejudice, or racial feeling, and look facts in the face, we must acknowledge that, notwithstanding the cruelty and moral wrong of slavery, the ten million Negroes inhabiting this country, who themselves or whose ancestors went through the school of American slavery, are in a stronger and more hopeful condition, materially, intellectually, morally, and religiously, than is true of an equal number of black people in any other portion of the globe. ... This I say, not to justify slavery—on the other hand, I condemn it as an institution, as we all know that in America it was established for selfish and financial reasons, and not from a missionary motive—but to call attention to a fact, and to show how Providence so often uses men and institutions to accomplish a purpose. When persons ask me in these days how, in the midst of what sometimes seem hopelessly discouraging conditions, I can have such faith in the future of my race in this country, I remind them of the wilderness through which and out of which, a good Providence has already led us.[36]

Conservative commentator David Horowitz writes,

The claim for reparations is premised on the false assumption that only whites have benefited from slavery. If slave labor created wealth for Americans, then obviously it has created wealth for black Americans as well, including the descendants of slaves. The GNP of black America is so large that it makes the African-American community the 10th most prosperous "nation" in the world. American blacks on average enjoy per capita incomes in the range of twenty to fifty times that of blacks living in any of the African nations from which they were taken.[37]

Legal argument against reparations[edit]

Many legal experts point to the fact that slavery was not illegal in the United States[38] prior to the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified in 1865). Thus, there is no legal foundation for compensating the descendants of slaves for the crime against their ancestors when, in strictly legal terms, no crime was committed. Chattel slavery is now considered to be highly immoral, though it was perfectly legal at the time.

Some areas of the South had communities of freedman, such as existed in Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans, while in the North, for example, former slaves lived as freedman both before and after the creation of the United States in 1788. For example, in 1667 Dutch colonists freed some of their slaves and gave them property in what is now Manhattan.[39][40] The descendants of Groote and Christina Manuell—two of those freed slaves—can trace their family's history as freedman back to the child of Groote and Christina, Nicolas Manuell, whom they consider their family's first freeborn African American. In 1712, the British, then in control of New York, prohibited blacks from inheriting land, effectively ending property ownership for this family. While this is only one example out of thousands of enslaved persons, it does mean that not all slavery reparations can be determined by racial self-identification alone; reparations would have to include a determination of the free or slave status of one's African-American ancestors, as well as when and by whom they were enslaved and denied rights such as property ownership. Because of slavery, the original African heritage has been blended with the American experience, the same as it has been for generations of immigrants from other countries. For this reason, determining a "fair share" of reparations would be an impossible task.

Another legal argument against reparations for slavery from a legal standpoint (as opposed to a moral standpoint) is that the statute of limitations for filing lawsuits has long since passed. Thus, courts are prohibited from granting relief. This has been used effectively in several suits, including "In re African American Slave Descendants", which dismissed a high-profile suit against a number of businesses with ties to slavery.[41]

Additional arguments and opinions[edit]

Scholars have proposed a variety of ideas for implementing reparations. One recommendation is to provide reparations in “the form of vouchers that can be cashed for training, higher education, housing, or start-up capital for small businesses.”[42] To make this suggestion work, the government will need to work with African American community leaders to determine the proper distribution of these vouchers among various beneficiaries and applications. These reparations are designed to supply some sense of closure, with full recognition that the country can never compensate for slavery. After the reparations, in an effort to move on, African Americans bringing lawsuits claiming discrimination would not be able to base their cases on statistics (i.e., on the basis that there are fewer African Americans in a given occupation, rank, or other situation than proportionally in the population), but would be required to show that they were personally affected by a discriminatory action or policy.[43]

A suggested anti-reparations argument is that reparations payments based on race alone could be perceived by nearly everyone as an injustice, embittering many, and inevitably setting back race relations. In this view, apologetic feelings some whites may hold because of slavery and past civil rights injustices would, to a significant extent, be replaced by anger.

The Libertarian Party, among other groups and individuals, has suggested that reparations would make racism worse.[44]

One publication against reparations is David Horowitz, Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery (2002). Other works that discuss problems with reparations include John Torpey's Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics (2006), Alfred Brophy's Reparations Pro and Con (2006), and Nahshon Perez's Freedom from Past Injustices (Edinburgh University Press, 2012).

One member of Congress, Mitch McConnell stated on TV that he was against reparations because they involve taking money from those who never benefitted from slavery to pay those who were never slaves.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lockhart, PR (2019-03-19). "The 2020 Democratic primary debate over reparations, explained". Vox.
  2. ^ "Barbados Takes Lead in Fight For Reparations for Slavery in the Caribbean", Atlanta Black Star, November 6, 2012.
  3. ^ "Acknowledgement of Past, Compensation Urged by Many Leaders in Continuing Debate at Racism Conference". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  4. ^ "Action Against Wide Range of Discriminatory Practices Urged at Racism Conference". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  5. ^ "Harmony of Action" – Sherman as an Army Group Commander
  6. ^ McDaniel, W. Caleb. "In 1870, Henrietta Wood Sued for Reparations – and Won". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2019-10-06.
  7. ^ Eric Foner (December 30, 2007). "Forgotten Step Toward Freedom". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-30.
  8. ^ Flaherty, Peter; Carlisle, John (October 2004). "The Case Against Slave Reparations" (PDF). National Legal and Policy Center. p. 1. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
  9. ^ "Peace Stamps". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  10. ^ Paul Shepard (February 11, 2001). "U.S. slavery reparations: Hope that a race will be compensated gains momentum". Seattle Times. Retrieved 2008-11-10.
  11. ^ "Ghanaian President Stirs Controversy Over Slave Trade Reparations". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  12. ^ a b "Bill to Study Slavery Reparations Still Facing Resistance". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  13. ^ Congress Apologizes for Slavery, Jim Crow but made no mention of reparations.
  14. ^ Moyer, Justin (11 February 2016). "Delaware apologizes for slavery and Jim Crow. No reparations forthcoming". Washington Post. Retrieved 23 July 2019.
  15. ^ "North Carolina Senate apologizes for slavery". 2007-04-05. Retrieved 2019-07-24.
  16. ^ "What States Have Apologized for Slavery". Blerd Planet. 2019-06-12. Retrieved 2019-06-13.
  17. ^ Jr, Henry Louis Gates (22 April 2010). "Opinion – How to End the Slavery Blame-Game". The New York Times. Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  18. ^ 28 U.S.C. § 1407
  19. ^
  20. ^ In re African-American Slave Descendants Litig., 471 F.3d 754, 759 (7th Cir. 2006).
  21. ^ The Washington Times (July 12, 2005). "NAACP to target private business". Retrieved November 15, 2017.
  22. ^ "Response of Brown University to the Report of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, February 2007" (PDF). Retrieved November 15, 2017.
  23. ^ Slavery and Justice: Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.
  24. ^ "Southern Baptist Convention > Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern Baptist Convention". Retrieved November 15, 2017.
  25. ^ Brendan Coyne, "Student Loan Boycott Demands Slavery Reparations", The NewStandard, December 6, 2005.
  26. ^ "JP Morgan admits US slavery links". November 15, 2017. Retrieved November 15, 2017 – via
  27. ^ writer, By Katie Benner, CNN/Money staff (June 2, 2005). "Wachovia apologizes for ties to slavery". Retrieved November 15, 2017.
  28. ^ Ananda S. Osel, U.S. Apology for Slavery – Apparently Not Front Page News The Humanist, Nov/Dec 2008 (American Humanist Association) ISN:7336164802
  29. ^ James Oliver Horton; Lois E. Horton (2005). Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-19-517903-3. The slave trade and the products created by slaves' labor, particularly cotton, provided the basis for America's wealth as a nation, underwriting the country's industrial revolution and enabling it to project its power into the rest of the world.
  30. ^
  31. ^ "The Legal Basis of the Claim for Slavery Reparations". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  32. ^ Victims of Eugenics Sterilization Compensation Program
  33. ^ "Indian Removal Act: Primary Documents in American History (Virtual Programs & Services, Library of Congress)". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  34. ^ "Indian removal". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  35. ^ João C. Curto. Álcool e Escravos: O Comércio Luso-Brasileiro do Álcool em Mpinda, Luanda e Benguela durante o Tráfico Atlântico de Escravos (c. 1480–1830) e o Seu Impacto nas Sociedades da África Central Ocidental. Translated by Márcia Lameirinhas. Tempos e Espaços Africanos Series, vol. 3. Lisbon: Editora Vulgata, 2002. ISBN 978-972-8427-24-5
  36. ^ "Chapter 1: A slave among slaves", Up From Slavery.
  37. ^ "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks is a Bad Idea for Blacks – and Racist Too". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  38. ^ "Amistad case – The law of slavery, circa 1841". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  39. ^ "Land Grant". PBS: History Detectives. Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  40. ^ "Black History Matters – Manhattan Land Grant (1667)". Retrieved 15 November 2017.
  41. ^ "In re: African-American Slave Descents Ligation". Case Law. Retrieved 07/09/2019. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  42. ^ Etzioni, Amitai (April 18, 2019). "Could Reparations Help Close the American Racial Divide?". The National Interest. Retrieved 1 August 2019.
  43. ^ Etzioni, Amitai (April 18, 2019). "Could Reparations Help Close the American Racial Divide?". The National Interest. Retrieved 1 August 2019.
  44. ^ Greenhut, Steven (2019-04-05). "Reparations Are More Likely to Divide the Nation Than Heal It". Reason.

Further reading[edit]

  • Araujo, Ana Lucia (2017). Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History. Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1350010604.
  • Bittker, Boris I. The Case for Black Reparations. New York: Random House, 1973.
  • Brophy, Alfred L. Reparations: Pro & Con. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Brooks, Roy L. Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
  • Coates, Ta-Nehisi (June 2014). "The Case for Reparations". The Atlantic.
  • Dottin, Paul Anthony. "The end of race as we know it: Slavery, segregation, and the African American quest for redress." Ph.D. Thesis, Florida Atlantic University, 2002.
  • Flaherty, Peter, and John Carlisle. The Case against Slave Reparations. Falls Church, Va: National Legal and Policy Center, 2004.
  • Hakim, Ida. The Debtors: Whites Respond to the Call for Black Reparations. Red Oak, GA: CURE, 2005.
  • Henry, Charles P. Long Overdue: The Politics of Racial Reparations. New York: New York University Press, 2007.
  • Kauffman, Matthew (September 29, 2002). "The Debt". Hartford Courant. pp. 192–197 – via
  • Martin, Michael T., and Marilyn Yaquinto. Redress for Historical Injustices in the United States: On Reparations for Slavery, Jim Crow, and Their Legacies. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
  • Miller, Jon, and Rahul Kumar. Reparations: Interdisciplinary Inquiries. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2007. P
  • Millman, Noah (May 29, 2014). "Taking Reparations Seriously". American Conservative.
  • Torpey, John. Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • University of Kansas. Symposium: Law, Reparations & Racial Disparities. Lawrence: University of Kansas, Kansas Law Review, 2009.
  • Walters, Ronald W. African Americans and Movements for Reparations: Past, Present, and Future. Dedicated to the Memory and Scholarly Legacy of Dr. Ronald W. Walters. Washington, DC: Association for the Study of African American Life and History, 2012.


External links[edit]