One day a month, Rev. Robert Turner lugs his hulking 6-foot-6 frame 40 miles from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about H.B. 40, a bill in Congress that would establish a commission to study reparations and consider a national apology for slavery.
Turner makes the journey by foot, rain or shine, carrying 400 roses to represent the 400 years that Black people were enslaved in America. He then delivers the bouquet to the gates of The White House.
“I take this to the leader of this country’s residence,” explained Turner, the pastor of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore. “By the end, my feet hurt. My legs hurt. But I get inspired by our ancestors — people like Harriet Tubman, who did this hundreds of times. This is nothing compared to slaves getting chased [barefoot]. They traveled further with a lot more stress.”
The question of reparations is one that evokes pain for many. It’s also is about nuance, historical accuracy and confusion, and remains a contentious debate in this country and in Maryland.
In the three years since the police killing of George Floyd spurred a national reckoning over race, a small number of state and local governments have taken up the thorny question of whether to provide reparations to Black Americans — and if so, how.
With federal legislation on the matter long stalled in Congress, some advocates are pressing for statewide action. They believe the election of Democratic Gov. Wes Moore last year provides the best opportunity in years to make progress in Annapolis.
State Del. Aletheia McCaskill said she plans to reintroduce Maryland HB 875, which would establish a Maryland Reparations Commission. That bill was withdrawn in March.
“Although I believe it should be codified at the national level, we here in Maryland should do more than give an apology,” she said. “I believe the reparations should be in the form of education and housing. Both should start with private investing and the banking institutions.”
Todd Eberly, a professor of political science and public policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said that given the state’s racial makeup and history of slavery, “it is going to be more receptive” than many states to the idea.
However, he said getting reparations approved will be a tall order — even in a blue state like Maryland that has seen historic political change.
Despite younger voters being more in favor of reparations, the downside is that “the further you remove yourself from the event, the harder it will be to convince” people to support the cause, said Eberly, who also lists budget constraints, questions involving the types of reparations and the racial divide as reasons for concern.
“A state like Maryland would be a good test state for this. If something like this couldn’t move forward in a state like Maryland, it would be difficult for me to think where it could happen,” Eberly said. “The upcoming legislative session will tell the tale.”
Blacks, whites divided on reparations
A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that 77% of Black adults say the descendants of people enslaved in the United States should be repaid in some way, while 18% of white Americans say the same.
Critics question why white people with no direct link to slavery should have to pay the cost of reparations for past wrongs. It’s a view shared by some Black and white conservatives.
“I am living proof that America is the land of opportunity and not a land of oppression,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, the sole Black Republican in the Senate, in announcing his bid for the party’s presidential nomination.
Conservatives have also argued that reparations would violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution, The New York Times has reported. They say that laws passed in the 1960s and government social programs have helped uplift many Black people.
Supporters say that the harm Black people have experienced extended well beyond slavery. Not being free and decades of discriminatory practices entitle Black people to some form of compensation, they contend.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both spoke in favor of a federal reparations study when they were running for president in 2020, but the Biden administration has not pushed strongly for it, the Times reported.
Proponents argue there is precedent for providing financial compensation to Black Americans.
Indigenous people in America have reservations, tribal sovereignty, and the ability to earn money from casinos in response to the atrocities they experienced. In 1988, the federal government provided $1.6 billion to 80,000 Japanese Americans — that adds up to $20,000 each — who were living survivors of internment camps, backers note.
“Whenever African Americans or anyone advocates for slavery reparations, they roll their eyes,” said Teisha Dupree-Wilson, an assistant professor of history at Coppin State University. She said people acknowledge slavery, but “we don’t hear about the actual horrors and realities that enslaved people endured.”
“Tiptoeing away from what happened to African Americans is easy to do,” Dupree-Wilson said. “The reason why other groups are able to get reparations because they are not told to shut up and stop complaining, where African Americans are.”
Americans seem to be willing to atone for past atrocities except when it involves Black people, said Carl Snowden, an Annapolis civil rights activist who leads the Caucus of African American Leaders (CAAL).
The group voted recently to present a resolution to Moore, Annapolis Mayor Gavin Buckley and Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman seeking programs to address the damaging legacy of slavery. The resolution focuses on addressing the damage done by urban renewal, which has historically displaced Black residents.
The resolution is “the start of an important, hard conversation we need to have,” said Pittman, a Democrat and ally of Moore. He stopped short of saying whether he would support reparations or how he would address the “devastating impacts” of segregation, slavery, and urban renewal.
Snowden, a former Annapolis City Council member, said he understands that reparations won’t happen overnight, but he hopes to achieve it locally over the next few years.
A spokesman for Moore, the state’s first Black governor, acknowledges the historic obstacles that Black Americans have faced.
“It’s laudable the legislature wants to study the impacts of the transatlantic slave trade that continue to affect people’s lives today,” said Carter Elliott, a spokesman for the governor. “It’s why the Governor focused on issues like housing insecurity and food insecurity, the racial wealth gap, and educational disparities in his first legislative session, and why they will continue to be a major focus for the administration moving forward.”
Elliott declined to say whether the Moore administration would back some kind of reparations measure.
What historians say
The debate over reparations for Black Americans dates back to the waning months of the Civil War, when Union General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15, setting aside confiscated land along the Southeast Coast — no more than 40 acres each — for freed Black families.
About 100,000 families were promised land from Charleston, South Carolina, to St. John’s River in Florida, according to Dupree-Wilson. But after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, the order was overturned by his successor, Andrew Johnson, who returned the land to its former Confederate owners.
It was one of numerous times when Black Americans were promised something without fully receiving it.
On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring slaves to be free. But the word did not reach some Blacks in Texas until June 19, 1865, when a Union general informed them. That day is now celebrated as Juneteenth, a federal holiday.
The 14th Amendment, which was ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including formerly enslaved people, and provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws.” And the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, gave Black men the right to vote. However, threats of violence and other forms of intimidation were used to prevent Black people from voting in the Jim Crow South for decades.
“Slavery may have been long ago, but the aftereffects can still be felt today,” said Dupree-Wilson.
Other backers point to a history of domestic terrorism as a reason for descendants to be compensated.
Will Schwarz, president of the Maryland Lynching Memorial Project, said his group helps state residents confront and acknowledge a history of racial terror lynchings and “understand the damage it continues to inflict.”
He backs reparations, as does Terri Lee Freeman, president of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.
“While I’m not an expert on what that should look like, I would start with some financial mechanism that provides those descendants with a level of parity to their enslavers,” Freeman said. “It could be land; it could be education without charge; or it could be a cash endowment.”
She added: “What the general population needs to understand is the significant advantage white people received from the free labor provided by enslaved people and the general financial gains received by white business society through the industry of slavery. Generational wealth was made on the backs of Black bodies. This is not Black history … this is American history.”
What is happening around the country
For all the talk about reparations nationwide, few places have approved it.
Snowden said the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois offers a blueprint for the city of Annapolis and the state of Maryland. Reparations there focus on housing based on the direct harm that Blacks experienced because of redlining and an inability to get home loans.
The $10 million in reparations to Black residents there was the first in the country. Black descendants of Evanston residents who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969 or suffered housing discrimination after 1969 are eligible for $25,000 in housing grants, which will come from donations and tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales.
“What’s unique about their program is that it is tailor-made for the individual jurisdiction,” Snowden said.
In California, the Legislative Black Caucus is prioritizing recommendations based on an 1,100-page plan to provide reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans or free African Americans who lived in the U.S. prior to 1900. Although an economist calculated that the harm incurred by Black Americans adds up to the equivalent of $1.2 million per person, a quantitative amount has not been set, according to Secretary of State Shirley N. Weber.
“You have a system of racism that is so embedded that even those who have prospered, they have suffered severe harm,” Weber said. “It will not be an easy task at all.”
Weber said several factors will affect the types of reparations as well as the amount. She predicts that the group will present legislation for consideration in next year’s legislative session. She also thinks something like the “Freedmen’s Bureau,” is needed.
Joshua Harris, vice president of the Baltimore NAACP, said his organization backs a variety of reparations, including financial compensation, educational investments, health care access, housing programs,, economic development investments, land and property ownership, and criminal justice reforms such as record expungement.
“The specific form of reparations, whom and the mechanisms for implementation can vary and should be developed in close consultation with the affected communities and experts in areas such as economics, law, and social justice,” Harris said.
As important as reparations are, Harris said, educating the public about “the horrors of slavery and its far-reaching consequences” should be prioritized.
While conservatives tend to oppose reparations, Maryland Republicans don’t seem eager to discuss the topic.
The Baltimore Banner contacted every Republican in the House of Delegates and state Senate, as well as Adam Wood, executive director for the Maryland Republican Party. None responded to a request for comment. Neither did former Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.
Who should receive reparations?
Another wrinkle in the debate involves who should qualify for reparations.
Under the one-drop rule that was used to classify race in the U.S. during the 20th century, any person who identifies as biracial or multiracial but has Black ancestry, even from past generations, is considered Black. However, some Black people believe that if a person does not identify or associate with the Black community, they are not Black and would not be entitled to reparations linked to Black ancestry.
And what about Blacks born outside the U.S.? Technically, their ancestors would not have been affected by slavery and discriminatory practices that took place in this country.
But Turner argued that foreign-born Black people who now live in the U.S. should be eligible for reparations “for as long as they have been here — because they still suffer from police brutality and discrimination, too.”
“I absolutely believe reparations for those, at the very least, who are direct descendants of those enslaved here in the state of Maryland, are needed,” she said. “There should be consideration for expansion of reparations to the Black community as a whole.”
Turner pointed to decades of discrimination as reasons why reparations are needed, from Jim Crow laws and redlining to terror campaigns and lynchings.
“I am not one of those who feels like it should just be the descendants of slaves,” Turner said. “It should go to Blacks who were harmed — dead or alive — and their descendants.”
For Turner, the decision to make a monthly trek to the nation’s capital is personal. Turning 40, he wanted to do something to honor his ancestors and raise awareness of their struggles.
“I felt spiritually inspired by God to do something,” he said. “I will continue to walk until God tells me to stop.”
He said he walks to The White House as a symbolic response to Union General Sherman’s 1865 promise.
“GPS says it takes 16, 17 hours,” he said. “I typically get there in 12 or 13. Of course it changes according to the weather. I have no favorite. There are no clothes made for this.”
The walks represent a continuation of his work in Tulsa, Oklahama, where he helped to lead efforts to raise awareness about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921.
“I get inspiration from generations that have gone on before under much more severe circumstances and still didn’t get justice,” said Turner, who plans to release a book about reparations in spring 2024.
Reparations align with organized religion, particularly among Christians, according to Turner.
“As a Christian, reparations are a theological term,” Turner said. “It’s a Judeo-Christian value. Those groups should definitely be in favor of it.”