Shelby County, Tenn., is where Memphis is located, and that is the city Tyre Nichols lived in until he lost his life at the hands and feet) of four Memphis police officers.
NBC News reports that the county commission has voted to spend $5 million to study whether reparations should be paid to - the wording is important - "descendants of enslaved people."
Officials in Tennessee’s largest county, which includes Memphis, voted Wednesday to study reparations for descendants of enslaved people, adding to a growing list of local and state governments that are considering or are launching similar programs.
Similar proposals are being considered in many places across the country. I have no doubt that the framers of the proposal, and of the possible mandate, use "descendants of enslaved people" to mean black Americans today who are descended from slaves in the United States prior to ratification of the 13th Amendment.
But they had better be careful in their wording. There are enormous problems with such a classification. As an illustration, consider this headline in yesterday's Daily Mail: "Black Panther communist Angela Davis - who teaches that U.S. was built by racist colonizers - faces calls to pay reparations after genealogy show reveals her white puritan ancestor arrived in America on the Mayflower."
Angela Davis, 79, was flabbergasted to discover both sides of her family were white, and that her mom's ancestors were slave owners, on PBS show Finding Your Roots.
Stephen Darden, Davis's fourth great grandfather, moved to Georgia after the Revolutionary War and records indicate he owned four slaves. Hence, Angela Davis is descended from both slaves and slaveowners.
So, should she contribute to the cost of reparations, or should she receive them?
If the statute is written to pay "descendants of enslaved people," will it also specify whether applicants will have to show proof they are so descended? And if so, will an "obviously" white man who can prove it be entitled to reparations? Which leads to the question: what is the nature of such proof, if proof will be required?
The simplest of course would be tracing ancestry through birth records - except that birth records for slaves can be quite difficult to obtain. Consider the opening of a US National Archives document entitled, "Federal Records that Help Identify Former Enslaved People and Slave Holders," by Claire Kluskens:
Researching African American ancestors who lived before the American Civil War (1861–1865) poses unique challenges. Enslaved individuals rarely had surnames and created few records themselves. Successful research usually requires positively identifying the slave holder(s) who may have created records that mentioned slaves. In addition, Southern states lost records due to the Civil War and other courthouse fires, and often didn’t begin recording births, marriages, or deaths until after 1900. Even African Americans whose ancestors were free before 1865 may find research challenging if their ancestors moved frequently, worked for others, and owned no land.
Back to the Davis problem, because it is extremely unlikely that there are no other or only a few such persons in her situation. Considering only Mayflower descendance, there are as many as 30 million descendants today of Mayflower settlers. (I am one.) Probably a high percentage of the 30 million have both African and European history, especially those who live in the east and the southeast. Then add the number of Africans who were brought here after 1620 to the number of Euros who came here, and the odds are sky high that anyone whose American ancestry on either parent's side reaches back to 1800 or so has dual-race ancestry.
Years ago, I read a Census Bureau report that said that Southerners whose ancestors on one side have lived in the South since 1800 have a 90 percent chance of having both black and white ancestry. I have not been able to find that report, but Forbes reported in 2021 that 33.8 million Americans identify themselves as descendants of two or more races. That is one in 10 of all Americans.
My own Mayflower ancestry is on my paternal grandmother's side from Thomas Matthew Rogers, who sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 and signed the Mayflower Compact. My paternal grandfather's (and hence my) descendance is from one Jakob Sensing, who immigrated to North Carolina from Germany in the 1730s. Yes, Sensing is a German name, and I have corresponded with Sensings in Germany, though I never met one while I lived there was 1983-1986.
Despite the Census Bureau's report, it is highly unlikely that I am descended from American slaves because my grandmother's family lived in the North since the Mayflower, moving to Tennessee only after the Civil War. And no Sensings ever owned a slave.
But I specify American slaves because my brother had a DNA analysis done which showed he (and hence I) have a small percentage of Brazilian ancestry. That almost certainly indicates non-Euro ancestry for me. Brazil was the number one slave state in the entire New World until 1888, when it was outlawed there. In fact, of the 12 million Africans brought to the New World to enslavement, almost half went to Brazil! The Portuguese also enslaved indigenous people. (And the various indigenous tribes were all enslaving one another for centuries before the first Euro set foot there.)
Angela Davis has to cope not only with the fact that she has deep-rooted white ancestors, but also that at least one of them was a slaveowner. Maybe this should compel her - and the rest of us - to reconsider what obligations, if any, we owe to one another based on what our ancestors did. Because no one's ancestors are innocent of sins against others, and no one's ancestors are free of being sinned against.
So again: what is the standard for reparations in Memphis? Admittedly, they have not worked that out. But if, for discussion, I lived there and the DNA test showed not Brazilian ancestry but African, could I receive payment? Why? For that matter, why not?
Also, by specifying reparations only for "descendants of enslaved people," Memphis is automatically excluding black people whose ancestors moved here after the Civil War. Over the many decades after the war, though immigration of blacks (and Asians) to America was highly regulated, the number of immigrants from Africa was quite substantial and is continuing. In fact, "African immigration is now driving the growth of the Black population in New York City."
It would appear, then, that Shelby County's commissioners want to study reparations to be paid to the county's black residents - but not all of them, just some. (And also paid to apparently lily-white people who happen to be descendants of just one enslaved person.) They might want to consider that a poll conducted by Black Voices some years ago found that 75 percent of black Americans favor reparations, but more than half said that reparations would negatively affect race relations because payment would cause resentment by whites and other minorities - and now in Memphis at least, resentment by other black residents. I don't think they have thought this through very well.