Late last month, the California task force on reparations for slavery narrowly voted to limit restitution for those who could trace their ancestry to slavery in the United States.
At the March 29 meeting, genealogists discussed how African Americans could establish their lineage to American slaves, who numbered about 4 million during the Civil War. There were also about 400,000 free African Americans, according to the Burns Archive, and their descendants will also be eligible for reparations, the task force decided.
Though some speakers expressed concern about how it might be accomplished, Evelyn McDowell, president of the Sons and Daughters of the United States Middle Passage, a nonprofit that helps African Americans discover their ancestry and connections to slavery, told the panel that the process is doable, and she told KTLA “it’s a lot easier than people think.”
“We use birth certificates to connect to current generations,” she said. “We can use those kinds of documents, then once we run out of those documents, probably around early 1900s, we start using the censuses to connect to the next generation.”
Other documents, included bills of sale, wills and deeds, are also helpful, as are the 6,000 or so slave narratives that exist, she said.
“For our organization specifically, we want to know the details. We want to know where they were enslaved, what their experience was like,” she said.
In the March meeting, some critics of the plan to require proof of lineage said it was too onerous, with Committee member Cheryl Grills calling it “another win for white supremacy,” according to CalMatters.
McDowell acknowledged that the research can be a lot of work, and though immigration databases and DNA testing could help the process, they’re not currently part of the SDUSMP’s regular methods.
Despite the effort required by the research — and some complaints that forcing the descendants of the victims of slavery to prove that they’re eligible is burdening the wronged group — McDowell thinks it’s a valuable undertaking for anyone curious about their ancestors, and not just for the potential income from reparations.
McDowell said she’s traced her own lineage to “over 30 enslaved people, and I’m still working on it. I know there are more.”
“The only thing that matters is our connection to each other, how I make you feel and how you make me feel,” she said. “Our connections to our parents, our connections to our ancestors, those who come after us, that’s all that matters … Doing this work has helped me understand that if you don’t know who are unless you know who they were. That’s what all this work is about.”
Despite the debate over limiting reparations to the descendants of enslaved people, McDowell said she’s “thrilled” to see progress made on such an important issue.
“The United States wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for what we did those millions of people. I’m excited because now we’re finally, I hope, going to look at what happened and deal with it, and repair the people that were harmed by this history, and finally get some justice,” she said.
Grills, the task force member who disagreed with the lineage-based approach, also expressed hope in a meeting on Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
“We’ve never seemed to get this close to actually being acknowledged, being seen, being understood, being empathized with,” she told the AP. “This country has never done that.”
What would that mean to African Americans? Everything, McDowell believes.
America is a melting pot of the descendants of people who came from all over the world, as well as Native Americans. McDowell said she’s traced her family tree to Native Americans, Europeans and Africans, and learning her roots has only added to her feelings of pride and patriotism.
“I know that I am America, and I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t done this work,” she said.