Juneteenth: The Charge of the American Descendants of Freedmen

I recently attended a Reparations Rally in Atlanta, GA hosted by the United Sons and Daughters of Freedmen https://www.usadof.org/ President and host of the Be the Power podcast Nyhiem Way El. The President (Marlon Watson) and Vice President (Arthur Ward) http://www.freedmenabsolute.com of our political advocacy group Freedmen Descendants of Chicago, representatives of other Freedmen political advocacy organizations, local elected officials, activists, and US Senate candidate Tamara Johnson Shealy were invited to speak. It was a beautiful event filled with passionate reparationists speaking with clarity and specificity on why redress and repair is owed to the Descendants of US Chattel Slavery. We answered a call to gather and demand reparations policy from the Federal Government on the eve of Juneteenth, now a federal holiday. Good vibes were felt by all who attended but it did raise a question for me. Where do we go from here? 

Reparations is a hot political topic thanks to adement reparationists that pushed for redress and repair for the atrocities of Slavery, Jim Crow, land theft, lynchings, red lining, convict leasing, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and the like. HR 40, the bill to create a commission to study reparations, has left the House Judiciary subcommittee. This is the most movement this bill has experienced since it was first introduced by the late Rep. John Conyers in 1989. He introduced this bill at the opening session of Congress every year until he retired in 2017.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of TX took over as sponsor of HR40 and oversaw two (June 19, 2019 and February 17, 2021) Congressional hearings where supporters and dissenters of reparations testified. It was extremely telling that the non congressional members against reparations that offered testimony were often themselves Descendants of US slaves. I suppose one should not be shocked by such a phenomenon since most Slavery insurrections were thwarted by other enslaved people to gain the favor and protection of their masters. 

Since before America became the United States, there have been activists who organized to dismantle oppressive institutions against Black people. During Slavery, these specific people were called Abolitionists. Once Slavery 1.0 was abolished by the 13th amendment in 1865, there were activists like Callie House that organized around the effort to achieve  reparations for the formally enslaved. Others since have continued to work for reparations to become reality in some shape, way, or form for 156 years. 

Revisiting my previously posed question, Dr. King attempted to answer in his last book before his death “Where do we go from Here? From Chaos to Community”. The last chapter laid out his idea of massive capital infused in Black American communities and people. Towards the final years of his life, Dr. King was much more vocal concerning Black positionality and the government being the culpable party to foot the bill in making the Negro whole. It is often said by some historians and lecturers that his more radical language led to his eventual demise. 

During the rally, a point was raised by Marlon Watson during his address. He stated that the effort of reparations has not been achieved in part because previous advocates have not come to the government with the right language. HR40 uses the language “Enslaved Africans in America”. I could argue using this language is problematic because there are others in America that could rest under that description yet they are not of those from US Chattel Slavery. My parent from the Caribbean can claim descendant of enslaved Africans in America but my parent is not a descendant of US Chattel Slavery. This claim is not specific to every Descendant of the Enslaved in America. It is specific to those who’ve descended from the Freedmen. 

When nearly 4 million people who were enslaved in the United States in 1865 were emancipated, they were given the specific designation of “Freedmen”. There were then federal institutions created specifically for them called the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Freedmen’s Bank. Unfortunately, both institutions folded. In the case of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the government abandoned its efforts to provide long-term protection for blacks or ensure any real measure of racial equality. The Freedmen’s Bureau was disbanded by Jan 28, 1872 by the Secretary of War only 7 years after its inception due to pressure from White Southern Congress members who no longer wanted to use federal funding to provide things like food, housing, and education for the emancipated.

The Freedmen’s bank folded in 1874 due gross mismanagement and fraud. 57 million dollars (approximately 1.3 billion dollars in today’s currency) was deposited by the Freedmen while the bank was in operation. The bank’s headquarters moved from New York to Washington DC in 1867 and a group of local bankers, politicians and businessmen took control. At the urging of the new trustees, Congress amended the bank’s charter and the trustees began to invest in real estate projects and railroads. They made risky loans to friends, some with no collateral. Some of the trustees were in charge of other banks, as well, and when they made bad loans at those banks, they transferred the bad loans to the Freedmen’s Bank. Frederick Douglas took over the bank and attempted to save it by depositing approximately 15k of his money but was unable. He would later describe the bank had become “the black man’s cow but the white man’s milk.” 

We that are the Descendants of the formerly enslaved,  the Freedmen, have now inherited the burden of all the centuries of systematic depression and oppression wrought on our communities. Our ancestors were purchased and made to build a country for nearly 250 years but were abandoned by the very nation that used them to build its wealth. The small effort during reconstruction was destroyed by the same oppressors and met with Black Codes, Jim Crow, and the Klu Klux Klan. Even after Black people managed to aquire land and set up townships, they were met various acts of domestic terrorism and destroyed. Tulsa was not the only massacre that took place. According to Dr. William Darity, Duke University professor and co-author of “From Here to Equality ”, it is estimated there were upwards of 100 massacres that took place between the end of the Civil War and the 1940’s .

So where do we go from here? Being privy to all the history of what enslaved people and their Descendants endured, what is our next course of action? Are we just to twiddle our thumbs and pontificate on how bad things were and are? Are we satisfied with an additional day off June 19th and organize cookouts? Are we to only regulate our political advocacy to voting once every 4 years when herded to the polls to choose a president, or we to do something more? 

We have been passed the torch to continue to fight for justice. Even though freedom has been paid for, it still has not been achieved.  If we who are 13% of the population yet only hold less than 2% of the wealth our ancestors are responsible for creating, we are not free. If we are of the population that is disproportionately stopped and killed by the police and vigilantes juxtaposed to our white neighbors, we are not free. If we are 40% of the homeless individuals and 52% of the homeless families in the country our ancestors built and fought for in every American war, we are not free.

The American Descendants of Freedmen have a charge. The charge is to not accept anything less than what is owed to us through the toil of our ancestors. Juneteenth being made into a federal holiday is good but it is NOT reparations.  If anything, as one of speakers at the Reparations Rally Leader and Reparations Activist Ty Harper put it, it’s an admission of guilt. America is guilty of the harm it has inflicted on its first citizens, guilty of failing to protect its first citizens, and is responsible for repairing all the damage rendered. 

Freedmen Descendants should use Juneteeth as a day of commemorating our ancestors and to politically activate. Freedmen should be engaged in their localities all the way to holding their Federal representatives in Congress accountable. We should be speaking in one voice that we tire of symbolism and demand policies that advantage us. We DEMAND reparations. Nothing less is acceptable. America must acknowledge they’re guilty, repair its people, and bring about closure to a centuries old debt. 

Reparations NOW!

Cynthia McDonald Social Worker and Reparationist

Published by Cynthia McDonald

Hi There! I am a Social Worker certified in Community Health. I currently write a blog concerning the social determinants of health that primarily affect Black Americans that are descended from American chattel slavery,

2 thoughts on “Juneteenth: The Charge of the American Descendants of Freedmen

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