“Think about all of the promise and the wealth that could have been passed from generation to generation to generation.”
In January 2021, Oklahoma State Representative Regina Goodwin, Chair of the Oklahoma Legislative Black Caucus, considered next steps in her fight for reparations for the Tulsa Massacre. From May 31 to June 1, 1921, the predominantly Black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma experienced a level of violence that “stands without parallel in America.” Perpetrators of the violence caused the death of an estimated 300 people and the destruction of Greenwood, a prosperous business district also known as Black Wall Street.
For Goodwin, these events held particular resonance: she is both the representative of Oklahoma’s District 73, which includes Greenwood, and a descendant of massacre survivors. Goodwin felt that the residents of Greenwood had lost much more than lives and property in 1921.
Initial efforts to redress the crimes of the massacre were unsuccessful. In 1997, the Oklahoma state legislature established the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. This commission recommended the payment of various forms of reparations and the creation of a memorial to the massacre’s victims. Building on these recommendations, Oklahoma state legislators passed the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act on June 1, 2001, exactly 80 years after the massacre. The act called for the building of a memorial, incentives for investment in Greenwood, and the creation of scholarships for low-income Tulsans. The act did not ensure funding for these initiatives and private sources were expected to be the primary contributors. The act included an acknowledgment of the moral responsibility, but not legal culpability, of Oklahoma’s government for the massacre. In the same year, the 118 known living survivors of the massacre received medals.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act did not include reparations. In February 2003, more than 200 plaintiffs, comprised of massacre survivors and their descendants, filed a lawsuit against the City of Tulsa, the Tulsa Police Department, and the State of Oklahoma. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma dismissed the suit on the basis of the statute of limitations, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined appeals. Private donors to the initiatives established in 2001 had a negative reaction to the lawsuit and reduced their donations.
Since September 12, 2018, Reverend R. A. Turner of Tulsa and supporters have stood outside of City Hall every Wednesday to call for reparations and repentance for the massacre. Human Rights Watch echoed this belief by releasing a report entitled “The Case for Reparations in Tulsa, Oklahoma.”
Proponents wondered if the combination of the centenary anniversary of the massacre in 2021 and the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, that gained momentum in the summer of 2020, might create greater support for reparations. Either way, Regina acknowledged the effort would take patience and perseverance.
Massacre survivors and their descendants filed a new lawsuit against the City of Tulsa on September 1, 2020. This lawsuit sought reparations for the “ongoing nuisance” of the massacre (much as Oklahoma argued in a successful case against Johnson & Johnson for its part in the opioid epidemic) and laid a claim on the profits Tulsa had earned using the massacre site for tourism.
These efforts mirrored a broader movement for reparations. In 1989, Congressman John Conyers introduced the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act (H.R. 40) and debates about its passage continued in 2020. H.R. 40 aimed to establish a commission to study slavery and racism’s effects in the U.S. and how best to address them, including through the payment of reparations to the descendants of enslaved people. The scope of these reparations, in terms of the length of harms to remedy as well as the number of recipients, was far greater than that associated with the Tulsa Massacre’s survivors and descendants.
The Tulsa Massacre, however, was an example of what broad reparations would seek to address. In testimony at a House hearing on H.R. 40 in 2019, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates referenced the Tulsa Massacre as an example of an unaddressed harm.
“The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship… this nation is both its credits and debits. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow.a Because the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.”
a “Sally Hemings” references an enslaved woman owned by Thomas Jefferson with whom he had a sexual relationship and, most historians conclude, six children. “D-Day” references a highly successful invasion of the French coastline by Allied troops during World War II. “Valley Forge” references the six-month period of time that George Washington and his troops spent training in the cold of winter, emerging ready to continue fighting the American Revolutionary War. “Fort Pillow” references a massacre of 300 mostly Black, Union soldiers that were killed, rather than treated as prisoners of war, by Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War.
“You cannot tell the story of Greenwood without talking about the oil that was on the land, and also understanding in terms of Oklahoma, the Indian territory. It was known as a place where Black folks could have some degree of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
From 1825 to 1907, the land of present-day Oklahoma was part of an area known as the Indian Territory populated by Native Americans. Many of these individuals arrived in the Indian Territory in the 1830s and 1840s as a result of the Trail of Tears, the forced resettlement of the indigenous “Five Tribes” (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) from their ancestral land in the American Southeast to the Indian Territory. Several of these indigenous communities enslaved Black people partly so that “Native Americans [could] illustrate their societal sophistication to white settlers.” By the start of the American Civil War in 1861, 14% of the Indian Territory’s population was enslaved Black individuals.
Near the conclusion of the Civil War, on January 16, 1865, Union General William T. Sherman issued a field order which reserved 400,000 acres of land in the South, to be allocated in 40-acre plots to freed persons or families, and provided them with an option to lease a mule. After the war, despite this order, many newly freed Blacks stayed in the Indian Territory, and freed persons encountered significant obstacles. President Andrew Johnson reversed General Sherman’s order in the fall of 1865 and gave the reserved land back to White planters. Black freed persons either had to sign a contract–and work the land for those who previously enslaved them–or leave. In the Indian Territory, some tribes continued to limit educational opportunities and societal participation for Blacks: they ran few, or no, freedmen schools, as schools were segregated, and they suppressed Black votes.
On April 22, 1889, the Indian Territory opened for general settlement. Many settlers, both Black and White, came to the Indian Territory and changed the racial makeup of the area, generating tense race relations. Black newspapers in Kansas, along with boosters in Southern cities, encouraged Blacks to migrate to the Indian Territory in the hopes of establishing autonomous Black communities. By the spring of 1891, Southern Blacks arrived in the Indian Territory on “almost every train.”
The Indian Territory, however, was not immune to racism and the effects of Jim Crow laws, which established segregation and upheld a dominant societal role for Whites: in 1892, a White mob ran Black residents out of the town of Lexington in the Indian Territory; in 1897, the Indian Territory passed legislation requiring all schools to be segregated; and, one month after Oklahoma became a state on November 16, 1907, the legislature passed Senate Bill One which formally codified segregation.
In 1897, oil exploded into the air 50 miles north of Tulsa and, in 1905, the Ida Glenn No. 1 well erupted 12 miles from Tulsa. This well, along with others nearby, produced around 2,000 barrels of oil a day and accelerated Tulsa’s development as a petroleum hub. Tulsa capitalized on oil by transforming itself into a railroad center and building the establishments necessary for a hospitality focused city. Tulsa’s population grew rapidly from 1,000 in 1898 to 72,000 residents in 1920. The Black population grew even more quickly, growing from 10.8% of Tulsa’s population in 1910 to 12.3% in 1920.
Although Black Tulsans could not work in the oil fields, the oil boom provided White Tulsans with greater income to pay for domestic workers, many of whom were Black. The wages paid to these workers in Tulsa were substantial and much more than they were in the South generally: maids received $20 to $25 ($259 to $324 in 2020 dollars) per week, and chauffeurs and gardeners were paid $15 to $20 ($194 to $259 in 2020 dollars) per week.
“Oklahoma was a very divided state. Black folks had to live amongst themselves because of segregation. They were forced to rely on each other, to have their own businesses. That was a productive period, and that is why Greenwood was what it was.”
Most of Tulsa’s burgeoning Black population lived in the Greenwood neighborhood in north Tulsa, a district created for the Black community by two businessmen, J. B. Stradford and O. W. Gurley. Beginning in 1899, Stradford and Gurley purchased land north of the city center, sold pieces to other Blacks, and zoned their land for housing, retail, and streets. A thriving Black business district emerged soon thereafter.
Since city laws forbade Blacks from shopping in areas other than Greenwood, Black-owned businesses flourished. Although Greenwood had no formal financial institutions, author and educator Booker T. Washington dubbed the area “the Negro Wall Street of America” while visiting in 1913. The area attracted educated and entrepreneurial people due to its opportunities for economic success and its sense of community.
Greenwood had high quality housing stock made up of middle-class homes. Black individuals in rural Oklahoma, by comparison, “lived in virtual peonage as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, tied to landlords by debt, intimidation, and courts with a very narrow interpretation of the 14th amendment.” Rather than laboring as sharecroppers and tenant farmers, many residents of Greenwood operated, and owned, businesses.
John and Loula Williams exemplified the success Greenwood residents could achieve. Arriving in Tulsa in the early 1900’s, the Williams worked for an ice cream company but ultimately became the owners and operators of the first Black-owned movie theater in Tulsa, the Dreamland Theater.
In 1921, there were at least two Black Tulsans with a net worth of $150,000 each ($2.2 million in 2020 dollars), two with a net worth of $100,000 ($1.5 million in 2020 dollars), three with a net worth of $50,000 ($739,431 in 2020 dollars), and four with a net worth of $25,000 ($369,715 in 2020 dollars). Greater educational accomplishment matched higher incomes, as Tulsa’s county had the second highest Black literacy rate in Oklahoma. Almost 80% of the county’s school-aged Black children attended school compared to a national average of 59.7%.
Black residents of Tulsa acquired enough income to attend professional schools at a greater rate. There were approximately 5.5 times more Black professionals in 1921 than in 1907 (33 versus 5). These professionals included physicians, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, lawyers, real estate agents, insurance agents, and jewelers.
The White-owned Tulsa World newspaper recognized Greenwood’s business success by reporting that “residents in the Negro section of the city have proven themselves no less enterprising than the white people.” Despite this, Tulsa’s White residents often viewed the neighborhood negatively, and some were jealous of Greenwood residents. Bill Williams, son of Dreamland Theatre owners John and Loula, elaborated: “white folks...figured the Negroes in Greenwood were getting too uppity, and if there was one thing a white couldn’t tolerate then, it was an uppity n*****.” It was common for newspapers to refer to the neighborhood as “Little Africa” or “N*****town,” and some White Tulsans characterized Greenwood residents as those who “drank booze, took dope, and ran around with guns.”
While Greenwood had considerable levels of Black wealth, many of its residents still lived in poverty. Some side streets in Greenwood consisted of “shanties and houses made from the wood of packing crates,” as well as “prostitution houses, speakeasies, and ‘choc’ joints.” b Greenwood had six paved blocks in 1920 and few residents had indoor plumbing.
b “Choc” is another name for Choctaw beer which was a “thick, milky-colored intoxicant made from Choctaw root, or Indian hemp.”
“You could either die inside your home…while your house was on fire, or you could run out in the street and be shot to death. Those were your options.”
Dick Rowland, a nineteen-year-old Black shoeshiner, worked at a White-owned and White-patronized shine parlor. This shine parlor was in a building without restrooms, so the owner of the parlor had his Black employees go to the nearby Drexel Building to use its “colored” restroom. On May 30, 1921, Rowland took the Drexel Building’s elevator to the top floor to use the restroom. After using the restroom, Rowland took the elevator down and apparently tripped while exiting and grabbed the arm of the White elevator operator, seventeen-year-old Sarah Page. Page screamed, which alerted a store clerk who called the police and reported the incident as an attempted sexual assault. Rowland maintained he did not attempt to harm Page.
The police arrested Rowland the next morning and jailed him at the police headquarters. In addition to a front-page story entitled “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator,” the Tulsa Tribune ran an inflammatory editorial on the afternoon of May 31, 1921, entitled “To Lynch Negro Tonight.” As news of the alleged assault spread through Tulsa, talk of a potential lynching began to spread. By the mid-afternoon, Police Commissioner James Adkison had received a call threatening lynching. The police moved Rowland to the county jail at the courthouse to allow for greater security. As Adkison and Tulsa Police Chief John Gustafson handed Rowland over to Tulsa County Sheriff W. M. McCullough, they urged that Rowland be moved out of town to defuse the situation. McCullough did not heed that advice.
Lynchings were “violent and public acts of torture that traumatized Black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials.” These acts “created a fearful environment where racial subordination and segregation was maintained with limited resistance for decades.” Jordan Steiker, a professor at the University of Texas Law School, has explained the historic role of lynching: “The practice of lynching constituted ‘a form of unofficial capital punishment’ that in its heyday was even more common than the official kind.” Many of these vigilante murders followed allegations of sexual assault by Black men of White women, as was the case between Rowland and Page. The fact that Oklahoma had the most racial terror lynchings of any non-Southern state amplified the concern about lynching in Tulsa.
Fearing a lynching, Greenwood residents organized. An armed group of 25 to 30 Black men, many of them World War I veterans, drove to the courthouse to assess the situation and offer their assistance to protect Rowland. The police declined their offer and told the group that Rowland would be protected. The armed group departed, but their arrival angered some Whites who saw it as an uprising. The White crowd expanded to almost 2,000, many of whom were armed, and grew increasingly disorderly. Three White men made their way into the courthouse, and McCullough ordered them out. He then sent more of his deputies to guard Rowland. A few hundred White residents tried and failed to obtain weapons from the National Guard Armory while others gathered weapons from their homes and cars. The unruly crowd further fueled lynching fears and resulted in the arrival of 75 Greenwood residents. The police, as well as both Black and White residents of Tulsa, unsuccessfully attempted to ease tensions. Some of the Whites at the courthouse started trying to take guns away from Black residents. In the process, a pistol fired and chaos ensued.
“I got caught right in the middle of that riot. Some white mobsters were holed up in the upper floor of the Ray Rhee Flour Mill on East Archer, and they were just gunning down black people, just picking them off like they were swatting flies.”
In a 10-page typed manuscript, Tulsa civil rights attorney Buck Colbert Franklin provided a vivid first-hand account of the attack. “I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building,” Colbert wrote. Franklin was the son of a former slave and father of historian John Hope Franklin. His manuscript, discovered in 2015, corroborated other eyewitness accounts of the attack. “Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes—now a dozen or more in number—still hummed and darted.”
“The sidewalks were literally covered with burning turpentine balls. I knew all too well where they came from, and I knew all too well why every burning building first caught from the top. ‘Where oh where is our splendid fire department with its half dozen stations?’ I asked myself. ‘Is the city in conspiracy with the mob?’”
There were 36 confirmed deaths, of which 26 were Blacks and 10 were Whites. Estimates of the true death toll were much higher. Red Cross reports evidenced harm to many Tulsans: within a day of the massacre, 184 Black and 48 White individuals were hospitalized in need of surgical care, and, within 72 hours of the massacre, 531 Tulsans received first-aid treatment. The Dreamland Theater, the offices of both Black newspapers, an elementary school, a church, and other buildings were destroyed. Estimated total property damage was $1.8 million ($26.1 million in 2020 dollars) and more than 1,000 Greenwood families were homeless.
“My father, H.A. Guess, had a law office on Greenwood Avenue, and my mother’s brother was the famous Mayo-Clinic-trained surgeon, Dr. A.C. Jackson, who was so brutally murdered by mobsters during the…riot. The fact that the riot destroyed my father’s office and led to the death of my uncle seemed very ironic to me. My relatives had come to Oklahoma to get away from racism, violence, and death in Tennessee.”
Despite evidence of the responsibility of White mob members, the special deputies, and police, the armed Blacks who went to the courthouse were the ones who faced legal prosecution for the devastation. An all-White grand jury investigation of the events resulted in 85 indictments, the majority of which were for Black Tulsans. The court never pursued most of these, including that of Dick Rowland as the government dropped charges against him in September of 1921 when Sarah Page failed to appear in court. A day after the massacre, Sheriff McCullough had disclosed that Page only told police her arm was grabbed. As Goodwin put it, “lies ended lives.” The grand jury indicted Police Chief John Gustafson, found him guilty of neglect, and removed him from his position, but Gustafson never faced criminal charges.
In the days following the massacre, promises of aid were forthcoming, and the city established a Public Welfare Board to rebuild Greenwood. In total, the Tulsa city government and county commissioner contributed $100,000 ($1.3 million in 2020 dollars) primarily for relief, in the form of temporary housing support and medical care, rather than reconstruction of the neighborhood. The city expected private donations to be a main component of the relief effort, but Tulsans were reluctant to give to the cause. Tulsa’s mayor at the time, T. D. Evans, created a Reconstruction Committee to take over the effort from the Public Welfare Board.
The Tulsa Chamber of Commerce formed the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange (The Exchange) to determine total property damage. The Exchange, whose membership included Ku Klux Klanc member Tate Brady, did more than calculate losses: it pushed for a relocation of the Black community and convinced the Reconstruction Committee to back the proposal.
c Founded in 1865, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), in its first incarnation, was a white-supremacist terrorist group that extended into almost every southern state in the aftermath of the American Civil War. After a period of decline, the Klan was revived in 1915 and became a more organized movement with a broader set of targets, including Jews, Catholics, and immigrants, and grew, by the mid-1920s, to between 1.5 and 4 million members.
The two groups argued that moving the Black community to a new location north of Tulsa would be superior to rebuilding in Greenwood based on three main factors: i) it was more economical to use Greenwood’s land for industrial purposes; ii) Tulsa could avoid incidents like the massacre if there were more space between where Blacks and Whites lived; and iii) living conditions for Blacks would be improved because the land north of the city had higher elevation, which allowed for improved sanitation. Merritt J. Glass, president of the Tulsa Real Estate Exchange, stated, “the two races being divided by an industrial section will draw more distinctive lines between them and thereby eliminate the intermingling of the lower elements of the two races.” It was also argued that there were gains to be made by Greenwood residents if they sold their land, as it was worth more than three times as much if designated for industrial use. Greenwood residents were not interested in the relocation and continued to push for a rebuilding of their neighborhood.
“We had a lovely home, filled with beautiful furniture, including a grand piano. All our clothes and personal belongings—just everything—were burned up during the riot.”
A week after the massacre, Black Tulsans began attempting to obtain compensation for their property losses. Within two months, victims filed 1,400 law suits against the city, which amounted to claims of more than $4 million ($58.5 million in 2020 dollars). Black Tulsans struggled to receive reimbursement. Representative Goodwin’s family filed a loss claim against the City of Tulsa as well as other entities involved in the massacre, including the ex-mayor T. D. Evans.
The City of Tulsa entered a motion to quash Mrs. Goodwin's suit on July 14, 1923, and the District Court of Tulsa County dismissed the case. Representative Goodwin’s family never received compensation for their losses. The city only fulfilled one loss claim: J. W. McGee, a White man, obtained $3,994 ($59,329 in 2020 dollars) for firearms stolen from his store. Insurance companies avoided paying claims by citing a riot clause, which negated their obligation to pay if there was a riot.
Economists have determined that the massacre led to several detrimental economic effects for Black Tulsans, aside from the direct destruction of wealth: the share of Black Tulsans owning a home declined by more than 17%; the literacy rate for Black Tulsans aged 12 to 22 decreased by almost 3%; and average income for Black Tulsans fell by 7.3%. Greenwood did revive by the 1930s and 1940s. There were hundreds of businesses and a local business directory referred to Greenwood during this period as “unquestionably the greatest assembly of Negro shops and stores to be found anywhere in America.” In the 1950s, urban renewal projects thwarted rebuilding efforts by putting a freeway through Greenwood. The neighborhood never recovered to its prior size or magnitude.
“What we could have been is what we were, and that was destroyed.”
The massacre received less attention until the mid 1990s. After seeing a successful case for reparations in Rosewood, Florida in 1994, Don Ross, an Oklahoma state legislator from Greenwood, submitted a bill to the state’s legislature in 1997 which called for $6 million ($10.5 million in 2020 dollars) in payments to the massacre’s survivors and their descendants, as well as to programs for children in North Tulsa. The bill did not pass, but it led to the establishment of a fact-finding commission whose final report endorsed reparations.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act, which passed on June 1, 2001, included components of the report’s recommendations. This act contained provisions for compensatory measures and an admission of the city’s moral responsibility, but there were no direct reparations to massacre survivors or their descendants. The act stipulated the building of a memorial, the establishment of incentives for investing in Greenwood, and scholarships for low-income Tulsans. The act did not allocate money, and did not guarantee the legislature would fund the initiatives in the future. The city further recognized the massacre that year by giving each of the 118 known living survivors a medal.
In February 2003, the fight for reparations continued when more than 200 massacre survivors and descendants filed a lawsuit—Alexander, et al. v. Oklahoma—against the State of Oklahoma, the City of Tulsa, and the Tulsa Police Department. The case did not advance based on the statute of limitations, and the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to hear an appeal. On September 1, 2020, a survivor and descendants of other survivors filed a new case seeking reparations against the City of Tulsa.
Tulsa’s leadership continued to oppose direct reparations: Tulsa’s mayor in 2020, G. T. Bynum, has expressed his belief that “cash payments…divide the community on something that [it] really need[s] to be united around.” In the background, Tulsans followed investigations of potential mass grave locations, a process that began in 2018. As of July 2020, excavations had not revealed mass graves.
Proponents of reparations advocated for a more substantial government response. They believed that the government of Tulsa had not lived up to its obligations under international human rights law to “provide effective remedies for violations of human rights.” Representative Goodwin believed the call for reparations should be answered: “What we could have been is what we were, and that was destroyed.”
In an event similar to the Tulsa Massacre, a White mob descended on and destroyed the majority Black town of Rosewood, Florida in 1923. Rosewood was a successful community with a Black population of approximately 350. On January 1, 1923, a White woman in the nearby town of Sumner alleged that a Black man had assaulted her. Over the following days, a 250-person White mob burned down many of Rosewood’s buildings and either killed or scared away its residents. The violence resulted in the confirmed deaths of 6 Blacks and 2 Whites, but witnesses claimed greater numbers died. In terms of property damage, Rosewood’s entire Black neighborhood burned to the ground. The Black community never returned, and the White perpetrators never faced legal ramifications.
In the early 1990’s, Arnett Doctor, a descendant of a Rosewood survivor, and Michael O’McCarthy, a Hollywood deal maker and activist, spearheaded the fight for reparations. They garnered sizable support for a claims bill by focusing on the dispossession that Rosewood’s residents experienced. This bill did not initially pass, but it led to the establishment of a state-funded study commission. Following the commission’s work, and in part thanks to pressure from the Florida legislature’s Black caucus, the governor signed the Rosewood Compensation Act into law on May 5, 1994. The total claim was $2.1 million ($3.7 million in 2020 dollars), with $150,000 ($264,323 in 2020 dollars) going to each of the eleven living survivors, $500,000 ($881,077 in 2020 dollars) was used to establish a property compensation fund, and the rest was used to provide state university scholarships for the descendants of Rosewood’s residents.
Martha Barnett, a lawyer who helped advance the cause through the Florida legislature, explained the significance of these payments: “The thing that mattered most to [survivors] was that the state of Florida said, ‘We had an obligation to you as our citizens, we failed to live up to it then, we are going to live up to it today, and we are sorry.’”
The Nazis considered several groups to be “Lebensunwertes Leben,” or “life unworthy of life.” These groups included Jews, the Roma and Sinti, those with mental or physical disabilities, and gay individuals. The Nazis targeted Jews in particular during the Holocaust: they forced Jews to live in overcrowded ghettos; killed 6 million European Jews, with many spending their final days in concentration or extermination camps; and looted or destroyed the property of roughly 9 million Jews. The European Jewish community experienced monetary losses estimated to range from $319.4 to $439.2 billion in 2020 dollars. These losses stemmed from taxes levied solely for being Jewish, sums paid to escape areas under Nazi rule, stolen property, lost income, and unpaid wages. Studies have estimated that a maximum of 20% of the stolen property was returned. Additionally, Nazis took more than 14 million Jews and others to forced labor camps where they were held captive and made to work during the war.
In 1952, the West German government issued a formal apology for Nazi crimes and agreed to make payments to Israel as well as reparations to Holocaust survivors. These payments, referred to as “Wiedergutmachung” or “to make good again,” began as a negotiation between West Germany, eager to return to the community of “civilized nations,” and the Israeli state, established in 1948. Skepticism arose about the negotiations because payments could be considered “blood money,” but Israeli and West German politicians believed in the pragmatism of the arrangement. The initial payments totaled around $824 million ($8 billion in 2020 dollars), with the majority of it in the form of West German-financed oil and raw material to build infrastructure, in order to compensate the government of Israel for resettling 500,000 Jewish refugees. West Germany gave the remaining $110 million ($1.1 billion in 2020 dollars) to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany to support Jewish individuals outside Israel.
This 1952 agreement also set up lifelong pensions for 170,000 Holocaust survivors and their heirs. At its peak, this program enrolled more than 275,000 pensioners. As of 2019, the German government had paid more than $80 billion in pension and social welfare payments. Over time, the Claims Conference worked to expand the pool of claimants: it reduced the length of time survivors had to have spent in the ghettos and made survivors from previously Soviet-bloc countries eligible for a one-time payment. In 2019, it extended compensation payments to surviving spouses of Holocaust victims, expanding qualified claimants by 30,000 people.
Germany continued to hold meetings of the Claims Conference to evaluate its reparations program. Julius Berman, chairman of the Claims Conference, stated, “it has never been about the money…it was always about recognition.” Roman Kent, a survivor of Auschwitz and a participant in these meetings, said, “We survivors and the Germans of today are together united…both of us do not want our past to be our children’s futures.” On a 2019 visit to the Auschwitz extermination camp, German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced the need to keep the memory alive: “Remembering the crimes…is a responsibility which never ends. It belongs inseparably to our country.”
The U.S. Government placed more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. Executive Order 9066, signed ten weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, gave the Secretary of War and military commanders the authority to exclude people “from designated areas in order to secure national defense objectives against sabotage, espionage and fifth column activity.” Suspicions against Japanese-Americans ran high following the Pearl Harbor attack, despite no evidence indicating involvement in treasonous activities. The order led to the evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast, including 1,000 disabled persons, 2,000 elderly, and 17,000 children under 10 years of age. Military police ran “relocation centers” in remote parts of the Western U.S. and detained the evacuated persons there. Due to this internment, Japanese-Americans lost income, and their property was vulnerable to both theft and damage. Estimates of their lost income ranged from $1.5 to $2.4 billion in 2020 dollars and that of their property losses ranged from $597 million to $3 billion in 2020 dollars.
Japanese-Americans were divided on the question of reparations: activists of the younger generation sought redress for internment, but survivors of the older generation purported to uphold traditional values and considered potential reparations as “handout[s].” In 1970, the Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL), an Asian American civil rights organization, endorsed a resolution that urged Congress to provide payments to internment victims. In 1979, JACL’s Redress Committee, led by internment victim John Tateishi, lobbied for a federal commission to investigate Japanese-American internment. President Jimmy Carter and Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians that called for a formal apology from the U.S. Government and recommended payment of $20,000 ($51,872 in 2020 dollars) to all living internment victims.
On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act and carried out the Commission’s requests for an apology and reparations. Between 1988 and February 1999, when reparation payments ceased, approximately 82,250 internment victims received $20,000 each, amounting to a total payment of more than $1.6 billion ($2.5 billion in 2020 dollars).
To unite Japanese-Americans behind the cause for reparations, in spite of differing generational views on their significance, proponents placed emphasis on reparations not being for their recipients. Tateishi explained this viewpoint: “This is not about us. This is an issue that is about the Constitution and the future [of this country]. We were determined to pass [the Civil Liberties Act] as a way of having Americans recognize the injustice of what happened to us—not for our sake, but in order to make sure this never happened again.”
From 1948 until 1994, South Africa mandated, and forcibly carried out, segregation through the policies of apartheid. Under apartheid, the government made non-White South Africans leave their homes and live in areas separate from White South Africans. This led to the removal and relocation of 3.5 million Black South Africans, generally to crowded settlements with infertile land. These policies resulted in a denial of the rights of these individuals, with many unable to vote or to access “appropriate education, adequate housing, accessible health care [or] proper sanitation.” Those who opposed apartheid faced banishment, imprisonment, torture, and death.
Amidst domestic resistance, international scrutiny, and economic retaliation, the South African government eventually dismantled the apartheid system and held a multi-racial democratic election in 1994. The transition to democracy was successful, but the process of addressing apartheid’s legacy via reparations was not as smooth. The South African government created the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995 to “enable South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.” The TRC produced three committees, one being the Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee (RRC) which had the responsibility of “restor[ing] victims’ dignity” and generating proposals to assist with rehabilitation. The RRC made a recommendation for reparations in 1998 and endorsed paying R17,000 to R23,000 ($5,400-$7,300 in 2020 USD) per year for six years to each victim. In total, this would have amounted to approximately R2.9 billion ($925.7 million in 2020 USD).
Debates about who was a victim slowed down the process. Ultimately, the government decided victims would be only the roughly 19,000 who had testified before the TRC. Instead of following the RRC’s recommendations, however, each of the victims received a one-time payment of R30,000 ($5,300 in 2020 USD) in 2003. This resulted in the payment of R571.5 million ($101.7 million in 2020 USD), one fifth of the RRC’s recommended total.
“This horde of evil men swept down on the colored section of Tulsa, reducing the accumulation of years of toil and sacrifice to piles of brick, ashes, and twisted iron. If something is not done to bring about justice…this spirit of destruction, like that of mob violence when it is kindled, has no measure or bounds.”
Despite successful efforts for reparations by other groups, the survivors of the Tulsa Massacre and their descendants had not succeeded in their call for reparations leading up to the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. Goodwin noted that, “We’ve not had…any real justice as it comes to how these souls would be…somehow cared for.”
Although the events in Rosewood paralleled those in Tulsa, their outcomes differed. Scholars pointed to different levels of political power in Oklahoma and Florida, as well as the distinctive framing of the cases in Tulsa and Rosewood, to explain the differential outcomes with regard to reparations. The case in Rosewood presented reparations as a response to a property issue, while the case in Tulsa posed them as a way to address a racial justice issue. White Tulsans have reacted negatively to the framing in Tulsa and made a coalition of support unlikely.
By arguing for reparations on the basis of racial justice, efforts in Tulsa have become intertwined with those for direct reparations for slavery and anti-Black racism in the U.S. generally. Attempts to obtain these reparations have been ongoing since the Civil War and, like those in Tulsa, have not succeeded.
Advocates for reparations have stressed the need to address slavery, as material disparities have continued to persist between Blacks and other racial groups in the U.S. Advocates believe that these disparities have endured due to the government’s racist policies and failure to deal with slavery’s legacy. For example, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) in 1934 which aimed to make home ownership more attainable by insuring private mortgages. From the 1930’s to 1960’s, the FHA created maps that rated areas based on their credit-worthiness. Black neighborhoods were colored red, and the FHA typically deemed loans for homes in these neighborhoods ineligible for FHA insurance. This process, also known as redlining, resulted in 98% of FHA-insured loans from 1934 to 1962 going to White Americans. Black Americans were almost entirely excluded from the FHA program which has been instrumental in “building the modern (White) middle class” through home ownership.
The government’s failure to control racial violence also impeded economic progress for Blacks, according to reparations’ proponents. Black patenting activity, for example, decreased by more than 15% between 1882 and 1940 due to race riots and lynchings that were largely unchecked by law enforcement. This decrease in innovative activity contributed to the racial wealth gap. In 2009, the median wealth of Black households was 5% of the median wealth of White households. Black households with children in 2016 held one cent of wealth for every dollar of wealth held by White households with children. Income inequality persisted as well: in 1950, the median household income for Black Americans was approximately half that of White Americans, and, in 2016, the ratio was the same.
“Wealth, not income, is the means to security in America. But wealth is not something people create solely by themselves; it is accumulated across generations. Wealth begets wealth, and White Americans have had centuries of government assistance to accumulate wealth, while the government has for the vast history of this country worked against Black Americans doing the same.”
In a 2018 study about closing the racial wealth gap, William Darity Jr. et al. argued that this gap cannot be closed without some national policy, such as reparations: “Blacks cannot close the racial wealth gap by changing their individual behavior—i.e. by assuming more ‘personal responsibility’ or acquiring the portfolio management insights associated with ‘financial literacy’—if the structural sources of racial inequality remain unchanged. There are no actions that black Americans can take unilaterally that will have much of an effect on reducing the racial wealth gap. For the gap to be closed, America must undergo a vast social transformation produced by the adoption of bold national policies, policies that will forge a way forward by addressing, finally, the long-standing consequences of slavery, the Jim Crow years that followed, and ongoing racism and discrimination that exist in our society today…Addressing racial wealth inequality will require a major redistributive effort or another major public policy intervention to build black American wealth.”
In From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, Darity and A. Kirsten Mullen contended that reparations payments made solely through deficit spending could pay for themselves over time by stimulating the overall economy. Relatedly, a 2020 study by Citigroup found that if gaps between Black and White Americans in wages, education, housing, and investment were closed in 2020, U.S. GDP growth per year would increase by approximately 0.35 percentage points each year for the following five years.
Opponents of reparations argued that it would be inappropriate to place a value on lost lives, stolen liberty, and freedom from bodily harm. Instead, they called for more symbolic ways to address atrocities, such as apologies. Opponents of reparations also considered the passage of time determinative. Jeremy Waldron, a philosopher, explained a theory of “supersession” whereby “some rights are capable of ‘fading’ in their moral importance by virtue of the passage of time.” Waldron argued that, “after several generations have passed, certain wrongs are simply not worth correcting” and might also be too difficult to correct when evidence and memory have diminished. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed this: “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea.” Coleman Hughes, a columnist for Quillette, extended this idea: “I was born three decades after Jim Crow ended into a privileged household in the suburbs. I attend an Ivy League school. Yet I’m also descended from slaves who worked on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. So, reparations for slavery would allocate federal resources to me but not to an American with the wrong ancestry—even if that person is living paycheck to paycheck and working multiple jobs to support a family. You might call that justice. I call it justice for the dead at the price of justice for the living.”
Martha Minow, a legal scholar, expressed that there were “no tidy endings following mass atrocity.” Despite this, she advocated for ensuring that atrocities be addressed: “It would be wrong…to do nothing. Dwelling in the frozen space of inability and incapacity is unacceptable, unresponsive to victims, unavailing to the waiting future.” Minow also emphasized that any action taken could not erase or fully mend the impact of harms.
“Reparations, restitution, and apologies present distinct promises and problems as responses to mass atrocity. Each deserves consideration; each belongs in the lexicon of potential responses to collective violence. Yet nothing should imply that money payments, returned property, restored religious sites, or apologies seal the wounds, make victims whole, or clean the slate. The aspiration of repair, in each instance, will be defeated by any hint or hope that then it will be as if the violations never occurred. For that very suggestion defeats the required acknowledgement of the enormity of what was done.”
On September 30, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill No. 3121, “Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans,” a bill analogous to H.R. 40 at the state level. Goodwin hoped this development would have a positive impact on her efforts. She stressed, however, that she would continue advocating regardless.
Professor Mihir A. Desai, Independent Researcher Suzanne Antoniou, and Research Associate Leanne Fan prepared this case in collaboration with Multimedia Director Ruth Page and the HBS Technology Products Group. It was reviewed and approved before publication by Regina Goodwin. Funding for the development of this case was provided by Harvard Business School. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management.
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