Self-Determination and Reparations

Article 4.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.

Article 8.

Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.

Article 13.

Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

Everyone Has the Right To... | Vol. 16, No. 1 | Spring 2009 | Credits

Allensworth Freedom Colony

An Experiment in African American Self-Determination
By Mickey Ellinger
Photos by Scott Braley

A century ago, in a dusty corner of Tulare County, California, black visionaries planned and developed a town governed by its black residents. The settlers’ goal was utopian in the highest sense: to show the rest of the United States what African Americans could do in a secure self-governing community built by their own efforts without interference, harassment, or persecution. Their bold experiment attracted U.S. Army soldiers and veterans, small business owners, skilled artisans, professionals, and farmers from all over the United States. Residents named the town Allensworth to honor the colony’s founder and chief promoter, Colonel Allen Allensworth, whose life journey from slavery to a high rank in the U.S. Army epitomized the capacities and dreams of African Americans. 

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The town ran its own school that taught world history and fostered black pride, and was praised by the state superintendent of schools as the best school in the San Joaquin Valley. Residents practiced a deeply held but inclusive Christianity. They established institutions of self-government and participated in local government and civic life. They farmed and founded small businesses. The town’s fortunes were followed closely in the national black press. And even though many residents worked on neighboring white-owned ranches, they were committed to economic self-reliance for themselves, their families, and the Allensworth community.

Allensworth, like dozens, possibly hundreds of African  American towns in the South and Midwest, was a conscious effort to pursue the dream of freedom in an unrelentingly repressive society. Slavery had been abolished for 40 years, but the federal government abandoned Reconstruction in 1877, pulling out United States troops. Segregation was upheld by the United States Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision in 1895. State legislatures effectively disenfranchised black voters in the South, and the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black people, especially black landowners. Between 1882 and 1908, when Allensworth was founded, 3,347 people were lynched in the United States, according to the Tuskeegee Institute. The vast majority were black men. Some mostly white towns went so far as to expel their black residents completely. In 1908, while Colonel Allensworth and his partners were buying land, a white mob in Springfield, Illinois, hometown of Abraham Lincoln, burned dozens of buildings in the African American community, lynched two men, and drove most of the 2,500 black citizens into the night.

Still, people were determined to find ways to make the most of their new-found freedom. Crusading journalists like Ida B. Wells exposed the crimes of lynching, and Negro political leaders proposed strategies for progress. In the late 1870s and beyond, tens of thousands of people founded self-governing African American communities, some in the South, more in the Midwest and the Oklahoma Territory. Between 1879 and 1881 alone, 60,000 people left the South. Historians estimate that as many as 100,000 people migrated between 1879 and 1910. Cartoonist and historian Morris Turner has identified more than 200 African American towns and settlements, most founded by people hungry for land and seeking a haven from white violence.

Two currents of thought guided the struggle for freedom. In the growing urban African American communities, the struggle focused on gaining equal civil rights, such as the right to testify against white people, to receive a public education in integrated schools, and to vote. W.E.B. Dubois and his followers articulated this strategy and embodied it in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909.

Booker T. Washington was the chief spokesman for the emphasis on self-reliant economic development. Washington was criticized for not directly opposing segregation, but his ideas resonated with black businessmen and farmers all over the country. African American towns were laboratories for Washington’s strategy, and while Allensworth residents and practices supported both currents of liberation thought, Colonel Allensworth and other town founders saw themselves as followers of Washington.

Early residents had warm memories of life in Allensworth. Elizabeth Payne Magee, a daughter of town founder William Payne and the first teacher at the Allensworth school, told an interviewer, “One of the outstanding things I remember about Allensworth was the library. It was the best equipped small library that I have ever seen, and I spent many happy hours in there, reading and taking books out. And all of us read a great deal. There were no illiterate children in that area. Everybody read and enjoyed reading and studying, and we all sang, and many of us played instruments… it was an unique town.”
Helatha Smith, who also lived in Allensworth as a child, recalls, “We played croquet and we played ballgames with the boys. They were always running, playing blind man, and all of those crazy games where you got to run all over the place.

“We played baseball too. Sometimes the girls would play the boys and then other times we would play mixed. We had girls that were really good players. We had one girl, Cecelia Hall, she wasn’t afraid to try to stop a ball. She was good, she always played shortstop. Most of the girls would get out of the way as soon as the ball was going, but she wouldn’t. She’d just stop the ball.”

The people of Allensworth faced enormous obstacles, some faced by most small farming towns in agribusiness California, some particular to their lack of economic and political power:

• Few land companies would sell to African Americans, and the town’s overpriced alkaline soil was not generous.

• The water supply dwindled and the land company reneged on its agreements to supply it.

• Farmers north of Allensworth built a spur line that took away the revenue from the grain depot at Allensworth; train traffic fell.

• In a completely unforeseen tragedy, Colonel Allensworth was killed by two white motorcyclists while walking on a Monrovia street.

• While the colony was still mourning the Colonel, the plan to found a vocational school at Allensworth was defeated by indifference in the California legislature and opposition from black leaders in San Francisco and Los Angeles, who feared that a school in Allensworth would undermin
e their efforts to integrate education.

The Disappearing Black Farmers
Black farmers were becoming an endangered population throughout the United States. Farm ownership declined steadily after 1920, when almost a million black farmers still owned land in the South. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, farmers in the South were forced back into sharecropping. In Allensworth, work on white-owned farms became the only work available. Cotton had come into the San Joaquin Valley and Allensworth became a place people lived in during the cotton season, and then moved on.

Today, in California as elsewhere in the United States, black people are overwhelmingly urban. There are fewer than 500 black farmers in the state; they mostly farm small acreages of specialty crops for urban farmers’ markets.    
The struggle for African American economic equality has moved to the cities, but the history of Allensworth still resonates with black Californians, who have supported the town’s reincarnation as a state historic park.

In 1969, Ed Pope, who lived in Allensworth as a child in the 1930s, was working for the State Department of Parks and Recreation, preparing graphs and charts for the annual report on the state’s historic sites. “All the different ethnicities were represented, but nothing at all on black people,” Pope says. “I went over to the capitol and lobbied Merv Dymally and Willie Brown. By the time I got back to my office, my phone was jumping off the hook. Merv Dymally said, ‘What’s this about 127 sites and no representation of black people? Taxation without representation! Let’s get on it.’” Pope sums up the situation with a smile. “It was 1969. Not that much earlier, the Black Panthers had been in the Capitol Rotunda. Let’s just say the Legislature was in a listening mood.” The Park was dedicated in 1976, and more than 20 historic buildings have been painstakingly repaired or rebuilt.

Today the park comes to life during special events. Groups come by bus and train to absorb the history and imagine themselves living in the town. Docents in period dress portray early residents and explain the furnishings of the buildings and their use in daily life.

One frequent visitor told us this story: “I remember the very first time that I came through here, and the announcer—she was one of Allensworth’s granddaughters—said, ‘I’m going to tell you something —we’re family up here. Mothers, let your children go. We don’t have any axe murderers, we don’t have anybody who’s going to hurt them, let them go. This is their place. This is what I’m telling you. And if they do something, every parent here is going to take them back to you. We expect you to uphold what we have said.’ That did it. I said, ‘This is home!’”

The town of Allensworth still exists just south of the park. Its few hundred mostly Latino residents still struggle for a reliable water supply and a healthy environment. In 2007, townspeople and park supporters worked together to defeat a plan to permit two huge dairies nearby that would have added to air and water pollution problems.

As lifetime resident Sam Pierro sums up, “Allensworth served as a beacon of light to people, because there’s a vein of struggle that goes through the black community. There are obstacles that seem insurmountable. When Allensworth founded the town, he was trying to build something to address that, because he was coming out of slavery, and what was happening to blacks continued on. They killed him six years after the town started. All the adversities that were stacked against Allensworth, they continued on. We had to face it, all the stuff that we had to undergo. But it gave us a certain strength; it was a blessing to us. A difficult life, but a blessing to us. I appreciate it. That gives me as a person something to hold on to.”

Mickey Ellinger is a freelance writer. Scott Braley is a freelance photographer. They worked with Mrs. Royal to create Allensworth, the Freedom Colony. Order the book from Heyday Books.

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Any discussion of reparations for African-Americans should always begin with an important historical fact: such reparations were, in fact, once begun, at a time when they were most easily administered and had the best chance of achieving their desired goals. And then, abruptly, the process was stopped.

Late in the Civil War, a group of African-American leaders petitioned United States General William Sherman at Savannah, Georgia to help secure the well-being and future of the thousands of former African captives freed by Sherman’s western armies on their march from Atlanta to the sea. Sherman was no abolitionist, and certainly no “nigger lover” (to use the common phrase of the day), but he was concerned about freed African captives—“contrabands of war” as they were called—fleeing the plantations and clogging the roads behind and alongside his army on his drive north through South Carolina, as they had done during his march through Georgia. Sherman needed some incentive to keep the African-Americans in place. The African-American leaders wanted the same thing, but for distinctly different reasons. They wanted land for their people, and the resources to work it.

What resulted was Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15. Issued in the field by a commanding general as a wartime measure, it had the force of law. The order commanded, in part, that the Georgia and South Carolina sea islands and abandoned rice-fields running thirty miles inland in those states were to be “reserved and set apart for the settlement of the Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.” Each family was to be given a plot of “not more than forty acres” (the origin of the 40 acres and a mule promise). The general further ordered that “in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed peoples themselves, subject only to the United States military authority, and the acts of Congress.”

Field Order No. 15 was put in effect, and many of the islands and plantation lands measured off and parceled out to the people formerly held on them in slavery. In all, some 400,000 acres were divided up.

Might Have Beens

Had Sherman’s Field Order No. 15 been allowed to stand and been expanded to the other slavery states, and had the Union Army remained stationed in the former Confederacy until a generation had passed to ensure both the freemen’s vote and to protect their property ownership, a stable, African-American landowning class would have been established. The ravages of race and violence of the following 150 years might have been avoided, and the history of this nation changed for the better.
But Sherman’s Field Order No. 15 was not allowed to stand. Following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in the spring of 1865, President Andrew Johnson rescinded Sherman’s order in his attempt to pacify the former Confederate rebel plantation owners and induce them to swear allegiance to the federal government. Shortly before Lincoln’s death, abolitionist Congressmember Thaddeus Stevenson tried to put a Black land-dispersal provision into the first Freedmen’s Bureau Act, proposing to give the newly-created agency “authority to set apart for use of loyal refugees and freedmen such tracts of land within the insurrectionary states as shall have been abandoned or to which the United States shall have acquired title by confiscation or sale, or otherwise; and to every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman, as aforesaid there shall be assigned not more than 40 acres of such land.” Congress voted that provision down.

The result was that most African-Americans freed from slavery did not receive land, most of the land promised in Sherman’s field order was not dispersed, and large portions of the land already dispersed to African-American families was summarily taken back. Instead of becoming a landowning class that could have protected themselves, African-Americans were plunged into displacement, servitude, and a Hundred Years of Terror—of anti-black racism—the bloody and shameful results of which remain America’s legacy and reality to this day.

150 Years—Plus Interest
Nothing that has happened in the years following that spring of disappointment almost 150 years ago—when both President Johnson and Congress failed to follow up on Sherman’s reparations actions—has changed the fact that reparations for African slavery in America were never paid, and remain due and payable. The arguments to the contrary are easily rebutted.
Lincoln himself believed that the long continuation of the bloody Civil War may have been God’s retribution on both the North and the South for slavery, saying in his second inaugural address during the fourth year of that war, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” During recent discussions on African-American reparations, you hear a sort of bastardization on that theme: the idea that the blood of Union soldiers fighting to end slavery in the Civil War constituted a payment of reparations to the former captives. This argument neatly leaves out the work of the soldiers from Confederatet states—once and current members of the United States—who fought to preserve slavery.

A second argument is that the various civil rights measures of the 1960s—the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, for example—constitute a substitute for reparations. But reparations are given for specific offenses to the specific populations damaged by those offenses. As we have seen in so many recent court decisions, the various civil rights acts of the 1960s and beyond are not currently judged to be solely for the benefit of those damaged by African slavery in America and, in fact, it is often the case that those acts are used by plaintiffs and the courts to retard African-American advancement, rather than enhance it. If these are reparations, they sound suspiciously familiar to the reparations of 1865, taken away almost as quickly as they were given.

Reparations to African-Americans descendant from those held in captivity in America continue to be owed, both for slavery itself, and for the Hundred Years of Terror that followed between 1865 and 1965. Unfortunately, to have anything but an esoteric meaning, a debt must not only be owed, it must be collectable.

Uncollectable Debt
The problem is two-fold and encompasses two simple questions that pose complicated dilemmas. What form should reparations take, and who should get them? In my opinion, regardless of the continued justness of African-American reparations, the complications surrounding the answers to those questions are fatal to the process.

In 1865, the logical form of post-slavery reparations was land redistribution. Most African-Americans in 1865 were farmers who would have immediately been in a position to put that land to use, and for those who were not farmers—the artisans and skilled workers and others—some other accommodation could have been made. Today, even if enough land could be made available in the United States to redistribute to African-Americans as a reparations payment, it could not provide the same sustainable economic benefit it would have 150 years ago, and most of it almost certainly would be immediately sold off. A cash payment would, in fact, be the easiest form of reparations to calculate and deliver, but to what end? With the business infrastructure of the African-American community long since shattered by the integration movement, most of the cash reparations payments would be quickly spent leaving most  African-American citizens in little better shape than they were before.

Other Forms of Reparations

There have been suggestions, in the alternative, of reparations taking other forms.
One suggestion is to have a massive educational “Marshall Plan” designed to overcome the phenomenon popularly known as the “achievement gap.” In statistics measured two years ago, African-American 4th graders trail 28 and 36 percentage points behind whites in performance below grade level in reading (86 vs. 58 percent) and math (85 vs. 49 percent). The numbers are just as dismal for their older brothers and sisters in the 8th grade where African-Americans trail whites 88 vs. 62 percent in reading below grade level and 89 vs. 59 percent in math below grade level. [1]

The problem is, even if the nation committed to the enormous amounts of money needed to bridge this gap, there is little current agreement among educators—black, white, or in mixed-group settings—as to what methods should be adopted to close the gap or even if that goal is achievable at all under the current national social system.

Another alternative to cash is some combination of projects aimed at raising up specific sectors of the African-American population. One could look at reversing the rolling trend of the loss of African-American-owned agriculture land, making African-Americans more food-independent. In 1999, African-Americans constituted 2 percent of agricultural landowners in the country, with 0.9 percent of the land at 1.2 percent of the total agricultural land value.[2]  It is almost certain that those numbers have gone down since then.

Another such sector might be African-American businesses. The Minority Business Development Agency of the United States Department of Commerce estimated that if African-Americans had a parity share of American business 10 years ago, the number of such African-American-owned firms would be 2.6 million (instead of the actual 0.8 million), with $2.4 trillion in receipts (instead of the actual $70 million), and employing 13.13 million (instead of the actual 0.7 million).

There are other reparations-alternative suggestions that would address similar black-white disparities in such areas as criminal justice and home ownership; some might work, some appear more fanciful. One could go on and on within every important aspect of American economic and social life, and somewhere in this morass of programs, there is perhaps some combination that might, once and for all, make whole the debt owed to African-Americans by this country. Perhaps. But aside from any other complications, this opens the question of who would decide what the combination should be. With no conceivable group of leaders or organizations to speak for African-Americans—as might have been possible even as late as the early 1970s—the political squabbling over the form of reparations would dwarf any other single political battle we have seen in this country in our lifetimes.

But far more difficult—probably even impossible—than the question of what form is the question of who should receive reparations. In 1865, sorting out those who had previously been enslaved but were then freed would have been complicated, but manageable. Five generations later, how could such decisions be made as to who was descendant from enslaved people? The troubling part would be that while many of these applications would be shams, many would be accurate and legitimate, and sorting the one from the other would be a national mess.

It is bitterly unfair that the United States is unwilling and perhaps politically unable to pay the debt of slavery to those of this nation descendant from the enslaved people. But life is often unfair and, as President Lincoln once opined, perhaps that payment will of necessity come in other ways.


1.        Children’s Defense Fund, “The State Of America’s Children, 2008.”
2.        Gilbert, Jess, Wood, Spencer D., and Sharp, Gwen. “Who Owns The Land? Agricultural Land Ownership By Race/Ethnicity.” Rural America. Winter 2002.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor writes for the Berkeley Daily Planet, Alternet, and numerous print and web publications. He lives in Oakland. 

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Communications Rights, Creativity and Social Justice

The networked political and financial power of citizens on the Internet played no small part in President Barack Obama’s election, so it is not surprising that his administration has targeted more than $8 billion of the national recovery stimulus for broadband deployment in rural and urban areas on the short end of the “digital divide.” However, much of that money may not reach underserved African-American and Latino neighborhoods, because the cable and telecommunications giants that control up to 90 percent of the broadband lines will get the biggest hand outs. While the Media Democracy Coalition, made up of media activist and consumer groups, is organizing in Washington to ensure that the infrastructure is provided where it’s needed most, a growing number of groups are working at the grassroots to ensure full communications rights, seeing them as an integral part of a twenty-first century vision of community development.

A worldwide movement has developed around a broad vision of communications rights. Its holistic approach connects creativity, media production, social justice, and sustainable development and informs a wide range of projects, campaigns, and institutions.

This approach to communications rights lays the basis for the Internet Rights Charter developed by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC).[1] It also unites citizen watchdogs of mainstream media with activists protecting community media from state repression, offering media training for poor and marginalized communities, and enacting visionary new laws. The new Bolivian Constitution, for example, not only opposes media monopolies, it also supports community media and affirms the rights of indigenous people to create and administer their own communication systems and networks. 

Many of these campaigns refer back to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established by the United Nations in 1948. The Declaration goes beyond individual civil and political rights to ensure collective economic, social, and cultural rights. Article 19 guarantees the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of [his] choice.” Article 27 states that “everyone has the right to participate freely in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

During the 1970s, the non-aligned movement of countries of the global South demanded a more radical approach to communications rights. They argued for more equitable distribution of global communications infrastructure and their own news and entertainment, rather than the existing system dominated by western corporate players; and for community-based media. After a decade of discussion in United Nations forums, the overwhelming majority of countries reached consensus. However, their bold recommendations were blocked by the United Kingdom and the United States, which withdrew from UNESCO, and many of the UN-funded communications projects were shelved.

Until recently, activists in the United States have been slow to connect with this international movement. Human rights in the United States are narrowly framed as individual civil rights, and communications as an individual’s speech rights.  In addition, the greater media wealth among even the poorest United States communities, and perhaps the abstract and foreign nature of the campaign, meant that the need to work holistically around all of these concerns was less urgent.

By the 1990s, the overbearing weight of giant, unaccountable media corporations and authoritarian governments, and the corresponding rise of alternative and community-based media, propelled a renewed movement for communications rights. Community media producers, social movement activists, public interest advocates, and researchers set up a loose global network, framing communications rights within the emerging international consensus of economic, political, and social rights.
Groups such as San Francisco-based Media Alliance now recognize the digital divide as the latest in a continuum of communications inequities stemming from systemic economic, social, cultural, and political exclusions. Big media historically excluded working class, immigrant, and especially African-American and Latino communities, despite their powerful role as creators of culture, including music, dance, storytelling, and other kinds of art. Telecommunications giants redlined these communities, and they have historically lacked capital to produce and circulate their cultural work.

Media Alliance, a member of the Media Democracy Coalition, began organizing for digital inclusion for marginalized communities with the  Internet4All campaign in San Francisco in 2003. Drawing on lessons from that campaign and others that followed, Media Alliance Executive Director Tracy Rosenberg recently drafted a “National Broadband Policy for the Twenty-First Century: Thoughts from the Grassroots.”[2] Rosenberg argues that we need much more than a technical fix. In addition to broadband infrastructure, she proposes new oversight rules for communications giants to ensure Net Neutrality (equal access to the internet as opposed to control by the giant telephone and cable incumbents); economic stimuli based on public and community interests; continuing support for older, but still necessary media, such as cable access TV, low-power FM, and broadcast news; and affordable training, digital production and networking for marginalized communities. A new wave of community-based initiatives is already putting these ideas to work in low-income communities of color in the United States.

In Detroit, Allied Media Projects is supporting community-developed broadband infrastructure as part of a media-based economy, bridging the innovative new digital cultural communities with the venerable Motor City music industry.
“Folks in Detroit—or anywhere that requires a hustle to survive—know that creativity is an abundant and renewable resource. We can build on that,” organizer Jenny Lee writes. “Amid the current crisis we have an opportunity to fill the gap in our region’s economy with diverse local initiatives, including community-based media, which thrives off the city’s creative past and present.”

The Main Street Project in Minneapolis is organizing for rural broadband within a broader vision of media justice, economic development opportunities, and extended political participation for Native American, poor, immigrant, and farming communities.

“We know that Internet communication is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity,” says the project’s Senior Fellow Amalia Deloney in her blog. “Broadband communication plays a central role in politics, economics, and culture in our society.  Increasingly, broadband will play one of the central roles in our communications infrastructure.”

Understanding the larger possibilities, Deloney connects her participation in the Indigenous Peoples Green Jobs Task Force with broadband. “Rather than looking at Green Jobs and Broadband as separate and unrelated aspects of the stimulus package, we could instead challenge ourselves to be more flexible in our thinking and problem solving,” she writes. “What if, for example, every home [in Minnesota] that received weatherization also had a new router or antenna placed on it?  What if the new Green Jobs hires also studied digital inclusion? What if our commitment to ecology generally included broadband ecology and environmental ecology specifically together?”

Working on communications rights is part of what Deloney calls “thinking things through together.” This practice, which she learned from Angela Davis, requires us to be more flexible in our creative thinking, and connect things that initially appear unrelated. The confluence of the economic and ecological crises, the growing scarcity of high-quality news and information, and the emergence of so many gifted media activists makes the linking of communications, economic, social, and political rights all the more urgent.

Dorothy Kidd is the co-chair of the San Francisco Bay Area Media Alliance and an associate professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco.


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