Antoinette Harrell has spent nearly three decades proving instances of slavery in the South before and following freedom.
She visits cemetery sites, interviews grandparents, dives through dusty attics, and pursues whatever clues she can discover to reclaim the family histories that many were deprived of more than a century ago when their ancestors were divided and enslaved.
And she has suggestions for California’s Reparations Task Force as it considers who should get reparations for slavery.
State law requires the group to give priority to persons descended from African Americans who were slaves in the United States.
The public debate has also centered on whether all Black people deserve some type of compensation for the residual impacts of slavery in a culture that continues to discriminate based on skin color today.
However, Harrell, a genealogist, and historian noted that establishing eligibility based on lineage may be difficult and expensive for others. The names have been altered.
Families were shattered and individuals were trafficked over state boundaries. And particulars perished with preceding generations.
“When many women and men gained their freedom, the first thing they did was a trek for miles and miles looking for their children, their spouses, their family, their mother, and their father,” said Harrell, one of nearly a dozen expert witnesses who will testify before the task force Tuesday. “Decades later, that hunt continues.”
Members of the nine-member group have discovered that each possible result generates further problems.
Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who authored the legislation establishing the task force that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in 2020, emphasized in January that providing reparations is “a matter of descendancy and lineage” and that those with ancestors who were enslaved in the United States should be prioritized.
Harrell stated that basing reparations on lineage raises problems about what constitutes proof in California and if the state should cover the costs of ancestry research. And, in the absence of proof, should individuals who feel they are descendants be denied reparations?
“I would not say they should be able to prove anything because not everyone will be able to,” Harrell explained. “Documents have been obliterated. Courthouses have been destroyed in fires. Three or four times, the names have changed.”
The questions highlight the complexities of California’s drive to become the nation’s first state to adopt statewide reparations for slavery.
The nine-member task force — comprised of elected officials, civil rights leaders, attorneys, and reparations experts — was charged by Newsom and legislative leaders with the mission of “studying and developing reparation proposals for African Americans, with a special emphasis on African Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.”
It will present the Legislature with two reports. The first is scheduled to be released on June 1 and will include evidence demonstrating the presence of state-sanctioned racism dating back to slavery and up to the current day.
The second report, coming in July of next year, is likely to recommend remedies, including an apology, eligibility criteria for possible reparations, and a plan for educating the public about their work.
To take effect, the proposals must be incorporated into new legislation approved by the state Legislature and governor.
Though the statute terminates the committee’s work once the second report is filed, Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) sponsored legislation to extend the task force’s existence by another year, until mid-2024.
“We need to be allowed to exercise that flexibility,” said Jones-Sawyer, a task force member. “I believe it would be detrimental if we all disbanded and then people began asking questions after we reached our findings and we were still unable to discuss them.”
Jones-Sawyer and others stated that while they agree with Weber’s idea that descendants of those enslaved in the United States should be prioritized for reparations in California, they observed that certain solutions must extend beyond bloodline.
“We should be worried about the well-being of every Black person in America,” he stated. “And, without being crass, I’ll be candid: When a white racist shoots and kills a Black person in the back just because they’re Black, they don’t care if you arrived on a slave ship or a cruise ship.
They are unconcerned with your immigration status. They couldn’t care less whether you’re Caribbean. They are unconcerned whether you are mixed. They are only perceiving you as Black.”
The task force has heard testimony from experts over the last ten months about how federal, state, and corporate policies contributed to continued discrimination against Black people when they attempted to purchase a home, rent an apartment, seek healthcare services, apply for insurance, qualify for loans, access public transportation, and attend school, among other things.
By doing so, the organization is establishing the framework for making the argument that some remedies should apply to all Black people, according to Lisa Holder, a task force member who is a civil rights lawyer, activist, and researcher.
“We all believe that, given the language of the legislation and the movement’s guiding principles, it is critical to prioritize descendants of those who were slaves in the United States,” Holder said.
“However, because exploitation and discrimination persisted throughout the enslavement era, we must also include the ancestors of all those who were subjected to prolonged exploitation following slavery.”
Jones-Sawyer stated that a task group must prioritize removing barriers to achievement for Black people to begin the process of ending racism in our nation.
“We have to recognize that all Black people are victimized,” Jones-Sawyer added. “We need to find a way to ensure that future generations of Black people are not hurt.”
Last month, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, told the task panel that race-based reparations would face legal problems.
“In the United States, under current constitutional law, and in California under Proposition 209, laws that favor one race over another are either inherently suspect or per se illegal, and thus the question is: How can reparations be structured in a way that would survive judicial review?” he told the task force.
In 1996, voters enacted Proposition 209, which prohibits government agencies and organizations from discriminating based on race or gender.
Weber unsuccessfully campaigned in 2020 for a statewide referendum to abolish the statute, which she and others claim has exacerbated inequality in education and government contracting chances.
Chemerinsky, however, stated that state law applies solely to government contracts, employment, and education. Holder urged the task team to prioritize housing, land reparations, methods for improving healthcare, and providing individuals with tax incentives and exemptions that do not violate Proposition 209.
As with Harrell, she is afraid that not all descendants will be able to establish their lineage.
“I believe it is exceedingly difficult to trace your genealogy in the United States back to an enslaved individual because the power structure purposefully made it impossible to do so by treating Africans abducted from Africa as property, treated like cows, horses, and pigs,” Holder stated.
To assist African Americans in qualifying for reparations intended specifically for descendants of those who were enslaved, Harrell recommends that California cover the costs of establishing lineages, such as funding public records requests and travel, and partner with nonprofits that conduct genealogy research as a form of reparation.
“Repairing genealogy is a component of debt repair,” Harrell explained. “There is no monetary value that we can place on the cost of restoration. I’m curious as to who I am. That was a birthright that was revoked.”