Recent months have touched off a renewed debate about what exactly is owed to the descendants of enslaved men and women after centuries of bondage and legalized discrimination. On Wednesday morning, that debate entered the halls of Congress as a small panel of academics, activists, and journalists, many of them the descendants of enslaved men and women, testified during a hearing on reparations.
The hearing, conducted by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, held both historical and symbolic significance. The last congressional discussion of reparations was in 2007, one year before the election of the country’s first black president. The most recent hearing was held on Juneteenth, a day commemorating when slaves in Galveston, Texas, were finally notified of their emancipation. As an increasing number of people arrived to witness the hearing — enough that they filled three overflow rooms, according to the New York Times — they stood a short distance away from the US Capitol, a federal symbol built by the enslaved.
The bill discussed, HR 40, would task a commission with studying the continued effects of slavery and racial discrimination and make recommendations about what redress might be needed. The bill is also laden with symbolism, being named after the unfulfilled 154-year-old federal promise of “40 acres and a mule” to recently freed men and women. The bill has languished in the House for decades, first introduced by former Congressman John Conyers in 1989 and reintroduced every year until his retirement in 2017. The bill has since been reintroduced by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee.