The big payback

6/29/2023, 6 p.m.
This week Virginia Commonwealth University will conduct another public forum about how the Medical College of Virginia, now known as ...

This week Virginia Commonwealth University will conduct another public forum about how the Medical College of Virginia, now known as VCU, can atone for being “embedded” in slavery since its beginning in 1838. The forums follow a report which revealed the college rented, owned and sold Black people, stole bodies from Black cemeteries and experimented on Black folks without their consent.

“This culture permeated both the institution and the individuals connected with it,” the report states. “The board of visitors overwhelmingly consisted of wealthy enslavers. Forced labor contributed to their substantial fortunes.”

The report came after a new state law that requires VCU and several other schools in the state to establish the Enslaved Ancestors College Access Scholarship and Memorial Program. The law requires the schools to create a memorial to the enslaved workers and set up a scholarship program for people who are descendants of enslaved people. VCU’s President Michael Rao’s Special Commission on Slavery and Justice, is holding the meetings under the moniker “Project Gabriel,” named after Gabriel Prosser, who led a rebellion to stop slavery in Virginia.

It would have been difficult to predict that a law to address some of the inequity and injustice caused by slavery would be passed in a city that was cluttered with Confederate war memorials along its streets just a short time ago.

So where might this kind of thinking lead? Perhaps we can look to the great state of California for guidance. On June 29, the same day as the VCU forum takes place at Fifth Baptist Church, the California Reparations Task Force will present to the California assembly its recommendations for compensating Black people in the state for the harmful effects of slavery. Then it’s up to state officials to determine who gets paid, how much and when. One member of the task force has suggested the work of reparations panel could be used as a blueprint for other states to follow.

California is certainly not alone in assessing the damage of slavery and attempting to calculate a financial payout. Reparations proposals are being considered by local governments in Evanston, Ill., St. Paul, Minn. and Detroit. There’s a national movement as well, as bills regarding reparations have been brought forward in Congress for 34 consecutive years, but haven’t gained any traction.

“America must provide reparations if we desire a prosperous future for all,” Missouri Democratic Rep. Cori Bush told NPR last month. “The United States has a moral and legal obligation to provide reparations for the enslavement of Africans and its lasting harm on the lives of millions of Black people.”

The VCU forum is a reminder that the horror of enslavement wasn’t that long ago. Look around. Many of the places and institutions that encouraged, fostered and harbored it are still among us, buoyed by the benefit of free labor and a disregard for human life and liberty. Banks that held the deposits of slaveholders, sugar companies that sold products grown by enslaved people, clothing manufacturers who sold suits made from ill-gotten cotton and railroads laid by the forced labor of Black people.

We should offer corporations an opportunity to join local governments that have stepped up with attempts to rectify the damage done by slavery. Their part of the bill is way overdue. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another project such as Gabriel’s to get corporate America to pay up.