The New York Times published an ambitious series last week about payments that Haiti, the first nation founded by formerly enslaved people, was forced to make for decades to the descendants of the people who had enslaved them.
Those who were previously unaware of “reparations” payments made to enslavers, and their far-reaching consequences for Haiti, may be surprised to learn that something like this happened in the United States, too.
In 1862, more than 900 enslavers living in the nation’s capital received money compensating them for the immediate emancipation of the more than 3,000 people they enslaved. The payments — averaging about $300 per enslaved person, equal to $8,587 in today’s money — came from the federal budget.
The enslaved people themselves, whose wages had been stolen from them for their entire lives, received nothing. There was one exception: If they agreed to leave the country for Liberia or Haiti, then they could get up to $100.
It’s the only example in the United States of “compensated emancipation” — which, again, compensated the enslavers, not the enslaved — but this was a popular form of emancipation in the British and Spanish empires.
The D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act preceded President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation by nine months and was the culmination of the capital city’s slow walk toward freedom — one that Lincoln himself had tried to push forward years earlier.