I am incredibly privileged to be asked to be on our church's committee to help guide our reparations initiatives. Each member of the Reparations Committee has been asked to share with the congregation about our ongoing conversations, and I get to go first. So I thought I’d start at the inevitable beginning, the first questions we asked ourselves in the committee, the first questions anyone asks when we talk about reparations. What are we seeking to repair? Why is it our responsibility to repair it?
“My family never owned slaves”. I’m sure many of us can say that. My Anabaptist ancestors came to the US, to Pennsylvania, just after that state had passed the Gradual Emancipation Act. They couldn’t have owned slaves even if they’d had the desire or funds to subjugate other humans. But maybe my family isn’t so innocent? At the end of the 19th century a great great uncle of mine was the man President McKinley put in charge of Puerto Rican schools after the US took over that country, where he implemented a program to eradicate local language, culture, and any curriculum that was deemed to not be in line with “the American cause”.
But it’s not some ancestor’s individual sins, as egregious as they may be, that I hope to make up for. My family didn’t force the Susquehannock from that little farm in central Pennsylvania, a national army did years before and then another army fought that army for control of it, and my family reaped the benefits of that past violence without even having to think about it.
We’ve all reaped the benefits of past violence.
We’ve been born as the recipients of a history of dispossession. The Miami and Osage who occupied the land our church is on, didn’t decide to sell it, didn’t just leave. They were forced out. And how did our little slice of earth come to be Clintonville? Come to be predominantly white? Come to be upwind from the railroad tracks and the highways, upstream from the steel mills and foundries. These weren’t accidents of history. Laws were written to make it nearly impossible for free black people to settle in early Ohio. Deed restrictions were written to make sure the earliest black neighborhoods were near railroad exhaust and smokestacks and still today communities of color are disproportionately affected by air pollution. Policies were made to make sure people living in those neighborhoods couldn’t get home loans, losing their houses and any chance at building wealth to leave to their children, while our church’s neighbors got government-backed low interest refinancing during the Depression and beyond. Letters were written and votes were cast to make sure the interstates went through those poor and Black neighborhoods instead of richer and whiter ones, chopping up neighborhoods and displacing nearly a quarter of the African American families living in Columbus by the time 670 finished cutting through the Near East Side in 1985. And those same highways allowed for a boom in suburbs of white folks taking their tax dollars into their own enclaves and feeding into further disparities in education, food availability, and healthcare.
That’s part of the story of our church, and city and country’s land. That’s what we have to repair, to repay, to repent from: centuries of inequity and iniquity on a systemic level, a multi-layered systematic dispossession. And that debt is larger than we could ever hope to repay, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
For anyone looking to learn more about the aspects of Columbus history I mentioned, a 2018 article from the Columbus Alive is a great place to start:
For a possibly overwhelming amount of information, I have an ever-growing list of podcasts, articles, and books on the history of racial divides in Columbus that you can see here: