Originally published on Colorado Public Radio (CPR.org) on January 14, 2019.
It’s the idea that white Americans should pay a moral debt to black Americans to compensate for slavery, Jim Crow and institutionalized racism.
Reparations has been a concept debated as far back as emancipation. But for some Denver women, it’s not a debate — it’s an obligation.
In late 2018, the Denver-based nonprofit Soul2Soul Sisters received a whopping $200,000 anonymous donation. Founders Rev. Dawn Riley Duval and Rev. Tawana Davis were “stunned,” and tried to learn more.
The mystery benefactor ended up being a graduate student. The donor asked Colorado Public Radio News not to use their name or identifying information in order to keep the focus on Soul2Soul and their racial injustice workshops for people of faith.
She had delved deep into her family tree for a class assignment. What she found was new information that caused her “deep sadness.” She had grown up believing that her family — which settled in Mississippi in the late 18th century — had never owned slaves.
But it turned out that wasn’t true.
She even dug up a cassette recording of her grandmother, and she learned about Alice.
Alice was an enslaved girl given to her “aristocratic” great-great grandmother when she left North Carolina for Mississippi. Even after emancipation, Alice stayed.
“It became true what I had thought was true,” she said. “It may have been just one person, perhaps there were other people, but to know that my family had benefited from the efforts of someone else.”
This revelation came four years after her father passed away, leaving her an inheritance that presented a challenge. She wanted to do some good with it.
The donor approached her teacher to talk out ways to use this money to atone for her family’s role in slavery and to honor Alice. Her teacher mentioned Soul2Soul, which clicked instantly — Revs. Riley Duval and Davis had not only spoken at her school, but they’d also preached at her church, and left an impression.
She quietly made the donation, and figured that was that. But the reverends reached out, wanting to know more.
“I began to think, ‘What do I call this?’” she said. “A gift is something that’s yours that you give away, and I thought, ‘That’s not the right word.’ Because this, in my mind, wasn’t mine. It was something I had gotten through Alice, or partially through Alice.”
She tried to find a word to pin on it, but one word, even reparations, didn’t seem like enough.
“Reparations came to mind. I’ve heard that, I’m not an expert on it. But reparations to me is big, it’s societal changes, it’s something we need to do as a country,” she said. “So I thought it was more ‘personal reparations,’ and then I said it was ‘personal partial reparations,’ because I don’t know what the right number is, and I don’t know that money is all of it. I don’t think it is.”
Riley Duval said reparations are an important part of healing racial wounds in America.
“There has to be compensation. We understand economic justice and healing justice to be integral to racial justice,” she said. “So, there must be compensation towards conciliation.”
Rev. Riley Duval said the money has been a huge boon to Soul2Soul sisters, allowing them to beef up their staff.
“We have brought on other black women who are helping us to broaden the work of Soul2Soul sisters,” she said. “Soul2Soul Sisters is a fiercely faith-based racial justice organization that is lead by black women towards actualizing black healing and black liberation.”
Lotte Lieb Dula, a retired financial strategist, started down a similar path as Soul2Soul’s anonymous donor at the start of 2018.
Dula’s grandmother passed away in January, and Dula took up the task of sorting through her things. She found a small, old book that was still well-preserved. Dula opened it to find inventories of slaves, hundreds of them, with their individual monetary worths listed.
It was then Dula learned that much of her family’s ancestral wealth came from slavery. She did more research, and counted more than 400 enslaved people who were considered the property of her ancestors. She also unearthed an old Smith College yearbook that listed her grandmother as a KKK member.
“I want to skip the guilt and shame part, and I want to do something about this,” Dula recalled thinking at the time.
She joined a national group called Coming to the Table which connects descendents of enslaved people with descendents of slaveholders. Dula also established a scholarship fund for students who wish to study political science or law, restricted only to black applicants. She met a young black woman pursuing a career in politics and Dula agreed to help pay off her college debt, calling it a “direct reparation.”
“Since I used to do financial modeling for my career, of course I’ve modeled what I might be able to give,” Dula laughed. “I think over the course of my lifetime, my goal is to give half a million dollars through whatever means I can, and then at my death, the rest of it will go towards setting up a reparations fund.”
She’s also started building a website – a guide to reparations for white people, by white people.
“This is how I’ll spend the rest of my life,” Dula said. “If only my life could be extended 250 or 400 years, maybe I’d make a small dent.”