Dismantling the Master’s House: Reparations on the American Plantation
abstract. In southeastern Louisiana, many plantations still stand along River Road, a stretch of the route lining the Mississippi River that connects the former slave ports and present-day cities of New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Black communities along River Road have long experienced these plantations as sites of racialized harm. This Note constructs a normative framework for local reparations that centers these descendant communities and explores the use of eminent domain to break up the landholdings of current plantation owners to make those lands available to descendants. Beyond the descendants in Louisiana’s river parishes, this Note is aimed at inspiring a discussion about reparations in other local contexts—across institutions, cities, and states—that are also sites of historical and continued subjugation.
author. Yale Law School, J.D. expected 2021. I would like to wholeheartedly thank Professors Claire Priest and Monica C. Bell for believing in my vision and pushing me to write this piece. I am profoundly grateful to Dr. Joy Banner for trusting me to speak about her community and her home and for our countless conversations about land, ancestors, and liberation. I would also like to thank Sophie Angelis for so generously offering her suggestions as I wrote this piece and pushing me to share it with others. I am also eternally grateful to Kristian Armour-Williams, Adair Kleinpeter-Ross, and Camille Shooshani, without whom I would not have finished this project. I would like to thank Kamini Persaud for her moral support during the Note process and the Yale Law Journal editors for their feedback. Most importantly, I dedicate this Note to Marsha Berkeley, whose boundless love and conscious spirit flows through me and through every word of this piece.
“I’m here on this land for a reason. I grew up with my family, connected to my heritage, always proud of it. To me, reparations is spiritual. It comes back to what our ancestors started: they did the rooting for us, and now we need to grow—we need to plant the seed and we need to grow.”
- Dr. Joy Banner1
Reparations are acts and processes of repair. They are grounded in the will to heal, to restore a people wounded, but not destroyed, by intergenerational brutality and injustice. Reparationists seek accountability for historic injustice, and call for the cessation of contemporary practices that perpetuate wrongdoings and persecute suppressed communities. Reparative acts are meant to give assurance to survivors that the injustices they have endured “will not be repeated in the future.”2 They ultimately require the redistribution of power, as “efforts to leverage power, influence, and resources . . . ensure cessation and non-repetition.”3
The movement for reparations in the United States began with the demands of the enslaved. Long before the Civil War or the popular abolitionist movement, enslaved people petitioned for individualized compensation for their years spent in bondage. Quock Walker4 and Belinda Sutton5 are among the earliest reparations advocates, powerful models of how the “resilient human spirit could not be crushed by slavery.”6
This courage inspired the demands of the newly freed following the Civil War. Whether seeking compensation for labor that was never paid,7 or demanding redress for “wrongful enslavement,”8 the formerly enslaved fought for reparations with a conviction that “[s]urely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.”9
Their descendants fought on for nearly two-hundred years, seeking reparations for the enslavement of millions of African and African American people.10 They sought compensation from a variety of institutions, including federal and state governments that relied upon and sustained the institution of slavery, banks and insurance companies that profited from the trade, and educational institutions built and maintained by slave labor.11 They sought reparations for the harms perpetuated long after emancipation, including systems of convict leasing, Jim Crow segregation, mass criminalization, mass incarceration, “redlining, and other policies of structural discrimination and exclusion.”12
These descendants are still fighting for reparations. They still demand control over their ancestors’ bodies, be it their graves13 or their images.14 They are asking for more than acceptance into the institutions that profited off of the enslavement of their foremothers and forefathers.15 Rather, they seek compensation from American institutions still thriving “on the backs of [their] people.”16
Descendants are central to a vision of local reparations. As opposed to national reparations, local reparations allow institutions to identify “the exact axes of white supremacy” they perpetuate and develop a tailored “policy [of] repair” to address historical injustice.17 Local reparations facilitate the deeper work of identifying the harms caused by the evolution of the institution of slavery, pinpointing how every individual has been harmed by that system (even those of us who continue to profit from it), and imagining what we must do to eradicate such harms.
This Note makes the case for local reparations that center descendants living in communities where their ancestors toiled in bondage. In southeastern Louisiana, many plantations remain in operation as plantation museums, reaping profits from tours while perpetuating many of the injustices of slavery and its legacies. These museums operate on the site of both the earliest forms of American enslavement and the continued exploitation of African Americans following emancipation.18 Therefore, they are a powerful focal point for engagement with local reparations processes. More importantly, reparations on plantations can be grounded in the aspirations of descendants who still live in the communities where their ancestors were enslaved and persecuted. Reimagining the use of eminent domain, I argue that descendants have a powerful case for reparations in the form of redistribution of plantation properties. In turn, local governments can and should break up plantation landholdings for redistribution to descendants.
This Note does not attempt to lay out a comprehensive or generalizable policy plan for reparations, as doing so would undermine the centrality of descendant control over reparations processes. Rather, it responds to the voices of descendants along River Road and sketches the beginnings of a local reparations program for their communities, which may have implications for other jurisdictions and the country as a whole. I begin in Part I by outlining the history of plantations and plantation museums on River Road and illustrate the injustices committed on these plantations from the era of slavery to the present day. In Part II, I highlight the strengths of localized efforts towards racial healing and develop a normative framework for evaluating local reparations programs, an outline which might be utilized in communities across the country where the legacies of slavery similarly continue to manifest. Part III considers eminent domain power from within this framework and describes how it can be used to effectuate the goals of local reparations in southeastern Louisiana. Part IV concludes by exploring the lessons of this analysis for local reparations in other localities and noting how local reparations programs can inform national efforts towards reparative justice.