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Exhibit is powerful reminder of slave trade horror


The Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture in Washington recently opened an impressive exhibit on the gruesome story of how some 13 million Africans were brought in irons to Brazil, the Caribbean and the United States.

The slave industry was international: Only 6 percent of the human cargo came to the United States. The rest reached nations where they grew coffee, tobacco and sugar. These crops were sent back to European and other colonial powers. None of the rewards came to the millions of African slaves who made such crops possible.

The museum, which is not on the mall, but in the hard-to-reach Anacostia district, is not as shocking as the Holocaust Museum in Washington. But its impact stays with one for days after a viewing. It is the story of the cruel and hideous ways in which men and women were kidnapped in West Africa and taken on unsafe boats to distant lands.

An attractive 207-page book titled A Captive Passage, published by the Smithsonian, graphically records the story of how slavery began in 1619 in the United States and ended during the savagery of the Civil War. Many Americans, including some blacks, quietly want the story to be dropped. They reason that slavery ended 140 years ago and should be forgotten. But the museum’s exhibit on slavery wants all of us to remember; it asserts that it is wrong to downplay slavery since it is the original reason why now every eighth American is of African ancestry.

An excellent article in The New York Times Feb. 7 about the new exhibit has prompted countless inquiries and visitors to the museum. The trafficking in slaves and the sad legacy that slavery and segregation left in America are not easy to forget. The continuing revelation of the enduring impact it has had on young African-Americans continues to shock and sadden.

One leaves the exhibition with the feeling that a predominantly white society has almost conceded to the existence of the international slave trade, but quietly desires that it all be forgotten. One of the least known facts highlighted by the exhibit is the high level of culture possessed by many of the African countries from which millions were taken by force.

The tragedy of slaves being dragged to this country was made vivid to me when I heard a mother at the museum explaining to her 11-year-old that her great-grandfather was like one of the black men shown in the exhibit, wearing leg irons and looking as if he were in acute pain. The little girl began to cry.

The question of reparations for the descendants of those brought to America cannot be viewed apart from what one sees at the museum. A federal judge in Chicago has now to decide on the procedural rights of eight plaintiffs who are suing 17 large corporations for some share of the profits these corporations made from the slave trade. The corporations include insurance companies such as Aetna and New York Life. They insured slaves and slave ships. Union Pacific Railroad used slaves to build their tracks. R.J. Reynolds used slave labor to grow tobacco.

Thorny questions face the plaintiffs. Do they have standing to sue and has the statute of limitations expired?

There are many organizations in America that benefited by slavery. This list could include Georgetown University, which owned slaves until the Holy See in the 1840s insisted that they be sold.

Academics and civil rights attorneys debate all the time about the feasibility of reparations. There is a consensus in the country that the United States government acted wisely in giving $20,000 to each of the 60,000 survivors of the internment camps for the Japanese during World War II. But that consensus seems to lessen when a proposal is made that the government be required to give money to individuals not because they were personally hurt, but because they belonged to a class or group that was treated unjustly.

A recent book by Stewart E. Eizenstat titled An Imperfect Justice chronicles the remarkable payments of some 8 billion dollars made by Swiss and other European banks because of funds that Jews deposited with Swiss banks that were never accounted for. There may be more such agreements. The property stolen from Jesuit and other religious groups by the Nazis can be counted in the hundreds of millions. More payments may be forthcoming.

The dramatic revelations at the Smithsonian of the injuries and insults heaped upon the predecessors of America’s black citizens offer compelling evidence that enormous wrongs have been done. Everyone agrees that every injustice demands a remedy. The United States owes a great deal to those whose lives were altered because they are the descendants of slaves.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.Georgetown.edu

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003