By Janelle Ross

June 20, 2022

On June 21, 1865, just two days after federal troops came ashore at Galveston Island, then a major Texas port, the editors of the Galveston Daily News printed on the front page a national prescription.

The troops had arrived in the wake of the Civil War to restore U.S. control of the far-flung Confederate holdout. It quickly became clear they would have to begin by proclaiming what had already been true in other rebel territory for two and a half years: “all slaves are free.” The Union Army declaration set off a wave of jubilee celebrations that from that day forward would be celebrated by the once enslaved as Juneteenth. But mere days after that emancipation in Texas, the very last in all the territory controlled by the United States, the Galveston editors revealed much by publishing—just to the left of an advertisement for annual Daily News subscriptions ($12 a year)—this idea: Freedom for the enslaved had been forced by the army of the United States, but the people who had provided the still young nation with nearly 250 years of lucrative, unpaid labor had to be contained in some other way.

Some opponents insist that they and their hard-earned personal holdings do not descend from slaveholders. That argument conveniently overlooks the way key policies that created the white middle class—everything from homesteading programs to the GI Bill—were for decades, explicitly or effectively, open to white Americans only, says William Darity, an economist and director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, and a consultant to the California reparations task force. Other critics of reparations are fully aware of that history, but insist that reparations represent an obsessive focus on race that unfairly disadvantages white Americans today, or that executing such a plan would simply be too complicated, too expensive. And in 2022, much as 1865, there are those who simply do not pretend. For them, the proper economic and social order is the one that has existed for centuries.