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Urban Rhythms

Paid in Full

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 4/17/2002

Last April, the American Family Immigration History Center at Ellis Island unveiled a data bank containing detailed information on more than 22 million immigrants who came here during the early days of the 20th century. The data bank gives Americans an opportunity to learn about their ancestors, including when they arrived, where they came from, their ages, their place of birth, their marital status. Suddenly, and just like that, tens of millions of Americans can become connected with their lost heritage. All they need is access to the Internet and the name of the ancestor they'd like to trace. A spokesperson at the center says its Web site has had 2.3 billion hits in the past year.

"This is really the story of America," Stephen Briganti, president and chief executive officer of the State of Liberty/ Ellis Island Foundation, said when he launched the new data bank one year ago.

Well, it's one of the stories of America.

Another American story involves the millions of men and women who were kidnapped from their homes on the west coast of Africa, transported across the ocean in chains, and bought and sold at port-side markets up and down the eastern seaboard and along the Gulf of Mexico. The ancestors of those men and women also have been dreaming that someday there could be a tool that would connect them with their past.

"You know what?" a friend said to me after reading about the data bank for immigrants at Ellis Island. "If America was serious about paying us reparations for slavery, this is how they could do it. They could fund a national data bank that would help us discover who we are and where we came from."

By George, I think she's got it.

Restoring our heritage is the perfect reparation. It returns to modern-day African-Americans something that was specifically taken from them by slavery and the slave trade. And it is a form of reparation that empowers more than a select few. Each of us would be able to experience what Alex Haley, author of Roots, experienced when he traced his ancestry to a specific individual, Kunta Kinte, from a specific village in West Africa. Imagine being able to return to that village to meet your cousins and learn their stories.

Suddenly, and just like that, we would no longer be what generations of African-American poets have described us as: trees without roots. This proposal also would resolve some of the vexing problems with most reparations proposals.

Last month, lawyers sued railroad conglomerate CSX, the FleetBoston financial-services group, and the Aetna insurance company on behalf of the 35 million Americans who are descended from enslaved Africans. The suit alleges that those companies either profited from the slave trade or are the heirs of companies that did so. Legal strategists sneer that such litigation has virtually no chance of winning. I suspect they're engaging in wistful thinking. The pro-reparations movement, the province of wild-eyed lunatics two decades ago, is gathering momentum, including the support from high-powered attorneys such as Johnnie Cochran and Harvard law Professor Charles Ogletree.

But winning a billion-dollar judgement is one thing. The key question is: What would we do with the money?

I object to the most popular proposal--establishing a foundation that would administer reparation funds in the form of grants and development projects. Who would run such a foundation? Black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume? Celebrity athletes such as Michael Jordan and Venus and Serena Williams? Power brokers like Vernon Jordan and Colin Powell? I have nothing against any of those distinguished personages--except for the fact that they are so remote from my life and my community that I have no hope of holding them accountable for anything they say or do in my name. Such a foundation would merely empower the powerful.

But I would get excited about a foundation modeled after the American Family Immigration History Center. The Ellis Island data bank was established through partnership with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which provided thousands of volunteers who poured through the written records of the period and painstakingly transcribed and cross-referenced untold reams of written documents that had been stored at the National Archives. Had so much of the work not been done by volunteers, experts say, the cost would have been incalculable.

Still, the time, expense, and effort are considered worth it. The American Family Immigration History Center estimates that 40 percent of all living Americans, or about 100 million people, are descended from people who came through Ellis Island, and the data bank captures information on about 70 percent of those immigrants.

We can be certain that the records from the slave trade are incomplete. We can be equally certain that transcribing, collating, and cross-referencing the records that do exist would be a massive undertaking. But for the millions of us whose only link with Africa is the color of our skin, the effort would be worth it. It would be truly empowering, truly transforming.

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