Trying to fix 'a moral wrong' Sunday, November 13, 2005 By MIGUEL PEREZ STAFF WRITER NorthJersey.com LEONIA - Calling slavery "a moral wrong that must be righted ... to cleanse the soul of America," a group of North Jersey residents set out Saturday to look for ways to make reparations to African-Americans. At the All Saints' Episcopal Church, more than 30 people sought ways to compensate black Americans for the unpaid labor, pain and humiliation endured by their ancestors - and for the economic, social and psychological problems caused by slavery that still affect blacks today. "This is about repairing the enduring harm that slavery caused to people of African ancestry in so many ways, including financially," said Donna Lamb, communications director for Caucasians United for Reparations and Emancipation. "It's a simple fact that for 250 years whites robbed millions of enslaved Africans of the wealth their labor created. They were forced to work for free, while white individuals, companies and the U.S. government made huge profits off their labor." On its Web site, CURE expresses "remorse for all the crimes committed in the name of white supremacy" and notes that "true emancipation of the enslaved Africans will not be achieved until their descendants enjoy the freedoms that reparations will provide." The community forum was the first of many planned by the Newark Episcopal Diocese's Reparations Task Force, created in July 2004 as part of the church's "mission to dismantle racism." The discussion was led by Lamb and Barbara Wheeler, chairwoman of African Studies at Kean University, who recounted the history of efforts to seek reparations for black Americans. "This is not a new struggle," Wheeler said. "This has been a struggle since black people have been here." At the forum, some whites expressed their shame over slavery and some blacks spoke of their anger over the "white privilege" they said is still prevalent in this country. "My emotional reaction had a lot of shame in it, a lot of sadness," said Annie Byerly, a white woman from Leonia, after watching a movie on the need for slave reparations. "And my intellectual reaction was, 'I've got to fix this.'Ÿ" The movie caused a different reaction among African-Americans. "I'm speaking softly," said Lorna Cunningham of Teaneck. "But I'm very angry." Lamb warned the forum participants to "be leery of what you hear or read in the mainstream media about this subject because the powers that be want white people to fear and hate the idea of reparations." One by one, Lamb sought to answer the lingering questions posed by white Americans who say their ancestors didn't own slaves, or who immigrated to this country after slavery. "Reparations is not about money being taken out of every white person's personal bank account and handed over to blacks, as the spreaders of misinformation can make it seem," Lamb said. "Individuals do not pay reparations. Reparations are what a government pays a people it has wronged ... with tax dollars." HUH??? She said white Americans didn't have to own a slave to benefit from slavery "because the whole infrastructure of this nation was built on money made from it." As for those who came after slavery was abolished, Lamb said it doesn't matter. She said they also benefited from a society created by slavery. "The whole reason people come to this country in the first place is to get in on the wealth that had its origin in slavery," Lamb said. "They don't know it, but these 'streets paved in gold' they came here to find could more aptly be called 'streets bathed in the blood, sweat and tears of enslaved Africans." Lamb said she is often told she is being divisive for making an issue over something that happened so long ago. "My response is that the ravages of slavery, both economic and spiritual, are very much alive and immediate today," she said. "You can't brutalize a people massively and then just tell them to get over it." Agreeing with Lamb, several participants said it should not be up to white people to determine how blacks should spend reparation money. They noted that African-Americans who seek reparations have many good ideas, including funding for education, job training, housing, small businesses, and child and mental health care - to bring blacks up to par with white Americans. Participants were asked if their churches should be involved in the reparations debate. "If we are all equal and made in God's image," said Ruth Dougherty of Leonia, "it's a no-brainer."