Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responded Tuesday to reports that his 19th-century ancestors owned slaves by pointing out that the same was true of former President Barack Obama — and that they were in agreement on the issue of slavery reparations.
“You know, I find myself in the same position as President Obama,” McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters on Capitol Hill when asked whether his ancestry influenced his opposition to reparations for African-Americans. “We both oppose reparations, and we both are the descendants of slave owners.”
NBC News reported Wednesday that two of McConnell’s great-great-grandfathers, James McConnell and Richard Daley, between them owned at least 14 slaves in Alabama before the Civil War. The records were traced using Limestone County “slave schedules” in the 1850 and 1860 censuses, NBC reported.
On the eve of a June hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives on whether the U.S. government should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves, McConnell threw cold water on the idea.
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living is responsible for, is a good idea,” McConnell said.
Obama has long maintained that reparations are the wrong approach for trying to level the economic playing field for African-Americans.
“I have said in the past — and I’ll repeat again — that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed,” Obama said in 2008.
In his 1995 autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” Obama, whose mother was white, wrote of family lore that said he was related to Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Amateur genealogist William Reitwiesner published a history of Obama’s mother’s family that revealed that his great-great-great-great-grandfather George Washington Overall owned two slaves in Kentucky. His great-great-great-great-grandmother also owned two slaves in the state, according to census records.
The debate over whether former slaves or their descendants should receive compensatory payments from the U.S. government has been around since 1865, when Union Gen. William T. Sherman made his famous promise of “40 acres and a mule” to freed slaves. Sherman’s order was reversed by President Andrew Johnson after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Very few African-Americans ever collected on it.
Responding to McConnell’s assessment of reparations, author Ta-Nehisi Coates testified before the House committee that the issue was still very much alive.
“While emancipation dead-bolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open,” Coates, whose article in the Atlantic advocating for reparations reignited the issue, said, “That’s the thing about Sen. McConnell’s ‘something.’ It was 150 years ago, and it was right now.”
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