One sentence from Viola Ford "Mother" Fletcher, the oldest living Tulsa race massacre survivor at 107, sums up the Black experience in America better than any other: "Greenwood should have given me the chance to truly make it in this country."
The nation's history is riddled with movements and moments that have thwarted the safety, upward mobility, political progress and sometimes mere existence of Black America. Some have been violent, like the white mob that Mother Fletcher watched, at the age of 7, kill Black men in front of her home; or the brutal asphyxiation of unarmed Black man George Floyd, which modern technology allowed us all to see. Others have been political. Voter suppression efforts started more than 100 years ago and continue today.
Black people should have an equal chance to make it in this country, just like any other group. But we don't. The gaps in success between Blacks and whites in America when it comes to homeownership (less than 50% for the former and nearly 80% for the latter) and employment are a testament to that.
It's about fixing economic losses
Those gaps are rooted in the nation's history: Slavery (after a failed attempt at Reconstruction) was replaced by Jim Crow and other acts of political violence that paved the way for aggressors to burn towns like Greenwood with no consequence.
Mother Fletcher was being well educated in Greenwood. After her town was destroyed, she didn't get beyond the fourth grade, leaving her to work as a domestic (as did my grandmother, who is 100, and so many other Black women of that generation).
Atoning for those economic and educational losses is what the fight for reparations for all Black people in America is about. And this project is an attempt at exploring the ongoing struggle for our nation, ultimately, to repair itself. The recent passage of H.R. 40 – a 30-year-old piece of legislation that will set the federal government on a course to study Black disenfranchisement and its repair – by the House Judiciary Committee, puts us on the cusp of what feels like progress.
But what, specifically, does progress mean when it comes to reparations? Should repair be purely monetary? An apology? Should police departments across the country do what Chicago did and allocate $5.5 million for victims of brutality and their families?
As this project looks at the struggles of people and institutions across the nation over the next several months, we'll try to answer those questions.
We start, on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, with the consequences of mob violence on Black America and the decimation of Black wealth. You'll find columns from two descendants of the massacre. You'll also hear from Lessie Benningfield "Mother" Randle. At 106, she lived through the massacre, testified before Congress and gave us an interview during Tulsa's Black Wall Street Legacy Festival. Mother Fletcher's testimony is captured here, too.
A college professor has analyzed the monetary cost of racism. We've also researched and listed, in a searchable database, the nearly two dozen recorded race massacres that have happened in America, dating to 1863, and noted the progress (or not) on reparations in the cities where they occurred.
Over the next six months, we'll investigate slavery and the push for federal reparations; hear from victims of police violence and incarceration; take a look at reparations made by colleges and universities; question the moves made by religious organizations; and track what's happening in states like California, where the governor in May appointed members to a reparations task force. We'll publish a new chapter of commentary, videos, podcasts and facts each month.
Reparations happen, just not for Blacks
In the course of doing research for this project, I interviewed Eric Miller, one of many lawyers representing Black residents of Tulsa – including the three remaining survivors of the massacre – in their lawsuit against the city.
I asked him why he thinks getting reparations in the U.S. is so difficult.
Reparations do happen, he said with a very frank and thick Scottish accent, "just not for Black people" in America.
The United Nations has recognized the brutality of slavery by declaring an International Decade for the People of African Descent, a period that ends in three years. It includes an annual remembrance for victims of slavery, a memorial, concerted efforts to raise awareness of the "dangers of racism" and a fellowship for anyone in the world with African ancestry. Meanwhile, in America, we're still debating whether and how those dangers should be taught in schools.
My hope is that by the end of this project, Black people in America will receive the same level of understanding for our struggles and the multiple factors that have thrust disenfranchisement upon us.
Where should the nation begin when it comes to Black reparations?
I turn again to an elder as I attempt this project's first answer to that question. Before Congress, Hughes Van Ellis, Mother Fletcher's brother, ended his recent testimony by stating that "we are one." It was a reminder from a 100-year-old Black man (who had been driven from his home, served in World War II and loves his country) to a mostly white and male body, of the humanity of Black America.
His call is not a complete answer. But acknowledging its truth is a vital first step.
Eileen Rivers is the projects editor for USA TODAY's Editorial Page. She is also the founding editor of USA TODAY's online vertical Policing the USA.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What are reparations? Defining the fight for Black equity in America.