Proponents of reparations could face difficulty persuading courts to sanction government payments for past racial or ethnic injustices, especially if the intended recipients are descendants of those harmed rather than direct victims. But reparations — at least those paid on a limited scale — are not unprecedented in U.S. history. Indeed, they date back to colonial times. Here are six examples.

Sources: Alfred Brophy, Reparations Pro & Con (2008); Stacy Pratt McDermott, “‘An Outrageous Proceeding’: A Northern Lynching and the Enforcement of Anti-Lynching Legislation in Illinois,” Journal of Negro History, Winter 1999,; Jon M. Van Dyke, Who Owns the Crown Lands of Hawaii? (2007), p. 252; Carmelita Pickett, “Rosewood riot of 1923,” Encyclopaedia Britannica,; Adeel Hassan and Jack Healy, “America Has Tried Reparations Before. Here Is How It Went,” The New York Times, June 19, 2019,; and Pablo de Greiff, ed., The Handbook of Reparations (2008), pp. 257, 268–69

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Case Background
Salem Witch Trials In the 1690s, hundreds of people, including one slave, were accused of witchcraft in Salem, Mass. Two dozen were executed or died in jail. After earlier apologies, the Massachusetts Legislature in 1725 approved payment of 20 pounds each (at least $3,500 today) to families of about 30 victims.
Illinois Anti-Mob Law In response to lynchings of African Americans, the state enacted an anti-mob act in 1905 that punished participants in lynchings and held law enforcement officials responsible for prisoners' safety. The law — part of a series of anti-lynching laws in Illinois, which were copied in several other states — allowed families of lynching victims to receive up to $5,000 each in restitution.
Hawaiian Trust Lands In 1920, Congress set aside 200,000 acres to provide homesteads for Native Hawaiians left landless because of white settlement. But much of the land went not to families but for parks, schools, military bases and other public uses. In 1995, the state awarded $600 million, to be paid over 20 years to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which was created in 1920 to administer the land, as compensation for misuse or sale of 39,000 acres.
Florida Mob Violence After claims that a black man attacked a white woman, white mobs burned down the predominately African American community of Rosewood, Fla., in January 1923 and killed at least six blacks. The Florida Legislature in 1994 awarded nine survivors $150,000 each.
Indian Claims Commission A congressional bill in 1946 signed by President Harry Truman created the commission to compensate any federally recognized tribe for land that had been seized by the United States. The commission paid out about $1.3 billion, the equivalent of less than $1,000 for each Native American in the United States at the time the commission dissolved in 1978. The awards came with catches — the money was often placed in trusts for tribes' benefit rather than being distributed to individual members, and tribes gave up the right to press for future claims.
Japanese American Internment Camps In 1988, Congress approved reparations for Japanese Americans who had been sent to internment camps during World War II out of fears they posed a threat to national security. It established a fund, originally set at $1.25 billion, and offered $20,000 each to camp survivors.

close window