A Proposed Plan for Retrospective Justice

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What can we do now to help rectify the legacy of that most violent of institutions: chattel slavery in the Americas with its impact on both the enslaved and the enslavers as well as their descendants? What can we do individually and collectively for the prevention, treatment, and cure of our societal illnesses: ethical, moral, spiritual, psychological, social, and economic? How can we make a sustained commitment to helping our neighbors, our brothers and sisters, our friends, and our adversaries? I see no reason why Friends—given our positive image worldwide for our historical commitment to peace, equality, truth, community, and justice—cannot be leaders, innovators, and initiators in these efforts at reconciliation, reconstruction, and rehabilitation.

This is a turning point in the culture of our world. This is not about retribution and anger. It is about atonement. About the building of bridges across lines of moral justice. Across cultures, civilizations, with an objective of world peace.

These are words from a 2016 speech by Hilary Beckles, a Barbadian historian who currently serves as vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies and chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission.

Retrospective justice is a term referring to attempts to administer justice decades or centuries after the commission of a severe injustice or series of injustices against persons, communities, nations, or ethnic groups—in this case, a series of continuous historical events, including the transatlantic slave trade, chattel slavery, and the legacy of continued oppression, exploitation, and humiliation through Jim Crow against people of African descent in the United States.


Why do I use the term “retrospective justice” instead of the more commonly used “reparations”? There are several reasons. First, I believe justice is a major Quaker testimony that should be put back at the forefront of Quakerism. Second, as I learned when I set up one of the first Black Studies departments in the country, one does not use an emotional term that has a negative meaning to people. (Instead of calling the department I set up at Rutgers the “Black Studies Department,” I labeled it the “Department of Africana Studies,” a term I had borrowed from W. E. B. Du Bois. The Pan-African name has a stronger political meaning than “Black Studies.”) Third, I am not talking about money. I am talking about matters that are spiritual, political, cultural, psychological, as well as economic. The damages of slavery go far beyond the quantitative. The damages have much qualitative meaning: psychological meaning, sociological meaning, cultural meaning, survival meaning, etc.

In the eighteenth century, Quakers in Rhode Island were among the first to call for reparative justice, finding grounds in Deuteronomy 15:13–15 (KJV):

And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the Lord thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing to day.

Those Rhode Island Friends, through their interpretation of Deuteronomy, determined that “if holding another person in slavery was sinful . . . then surely perpetrators should atone for the offense by offering some kind of amends to their victims.” There is documented evidence that some Quakers whose families had profited from the institution of slavery made significant material contributions to freed Africans, which allowed them to develop sustained livelihoods independent of their former masters and enslavers. Though portions of the Society of Friends have acted over the past few centuries to condemn chattel slavery and to call for reparations, there has never been a unified approach from the Society of Friends toward the legacy of slavery.


The damages of slavery go far beyond the quantitative. The damages have much qualitative meaning: psychological meaning, sociological meaning, cultural meaning, survival meaning, etc.


To guide my commitment to retrospective justice, I turn to the groundbreaking 2006 report “Slavery and Justice,” written by the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. The report was commissioned by the university’s president to investigate Brown’s specific involvement in the slave trade, but it also digs into the history of slavery in the United States and its lasting effects and examines reparative or retrospective justice. The report was made public to allow other institutions to read about Brown University’s findings on retrospective justice and to find what works for their own reparative endeavors.

The scholars begin by establishing the transatlantic slave trade as a crime against humanity: a systematic crime “directed at particular groups of people, who have been so degraded and dehumanized that they no longer appear to be fully human or to merit the basic respect and concern that other humans command.” Slavery as a legal trade formally ended in Union states in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation, but its effects have lasted to the current day through social stigma and formal institutions, and other means.

Today, because the original perpetrators of slavery are no longer alive, retributive justice—or punishing through the law those responsible for committing crimes—is no longer possible, leaving us with reparative or retrospective justice to help us heal our divided society. The lasting effects of slavery in the United States, what the Brown study described as “the legacy of bitterness, sensitivity, and defensiveness that it [has] bequeath[ed] to future generations,” can only be combated through retrospective justice. Retrospective justice, as defined by the study, “rests on the belief that some crimes are so atrocious that the damage they do extends beyond immediate victims and perpetrators to encompass entire societies.”

After examining dozens of examples of retrospective justice initiatives from around the world, the steering committee identified three elements common to the most successful cases: (1) an acknowledgment of an offense, told formally and publicly; (2) a commitment to truth telling, to ensure that the relevant facts are uncovered, discussed, and properly memorialized; and (3) the making of some form of amends in the present to give material substance to expressions of regret and responsibility. My recommendations here for retrospective justice within the Society of Friends is based on the strong ethical foundation provided by the Brown University report.


Formal Acknowledgement of an Offense

The Religious Society of Friends needs to formally acknowledge that Quakers have been slave owners, and, though many were abolitionists, many others profited directly as slave owners, as supporters of the transatlantic slave trade, and as inheritors of profits from the enslavement of Africans. The exact number of present-day Quakers who continue to profit from the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas is not known. My ministry praises Quakers like New Englander Betsy Cazden, who is researching her family’s involvement in the trade and how her family continues to profit in the twenty-first century. Through dedicated and thorough research, the DeWolf family of Rhode Island (not Quaker) grappled with their legacy as the most successful slave-trading family in American history. The family produced a documentary film, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, and published the book Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History to formally acknowledge this history and to educate others. Cazden and the DeWolf family both exemplify how we can work together to acknowledge the truth of the past.

A Commitment to Truth Telling

Telling the truth, in all its complexity, is what I hope I am doing. This could be—should be—the job of the Religious Society of Friends worldwide in all its branches and at every level—monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings. How did our respective meetings and churches, families, and ancestors participate in and profit from the slave trade and slavery? The only way truly to take responsibility for the actions of one’s ancestors, according to the report, is to “create a clear historical record of events and to inscribe that record in the collective memory of the relevant institution or nation.”

Examining these truths will be difficult, but Brown’s report reminds us: “Every confrontation with historical injustice begins with establishing and upholding the truth, against the inevitable tendencies to deny, extenuate, and forget.” How can we Quakers provide retrospective justice for our involvement in and profit from this crime against humanity? What can we in the Society of Friends of Truth do today and in the future?

After learning the truth of our history, I recommend that the Society of Friends commits to the memorialization of those affected by chattel slavery, designating an annual day of remembrance. This could happen in February, when Black History Month is celebrated, by honoring the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Or it might occur on a day coinciding with international acknowledgments of the tragedy of slavery. The United Nations created the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade on March 25, as well as the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on December 2. UNESCO recognizes the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition on August 23 of each year. Truly, it could be any day. It would memorialize the truth that Quakers and our meetings actively participated in and profited from slavery. We are now obligated to acknowledge this reality as a major atrocity in Quaker, U.S., and world history.

Making Amends

In my opinion, atoning for this history would entail a commitment to a massive development effort, similar to the U.S. government’s Marshall Plan to provide aid to Western Europe after World War II. It would aim at reconciliation and social, economic, psychological, cultural, and political rehabilitation and healing.

A few such programs were begun during the post-Emancipation years: the colonization of Black people beyond the borders of the United States. One early example was African American and Native American Quaker Paul Cuffe’s efforts to resettle freed Africans in Africa in the 1810s. After the Civil War there were a number of failed programs of land redistribution, such as Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s promise of “40 acres and a mule” to help newly freed slaves. Other efforts included poorly run, publicly funded education programs.

Recently efforts have been made to recognize this legacy, including the amazing National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., a necessary stop for those wishing to have a better understanding of U.S. historical realities. A notable success story has been the work of Hilary Beckles (quoted earlier), the outspoken chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission, which has pushed since 2013 for a formal reparations plan for the Caribbean. In August 2019, Beckles brokered a historic, more-than-symbolic agreement in which the University of Glasgow would provide £20 million ($24.4 million) to promote development initiatives with the University of the West Indies (this is the same sum paid to slave owners as reparations by the British government four years after it abolished slavery in 1833). 

But at the time of manumission, very little was done to compensate the newly freed for their years of unremunerated toil; still less has been done to bridge the racial chasm that slavery has carved in the nation. What can the Religious Society of Friends do to make amends for its complicity in chattel slavery and to work toward a more just society in the future?


What can the Religious Society of Friends do to make amends for its complicity in chattel slavery and to work toward a more just society in the future?


I have asked Friends to look at societal problems through new lenses: to use antiviolence to confront systemic violence; to acknowledge the importance of institutional and systemic racism; and to consider a comprehensive retrospective justice program to compensate for historical inequities related to the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery. I hope my work serves as a catalyst for people of faith to address these concerns and take action in our meetings and churches, mosques and synagogues and temples.

Harold D. Weaver Jr.

Harold D. Weaver Jr. is an associate at Harvard University's Hutchins Center for African and African American Research and the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. A member of Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting, he is the founder of the BlackQuaker Project, and is active locally, regionally, and internationally among Quakers. This article has been adapted from a chapter in Race, Systemic Violence, and Retrospective Justice (Pendle Hill pamphlet #465, 2020).

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