Governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill into law on Tuesday, December 19th, that will establish a commission in New York State responsible for exploring reparations as a means to address the enduring and detrimental consequences of slavery within the state.
During the bill signing ceremony, Hochul commented that the legislation “will see various forms of reparations and how we can help right the wrongs of the past.”
This decision aligns New York with other states and localities across the United States, which are grappling with how to address their involvement in the nation’s troubling history of slavery.
California and Illinois have previously set up similar reparations commissions, marking a growing trend.
Hochul stated, “In New York, we like to think we’re on the right side of this. Slavery was a product of the South, the Confederacy.”
The governor added, “What is hard to embrace is the fact that our state also flourished from that slavery. It’s not a beautiful story, but indeed it is the truth.”
According to the law, which was endorsed by state legislators in June, the reparations study commission will investigate the extent of federal and state government support for slavery. It will also explore New York’s role in the African slave trade, particularly considering that the state abolished slavery by 1827. The commission’s work will include assessing the lasting effects of slavery on Black New Yorkers.
“Let’s be clear about what reparations means; it does not mean fixing the past and undoing what happened. We can’t do that; no one can, but it does mean more than giving people a simple apology 150 years later,” said Hochul.
“This bill makes it possible,” she said, adding, “Today, I challenge all New Yorkers to be patriots and rebuke and not excuse our role in benefiting from the institution of slavery.”
Reverend Al Sharpton said at the ceremony, “The battle for civil rights was not below the Mason–Dixon line. The largest port of slave trade was in Charleston, South Carolina, and Wall Street, New York.”
Sharpton added, “Today starts a process of taking the veil off of northern inequality and saying we must repair the damage and it can be an example for this nation.”
The nine-member reparations commission is expected to present its findings within a year of its first meeting. Its recommendations, potentially including financial reparations, will be advisory and aimed at informing policy changes and initiatives to address slavery’s negative impacts on the Black community in New York.
Using public funds for reparations is likely to encounter opposition from various quarters, including individuals who disagree with compensating for historical injustices in which they were not directly involved.
Despite this, Sharpton praised Governor Hochul for her bold decision, acknowledging the political risks involved. “I want to give credit to this governor for having the audacity and courage to do what others wouldn’t do. And I know she had to wrestle with it,” he said.
The reparations commission’s formation is not solely about financial compensation but also about acknowledging the historical injustices faced by Black New Yorkers.
Democratic Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the first Black person to hold the position, noted, “This is not just about who we’re going to write a check to, and what the amount is. It begins the conversation with one recognizing the issues that affected Black people and descendants of slaves in this state.”
However, not everyone shares this view. State Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt expressed concern over the potential financial burden reparations would place on New Yorkers, stating, “The reparations of slavery were paid with the blood and lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans who fought to end slavery during the Civil War.”
The move by New York follows California’s lead, which became the first state to create a reparations task force in 2020. Other states and localities, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, are also exploring similar initiatives.
In 2009, the U.S. Congress issued an apology to African Americans for slavery, but the federal government has yet to move forward with a national reparations study.