California's Reparations Task Force Will Debate Eligibility

California’s Reparation Task Force will is examining the historic harms of slavery and anti-Black racism in California. Last summer, the task force released a preliminary report (PDF) detailing California’s history of enslavement and its many decades of discriminatory policies – in housing, education, health care, criminal justice and other areas – that established the systemic racism that persists today. This summer, the task force will present recommendations on how Black residents should be compensated for this enduring oppression, KQED reported.

If the task force’s recommendations are adopted by the state Legislature, many Black Californians will have to prove their eligibility for reparations. To help with this, the preliminary report proposed establishing a California African American Freedman’s Affairs Agency to “support potential claimants with genealogical research to confirm eligibility.”

In a 5-4 vote in March 2022, the task force voted in favor of lineage-based reparations that would be “determined by an individual being an African American descendant of a cattle enslaved person or the descendant of a free Black person living in the U.S. prior to the end of the 19th century.” But there’s still a lot yet to be finalized about what kind of specific documentation would be required to prove eligibility.

Eligibility has loomed over the first-in-the-nation statewide task force since it began meeting in June 2021. There’s a wide spectrum of opinion on how feasible it will be to document eligibility – and considerable concern about the emotional toll Black Californias will have to pay. 

The task force will continue the debate on eligibility Wednesday and Thursday in Sacramento, including defining the parameters of a residency requirement.

If a person can track their ancestry back to the 1870 census, and their relative was living in a state that practiced enslavement, some genealogists feel it is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the ancestor was likely enslaved. The census tracked additional components, like whether a person could read and write; that could led support to the likelihood the person was enslaved since enslavers often forbid the people they held captive from becoming literate. 

Black people were not counted as part of the country’s population until the 1870 census the first undertaken after the Civil War. That’s because, until then, enslaved people were considered a property, said Sharon Morgan, who runs Our Black Ancestry, a Facebook genealogy group with more than 36,000 members. 

Many genealogists, including Morgan, said they were only able to access some records by sifting through physical archives. Morgan originally traveled to Mississippi, where the vestiges of enslavement show in glaring racial disparities, to do research on a distant relative who, she said, had 17 children fathered by the nephew of her enslaver.

Cheryl Grills, director of the Psychology Applied Research Center at Loyola Marymount University and a task force member, voted against lineage-based reparations because of the trauma associated with searching for enslaved ancestors. 

“Not every black person wants to do this genealogy thing. It could be triggering,” Grills said. “It could be retraumatizing  because [of] what the family had to go through, what the family suffered and endured.”

In addition to free and low-cost online genealogy community forums like Our Black Ancestry,, has an agreement with many public libraries that allow users to access the site for free., which is funded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is also free. The Bay Area has more than a dozen FamilySearch centers, with many more throughout the state.

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