Righting Wrongs: Reckoning with North Carolina’s History

February 19, 2024


  • The movement for racial justice is gaining steam across the country
  • Cities and states are considering a range of forms structural reform could take
  • Reforms addressing historic injustices in North Carolina must be creative


The discourse surrounding how to address historic racial injustice is slowly shifting from “why” to “how.” Over the past few years, states and municipalities nationwide have started to assemble committees and task forces to study how to grapple with past justices towards minority communities, what such a thing even means in today’s age, and how such reforms should be implemented. The movement behind addressing historic injustices has bubbled for years, notably through the argumentation of public intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates. While tangible progress is halting, public sentiment towards structural reforms already represents a dramatic shift in the discourse from just a decade ago.

In the past, the federal government has been unwilling to closely study how to address historic racial injustice. Despite pressure from both members of Congress and the Biden administration, national efforts like H.R 40 have stalled. Now, as states and municipalities across the country have taken up the issue on a smaller scale, progress has accelerated dramatically.

In April, Evanston, Illinois, expanded its program for housing benefits to include $25,000 of direct relief to Black residents who lived in the area during a 50-year period of housing discrimination, and their direct descendants. In March, San Francisco’s own city committee recommended $5 million payments to eligible Black residents who had directly experienced racial discrimination in housing and employment. In December, New York became the second state, after California, to create an official commission examining the issue. These 2023 developments follow similar moves in Chicago and Asheville since 2019.

From slavery itself, to segregation, to housing discrimination and police brutality, there is a laundry list of past actions that warrant amends being made to the Black community. These amends, and their various forms, vary in scope, aim, and exactly what injustices they redress and how. While some plans once resembled the direct payment concept reminiscent of the old “40 acres and a mule” derived from Sherman’s Special Field Order 15, innovative approaches are increasingly involving far more nuanced social, political, and economic change.

Few places in America are as closely associated with the slavery era and struggle for civil rights as North Carolina. If the Old North State were to take up the issue of addressing these historical injustices, these more innovative approaches would be the way to go, as direct cash payments would be incredibly challenging both logistically and ethically. The institutions of Slavery, Jim Crow, and the broader systems of racist oppression were and remain embedded here below the Mason-Dixon line, making the scope and any practicality issues orders of magnitude larger.

For example, if we look at data from the 1860 census, in California, there were 2,297 free Black people and no enslaved people, as slavery was outlawed in 1850. There were more than four times as many enslaved babies under the age of 1 in North Carolina at that time. Or consider: there were 49,005 free people of color in New York in 1860. At the same time, there were more enslaved children between the ages of 5 and 10 here in North Carolina.

A project of direct cash payments in North Carolina would be massive, and probably impractical, in scope. Making up for hundreds of years of active and prolific racial violence and discrimination in one go would go well beyond “expensive” – and exclusively financial means of redress would likely be both materially and morally insufficient anyhow. But as we have seen, cash payments are by no means the only, or even primary, method available to us to atone for our state’s past sins.

In California, the task force put together for this purpose published an extensive report with policy proposals to address the present conditions that former enslavement and racial terror have caused, including: political disenfranchisement, the racial wealth gap, an unequal legal system, and a host of sadly familiar modern-day issues.

Contained within these recommendations are structural policy recommendations, such as to create the California American Freedman Affairs Agency; paying incarcerated persons fair wages; creating community wellness centers; increasing voting rights protections; far-reaching education reform; increasing the minimum wage to a living wage; and even planting trees in “redlined” communities.

These restorative efforts are all more nuanced and complex than simple cash payments. They would benefit all communities in more direct, and hopefully long-lasting, ways. Innovative reforms intended to make up for historical injustice like these would benefit all marginalized communities affected by structural injustice. In North Carolina, especially when compared to many other states, this sort of total reform program would involve protecting voting rights, reforming criminal justice, and structural economic change targeting low income communities.

Raising our minimum wage to finally align with a living wage would lift thousands of people of all races out of poverty. Criminal justice reform would improve the lives and opportunities of the thousands of people tangled in the system.

Grappling with historical injustices rooted in race remains a moral necessity for the United States to live up to its full promise. And in places like North Carolina, where the evils of slavery and racism are frequently hard coded into our history, to fulfill that promise will require a herculean reimagining of the systems that undergird our society. But that reimagining, that reconstruction of ourselves, will be to everyone’s benefit.

Miles Kirkpatrick is a Carolina Forward contributor from Greensboro and currently a freshman at Yale University.

Help build progress for North Carolina.

Get in touch
PO Box 452, Carrboro, NC 27510

    Stay updated with us

    Stay Updated

    Receive the latest news from Carolina Forward