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Correcting the record on reparations with Trymaine Lee

Digital producer Alexis Stodghill and MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee discuss the fight for Black reparations and the story of one man who proved how powerful they can be.


What if everything you knew about reparations was wrong? As Black history is being vilified nationwide, MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee tells an illuminating story about reparations that could change minds. In his podcast series, “Into America Presents: Uncounted Millions, The Power of Reparations,” Trymaine unearths the history of a Black man who received reparations during the Civil War, before emancipation.

I'm Alexis Stodghill, digital producer for "The ReidOut with Joy Reid." I spoke to Trymaine about this figure, Gabriel Coakley, in a conversation edited for length and clarity. Please enjoy our entire conversation via the video above. “Into America Presents: Uncounted Millions, The Power of Reparations” is now available in six compelling episodes.

Alexis Stodghill: Trymaine, talk about this revolutionary podcast series.

Trymaine Lee: It’s a pleasure to be here and have this conversation of all conversations. So much of the work that I do is trying to center the Black experience in this country: the way we’ve lived, the way we’ve died, the way we engage with all the systems, the way the systems engage with us. This story of Gabriel Coakley and the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, this idea of reparations and what it means to be whole — it speaks most clearly to our greatest ambitions as Black people in this country wanting to be full humans, full citizens, and experience the kind of Americanness that we’ve been denied for so long.

This country did pay reparations once, before in 1862, but it was reparations for white enslavers. People have never heard of the Compensated Emancipation Act, which was a scheme devised by [President Abraham] Lincoln. He wanted to free enslaved people in the District [Washington, D.C.]. This was a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. The only way he figured he could do it would be to basically ply enslavers with cash. What is wild is that the government actually paid 0.2% of the federal budget, which in today’s dollars would have been $12 billion — basically paying them for their lost “property.”

Scouring through this list of more than 1,000 people who were paid by the federal government, you see this name, Gabriel Coakley, a Black man. Gabriel Coakley was a free man, and his family had been enslaved. By the beginning of the 1850s, he started freeing his people. He ends up getting on this list because, by the letter of the law, you know, his family was still his property. So he was able to find a loophole to get paid.

Stodghill: The part where you talk about how exactly he did it — I want people to go to the podcast and listen to it. It gives you a sense of the tremendous agency that Black people exhibited even before emancipation. This was an incredibly empowered man, who was in a whole community of Black people working to empower themselves.

Lee: Black folks have been doing that from the very beginning. By the early 1850s, he’s a successful businessman, Gabriel Coakley. He has an oyster business, he’s a property owner, he’s the co-founder of the oldest Black Catholic Church, St. Augustine, in D.C. He ends up having the ear of President Abraham Lincoln.

The agency that it would take, despite all the odds stacked against you... What would it have taken, the courage, to be able to say —before even getting to the finessing of the government — that one by one, he is going to buy his people’s freedom? It’s just an astounding story.

Stodghill: It’s astounding to think about this and all the discussions about reparations today. The idea of how this man was able to set up a legacy. You learn that by seeing what the descendants were able to do with this reparation.

Lee: There are many sides to that idea. On the one hand, the government was built on the backs of Black people. In 1860, our Black bodies were the most valuable commodity in this country. We built it, we bled into the ground, we harvested everything, nursed their babies. Then coming out of enslavement, freedom wasn’t free at all. The violence that would be heaped upon Black people in this country, through Reconstruction, through the Redemption period. Then you have the bloody summer [“Red Summer”] of 1919, where they’re murdering Black people across the country. Then through Jim Crow and the lynchings up until the ‘60s. You know, the mid-‘60s, people are still coming up missing, coming home from the war and not being able to get the GI loans. Then have you try to find a safe community with the proper infrastructure, schools. And there’s a big red line around where you can live and where you can’t live.

Talking to folks who pay attention to such things, economists and pollsters, it’s not necessarily that a lot of white folks have a problem with the amount, this number, $14 to $16 trillion. We spend money, we print money and we send it all over the place. It’s that they don’t think Black folks deserve it. I think that’s one thing that I hope this story does.

This gets back to your point about this family trajectory after getting the reparations. It’s like rocket fuel, the idea of having enough wealth to buy your own home. To not just buy your freedom out of slavery but to buy freedom of movement, to some degree.

After [Coakley] gets his reparations and he starts to send his kids to school and buy and sell property, they end up experiencing a kind of America that very few Black people even today experience, where they are upwardly mobile. They end up being deans of colleges and college graduates and members of the clergy and politicians and policymakers and landowners. To see this family, even today, carrying on this legacy, is inspiring.

Stodghill: Doctors, some impressive titles. People that just did great things.

Lee: A [Presidential] Medal of Freedom winner. But also what it does to your psyche when you know that you are enough. You know it because you’ve been able to experience your everyday life in a certain kind of way, as opposed to the opposite — which most of us experience — this unbearable weight.

At every turn, there was something new that I was learning about this family, America, the law. It was such an eye-opening experience. I hope that it is conveyed to listeners.

Stodghill: It’s very moving. I think part of the reason that people are afraid of Black history is because they really do think it’s all negative. This has sad parts, but it also has incredible parts. Thinking about not just the power of Black people, but also the power of the human spirit. There are heroic women in this story. It has a little bit of everything.

Even though there is so much that is inspiring, there is the aspect that is dark. Talking about buying and selling human beings, thinking about the 99.9% of Black people who were not able to get reparations during this time. I think even Black people, when they think about the history of this period, they just think of the worst of it. They don’t want to know more. How did you cope with that emotional weight? And what advice do you have for people?

Lee: I personally am still trying to figure out how to handle it. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, telling some manner of this story: personal heroics with the backdrop of enslavement and violence. What I’ve tried to do through my work is — even with the stories that are hard to tell and hard to listen to and hard to gather and report on — there is a strength and beauty and resilience in Black people that I think makes the U.S. very special.

We’ve had a singular experience in this world, let alone in America and throughout the diaspora. I always try to center that. Despite those odds, we push, and we exceed, and we excel, or often we die trying. I am a subjective journalist telling a story from a vantage point. But I say objectively that Black people have the strength of the gods to be able to deal with an entire system, entire philosophies on race, built around our degradation, our subjugation and oppression; and yet we’ve still pushed to make this place better through pushing for equal access for everyone, from public schools to accommodations. That is the one thing that helps me to not crumble under the weight and the exhaustion of still having to navigate the reality of the world, let alone these ideas.

If there is any chance that America will heal from this deep sickness of white supremacy and violence, we must take it head-on, even in the midst of this moment, when there are entire state legislatures crafting legislation to bury the facts even deeper.

Stodghill: Or that the idea that this history has no educational value, which came out of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration. Just this one podcast has shown me how much educational value it has. We’re both people who have worked for a long time. We’re both very educated, and yet we’re still learning so much about our history. I think it will change people’s attitudes, given the fact that there are a few different reparations initiatives. Where do you think this will go?

Lee: I think it’s going to take more centering of our narratives. So much work goes into humanizing us. That’s the only thing we can do, hoping that people are moved enough say, "Oh my goodness, we did this to fellow humans."

We’re not there yet. I do believe that in the coming years, we will see more and more action on the state level.

A lot of us have bought into the story that we just dropped here from the sky. But no, we existed. We had agency. We were building lives, despite the backdrop of some pretty terrible things. We built this. We bled for it. We’ve died for it. We love America. We love America so much that we want it to live up to its highest ideals and virtues. This story speaks to that and so many more things.