The enslavement of African Americans in the United States is an atrocity that Orlando Matthews abhors and doesn't mind talking about. He spoke about that desolate period in human history during a recent two-day conference and community town hall meeting in Nashville on "Debt Relief & Reparations for HBCUs."
The conference was held on the campus of Tennessee State University and organized to save Historically Black Colleges and Universities from budget shortfalls, to restore Africana Studies on HBCU campuses, and to keep the focus solely on educating African-American students.
Though Matthews was one of several conference facilitators, there were others of note, including U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), who conducted workshops during the community town hall meeting at Ray of Hope Community Church and emphasized the urgency for reparations to keep HBCUs solvent to avoid going defunct.
The focus of Matthews' discussion, however, oscillated between the birth of reparations, the early proponents of reparations (or government recompense for crimes against humanity), and the movement in Tennessee.
"The United States is guilty of crimes against humanity," said Matthews, pointing to the book "My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-slave Reparations," which he used as a point of reference in his discussion.
"The early reparations struggle in Tennessee was led by Mr. I.H. Dickerson and Mrs. Callie House, who lived and worked in Nashville in the late 1800s," said Matthews, a longtime proponent of reparations and community activist.
House, an ex-slave, "mulatto," widowed washerwoman and mother of five, lived in Nashville and died 70 years before the advent of the civil rights movement. She was the ringleader of a movement in Nashville that demanded justice and reparations for ex-slaves for centuries of unpaid labor.
Dickerson also was active in reparations for ex-slaves. He and House headed the National Ex-slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, but were investigated by the United States Bureau of Pension for their part in an alleged scheme to defraud "ignorant" blacks.
The movement that House and Dickerson led in Nashville, which preceded Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, was the precursor to the civil rights movement and recently Conyers' unsuccessful attempt to get a reparations bill passed in Congress.
Conyers first introduced bill H.R.40 – Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act – in January of 1989. He has re-introduced the bill in every Congress "and will continue to do so until it's passed into law."
The conversation about reparations eventually segued into the struggle to keep the country's more than 100 HBCUs on solid financial footing. Matthews said many of them are under attack due to funding shortages and changes in legislation – particularly the dismantling of affirmative action in some states.
"In the last 10 years, they've brought in white presidents and white students into these HBCUs in the name of diversity," said Matthews, a 2001 delegate at the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.
Matthews was one of 400 delegates to address the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as a crime against humanity. He termed the financial hemorrhaging of HBCUs as the government's change in policy to merge HBCUs into the mainstream of higher education in order to comply with uniform admissions standards.
Have black colleges and universities thus outlived their usefulness? Matthews pointed to past atrocities against African Americans and said HBCUs are still relevant today. Other conference speakers and workshop facilitators agreed.
Dr. Abdul Alkalimat, who teaches Africana Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Campaign, titled his discussion, "Reparations and the Mission Essential Need for Africana Studies at HBCUs." Dr. Raymond Richardson, a professor in the mathematics department at TSU, followed with the topic, "The Maryland HBCU Case Verdict and Its Implications for HBCUs in Tennessee."
In the Maryland HBCU case, U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Black issued a 60-page ruling last year that said in part there was no discrimination in the state's capital expenditures between HBIs (historically black institutions) and TWIs (traditionally white institutions). This was a blow to the HBIs (the plaintiff), who sought more money per student vs. TWIs (the defendant) from the state of Maryland.
In his spiel to the workshop participants, Conyers continued advocating for African Americans to receive reparations and debt relief for the nation's HBCUs.
The conference and town hall meeting were dedicated to House; the late Jackson, Miss., mayor Chokwe Lumumba; the late Dr. Harold R. Mitchell, who taught speech pathology and audiology at TSU; and the late Edward H. Wisdom Jr., director of Management Information Systems for 37 years at TSU.
The dedication read: "They gave the last full measure in the struggle for truth, love, education, justice and reparations for the sons and daughters of 'Mother Africa.'"
Sponsors included Save TSU Community Coalition (STCC), Nashville Black Covenant Coalition (NBCC), African American Cultural Alliance, HERU Fraternity Inc. & Het-HERU Sorority Inc., Tennessee State University College of Liberal Arts – Department of History, Political Science, Geography, and Africana Studies.