HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania’s history of legislation dealing with race is a mixed bag, researchers say.

Pennsylvania passed a law barring slavery in 1780 and passed legislation barring enslavers from capturing runaway slaves in 1826.

But other legislation made it more difficult for blacks to fully participate as equal members of society, said state Rep. Christopher Rabb, D-Philadelphia.

Rabb has authored legislation that would call on the state to fully examine what role the state government had in enacting racist policies and call for reparations to make up for it.

Rabb said that slavery in Pennsylvania has been documented as early as 1639, with Philadelphia becoming the region’s largest port for importing enslaved Africans.

“Slavery, and its legacy, is an atrocity,” Rabb said. “There are different kinds of reparations.”

While the state passed the 1780 and 1826 laws, which were opposed to slavery, Pennsylvania lawmakers also repeatedly took actions to make lives more difficult for blacks, said Richard Saylor, an archivist for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Saylor said that includes amending the state Constitution in 1838 to explicitly bar blacks from voting. Prior to that change, blacks could vote in Pennsylvania, and they didn’t regain the right to vote until 1870.

In addition, Saylor said state records show that after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamations, residents in Pennsylvania were urging lawmakers in Harrisburg to pass legislation that would have barred freed slaves from the South from moving into the state.

Rabb said that in a broader sense, one could argue that a number of political issues could be viewed as a means of providing reparations to make black lives better.

“Raising the minimum wage would be a form of reparations," he said. "Providing fair funding for public education would be a form of reparations, because black children are most likely to be victimized by inadequate funding for schools.”

While acknowledging that there are other steps the state could take to help make up for historic mistreatment of blacks, Rabb’s legislation, which has not been formally introduced, would call for financial reparations.

There would be four parts to the reparations plan, he said:

• A formal apology from the Pennsylvania General Assembly for its complicity in the treatment of people of African descent during and after the gradual abolition of slavery beginning in 1780.

• The creation of a commission to determine a methodology to quantify the financial impact of past and current laws, court decisions, government programs and practices that have systematically disadvantaged African Americans.

• Acknowledge that chronic poverty and other inequities are the direct result of racist public policy enacted into state and federal laws.

• Provide significant financial redress to African American residents of Pennsylvania.

The bill would implement an annual opt-in entitlement program for eligible participants, he said. To qualify, applicants would need to be residents of Pennsylvania and provide government documentation verifying their ethnicity as Black/African American for a certain number of years. The financial reparations include tax breaks and other benefits to eligible individuals and targeted geographic communities.

Both states and the federal government had made reparations in cases where there were specific incidents in which there was evidence that the government had treated groups unjustly, Rabb said. That includes payments from the federal government to Japanese Americans interned during World War II.

Florida paid reparations to the survivors of a 1925 racially-motivated massacre in Rosewood, and North Carolina paid reparations to people involuntarily sterilized between 1929 and 1976 under a eugenics program.

More recently, a reparations plan to compensate the black community, funded by sales tax collected from recreational marijuana purchases, was approved last month in Evanston, Ill.

Evanston leaders said they see the dispensaries as an opportunity to pay for a local reparations program that would address the lingering institutional effects of slavery and discrimination, according to The Pioneer Press. The proposal passed 8-1, with Ald. Tom Suffredin, 6th Ward, voting against it.

A committee of residents is currently examining ways to spend the money and how to best support the black community through housing, education and economic incentives, according to The Pioneer Press. City estimates project the marijuana tax could generate $500,000 to $750,000 per year.

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