At bill signing for New York reparations commission, lawmakers share personal histories

The commission will study the history of slavery – and how to make up for its damaging impacts.

State Sen. James Sanders Jr. spoke about how racism has impacted his family.

State Sen. James Sanders Jr. spoke about how racism has impacted his family. Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul

Gov. Kathy Hochul signed legislation Tuesday that will create a commission to study reparations and the lasting impacts of slavery on Black New Yorkers. For Black lawmakers and advocates at the event, the historic bill signing was personal as they shared their own experiences with the history of racism that has affected the state even following the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827. As much as 40% of colonial era families owned people in New York, and the official New York City slave market opened in lower Manhattan in 1711 with the blessing of the City Council, remaining until 1762. After state-level abolition, New York’s economy remained deeply intertwined with slavery, and white business leaders continued to profit from it for decades. 

In a relatively rare occurrence, both legislative leaders attended the bill signing event, along with bill sponsors state Sen. James Sanders Jr. and Assembly Member Michaelle Solages. State Senate Majority Leader Andrea-Stewart Cousins spoke about the systemic barriers that her parents faced. “I’m the daughter of a woman who was born in Harlem New York who wanted to be a lawyer,” Stewart-Cousins said. “She couldn’t be that, but she was the best secretary you could find… But corporate America did not, would not hire her.” She spoke about her father, a WWII veteran who served in a segregated army only to return to a segregated country, working for a corporation that “guaranteed he would stay in the basement because there would not be any promotion for him.”

Stewart-Cousins said her parents died before they could see her become a state senator, or become the first Black woman to lead the state Senate. And like many other Black families, they had no generational wealth to leave their children due to the ongoing disparities and racism they faced. “They didn't give us any inheritance,” Stewart-Cousins said. “We didn't have anything other than their faith, their courage, their name, their fight and their fortitude.” She added that “the disparities were real, they were contrived, they were derived, they were deliberate.”

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said that he feels that the reparations commission bill is one of his “callings” from when he was made speaker in 2015, the first Black person to hold the position. “It’s a great footnote in history, but if that’s the only way I’m going to be remembered when I’m done, then I would not have fulfilled, I’d say, the mission,” Heastie said. “Today’s bill signing is one of those missions that I feel was my calling when my colleagues gave me the privilege of being speaker.”

Sanders Jr. spoke about his father, a sharecropper, and his mother, a domestic worker. He described himself as an immigrant after his family “fled the South.” “We fled tyranny, we fled terror,” Sanders said. “We fled an unjust government working on terrorism.” Sanders said that his father dropped out of school in the third grade “to make other people rich,” but that he never felt angry about it. “All he wanted was a chance at equality, and that’s what we’re fighting for today – the equality of opportunity,” he said. Sanders said he was proud that his son was in the audience for the bill signing on Tuesday.

With the signing, New York became only the second state in the country to establish a commission to study and make recommendations on the ongoing impacts of slavery and the prospect of reparations. A California task force earlier this year recommended cash payments to descendents of slaves, concluding those descendents could be entitled to over $1 million each from the state. Like in California, the report from the New York commission would be nonbinding and is meant to offer a road map for lawmakers to enact policies meant to close persisting racial disparities.