If one of the great myths of slavery in the United States is that it occurred only in the South, then New Jersey serves as a telling counternarrative to that falsehood.
New Jersey was the last Northern state to abolish slavery, in 1866—many months after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which did not free slaves in Northern states, but only in the Southern “rebellious states” that had seceded from the Union.
Now, a statewide grassroots movement is pushing for reparations for the descendants of people enslaved in New Jersey. And unlike similar movements in other states, notably California, the effort in New Jersey comes so far without the official support of the state legislature, which has repeatedly declined to pass legislation calling for slavery reparations.
The New Jersey Reparations Council, founded in 2023, comprises a coalition of groups and individuals pushing ahead with formal recommendations for reparations in New Jersey.
New Jersey was the last Northern state to abolish slavery.
In doing so, the group is challenging New Jersey to reconsider its identity, often cast as a relatively liberal “Blue” northeastern state rather than a former slave state whose legislature remains intransigent on the question of reparations.
“I think New Jersey likes to think of itself as a progressive state, and in some ways it is,” says Jean-Pierre Brutus, convenor of the New Jersey Reparations Council, in a conversation with NPQ. “But on the issue of racial justice, it does not match its presentation to the rest of the nation.”
Brutus is also senior counsel for the Economic Justice Program of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which is serving as an organizational and logistical backbone of the New Jersey Reparations Council.
New Jersey, Brutus points out, has one of the largest racial wealth gaps in the nation, with the median net worth of White families standing at around $350,000 while the median net worth of Black and Latinx families is less than $10,000. The state has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, Brutus adds, and was dubbed by Black activists in the early 20th century, the “Georgia of the North.”
“And so, the work of the Council is to come up with a research plan to identify current issues in New Jersey of racial inequality, give a history of those back from the time of slavery to the present, and then develop reparative policies and solutions that are commensurate with the harms and that give a direction for the future, for reparations and reparative policies that could build a new, racially just New Jersey,” says Brutus.
Grounded in Activism
The New Jersey Reparations Council emerged out of activism around a bill introduced into the New Jersey State Legislature in 2019—before the so-called racial reckonings of 2020—which called for the establishment of a New Jersey Reparations Task Force to study the history of slavery in the state and develop proposals for reparations.
Activists rallied around the bill as a coalition going by the name “Say the Word Reparations.”
“A lot of people were hesitant to even say the word ‘reparations,’” notes Brutus. “Legislators [and] leadership asked us, ‘Why not call it something else?’”
Despite some progress—the bill has co-sponsors in both the state Senate and General Assembly—it has continually stalled since its introduction.
“After the racial justice protests and uprisings around George Floyd’s murder, there has been a resurgence of interest around reparations that helped galvanize increasing support for the bill,” says Brutus. “But yet, the bill has never had a hearing. There has been no movement because the leadership is not interested in having the bill held for a hearing.”
“So rather than wait for the legislature to do the right thing, we felt this was an urgent issue that needed to be addressed…and in order to have this conversation be ongoing, we thought that we could launch our own Council.”
Without Waiting for Permission
Unlike some entities that have state or local backing—for example, California’s Reparations Task Force—the New Jersey Reparations Council is proceeding with its work without any official sanction, permission, or recognition.
“We just couldn’t let this issue languish while the legislature decided what they were going to do. And so we took this up,” says Brutus. “But we still continue to advocate with the legislature to pass the [reparations] task force bill. These two can exist at the same time. They can be mutually constitutive and supportive.”
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Meanwhile, the Council is proceeding on its own with deliberation and care to avoid being rushed or performative. On the contrary, the Council has created a robust process, now underway, toward developing a comprehensive set of recommendations for what reparations for slavery in New Jersey could and should look like.
The Council comprises some four dozen subject-matter experts, from academics to field practitioners and activists, and has established nine subject-specific committees: History of Slavery in New Jersey, Public Narrative and Memory, Economic Justice, Segregation in New Jersey, Democracy, Public Safety and Justice, Health Equity, Environmental Justice, and Faith and Black Resistance.
Each committee is expected to hold at least one public meeting. The eventual full report, with recommendations for policies around reparations, is expected to be issued in June 2025.
“The report will include identifying each particular harm, the history of that particular harm up to the present, and then the reparative policies to end and repair that particular harm,” says Brutus.
The Council has already held its first public meeting on the history of slavery in New Jersey (archived video is available to the public for review); and it will be holding its next meeting this December on history of racial segregation in New Jersey.
“So much of the work that has been done around racial justice has been tinkering at the edges.”
A Growing Movement for Reparations
The work of the New Jersey Reparations Council might be taking place without the go-ahead of the state’s legislature, but it is hardly proceeding in a vacuum. Around the country, similar reparations efforts are underway.
Perhaps the most highly publicized such effort is that of California, where the state’s Reparations Task Force recently delivered to legislators its full report, a document of more than one thousand pages (an executive summary can be found here), on the history and legacy of slavery, its harmful impacts on African Americans from the era of slavery to the present, and recommendations for reparations that include legislative action on everything from housing policies to criminal justice and education reforms to public health measures to policies aimed at closing the massive racial wealth gap.
Other efforts toward reparations are taking place, albeit at widely varying stages of development, in Evanston, IL; Chicago; St. Louis; Asheville, NC; New York state; Detroit; and Boston—to name a few communities contemplating or taking action on reparations policies.
A bill in the US House of Representatives known as HR 40, which calls for a national apology for slavery and proposes reparations, has been stalled in Congress since 2019.
Meanwhile, the work—from compiling histories of the harms of slavery to the present day, to coming up with sound and practicable policy solutions to repair that harm—is not easy, acknowledges Brutus.
“Even though we have a significantly large Council and we have got a lot of wonderful experts, the Council still has limits,” notes Brutus. “The Council can only do so much and cover so many things.”
“What does it mean for Black people to be free?”
“What we do hope is that this is will continue an ongoing conversation that will be picked up by the state [and] that will be picked up by others. And that this will expand what people understand and think about how to link the past of slavery to the present,” adds Brutus.
Ultimately, the Council is hoping to contribute to the paving of new ground in terms of how Americans and American communities think about the legacy of slavery and what meaningful reparations could look like.
“So much of the work that has been done around racial justice has been tinkering at the edges, essentially harm reduction,” says Brutus. “But the Council is taking up an affirmative question: What does it mean for Black people to be free?”