Mourners Remember Ray Jenkins, the Father of Reparations

Francis X. Donnelly, Detroit News, April 17, 2009

People laughed at him. Fellow blacks thought he was wrong. His own family wondered about his sanity.

If the concept of black reparations seems radical today, imagine what it sounded like in the 1960s.

That’s when a querulous real estate agent from Detroit became one of the first to call for African-Americans to be compensated by the U.S. for slavery.

Ray Jenkins, 88, toiled in obscurity as he pursued his quixotic quest for two decades, remembered speakers at his funeral service Thursday.

But the idea gained traction in the late 1980s and again in the late ’90s, with endorsements by civil rights groups, a best-seller on the issue, and a string of government apologies.

While “Reparations Ray” remained short of the prize, he was glad to live long enough to see the issue grow into a national debate, said speakers.

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Jenkins’ quest for reparations began in 1967, one year after he lost a malpractice lawsuit against Harper Hospital.

His 5-year-old daughter had gone to the hospital for a tonsillectomy but, during the operation, her heart stopped beating for five minutes, leaving her brain damaged. He charged the white doctors with being careless with his black child.

The hospital offered to settle the case but Jenkins turned it down. He lost at trial, coming away with nothing.

In subsequent interviews, he said the incident didn’t influence his decision to pursue reparations. Asked why he took up the cause, he said he didn’t know.

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The black reparations movement began gaining support in 1988 after the U.S. government awarded reparations to Japanese-Americans interned in camps during World War II.

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