Yet each year for a decade, Rep. John Conyers Jr., a black Michigan Democrat, has introduced legislation to launch a study of reparations for slavery, and the measure has gone nowhere. Black Americans notice the discrepancy. They're not the only ones. When the United States pressured Swiss banks two years ago to return assets to descendants of Holocaust victims, Swiss diplomat Thomas Borer responded sharply: "Who are the Americans to be judging us? Whose wealth was founded on slavery?"
Many white Americans reject apologies and reparations as gratuitous acts that can only open ancient wounds. But Edward Ball, whose disinterment of his South Carolina ancestors' slaveholding past won the National Book Award last year, says white Americans must accept responsibility for their history.
"Often we're able to shrug it off as white folks and say, `Slavery? That's black folks' problem,' " says Ball, author of "Slaves in the Family." "But it's undeniable that our family damaged the lives of thousands of people, and our story is far from unique. At the end of the Civil War, there were 450,000 slave owners. Now they have tens of millions of descendants."
The country must reverse, Ball says, "a process of intentional forgetting. There were auction houses, whipping posts, slave prisons. None of it is commemorated."
Not so long ago
Nor are the wounds really so ancient. Slavery existed in this country for 246 years; it has been abolished in Maryland for just 135.
When PBS filmmaker Bagwell spoke at a West Baltimore church last fall, a frail, elderly woman hushed the audience with a reminder of how recently white Americans held black Americans in bondage.
"I was raised by former slaves," said Elsie Bumbry.
Bumbry, 73, was raised on an Edgemere farm by her great-grandparents, William Payne Thornton and Mertine Thornton, who grew up in slavery in Virginia. He was a stern, Bible-quoting farmer; she was an expert in folk medicine who sat beneath her grape arbor and told stories of the quirks and cruelties of white masters.
"Some black people still have the slave syndrome," a deep-seated feeling of inferiority, Bumbry says in her room at the Villa St. Michael nursing home in Northwest Baltimore. The dignified face of her great-grandmother looks down from an aging portrait on the wall. "Some whites still feel superior. I think it's ingrown from slavery. It's still there."
This conviction that the legacy of slavery contaminates race relations is one reason for the surge of interest in history. Growing African-American affluence is clearly another. Oprah Winfrey bankrolled the making of "Beloved," last year's film version of Toni Morrison's novel about a former slave. Bill Cosby has offered to help finance a slavery museum.
On a more modest scale, some African-Americans are confronting the past by collecting slavery memorabilia; yellowing bills of sale for human beings are a coveted item on Internet auction sites. In an incongruous trend that Newsweek has dubbed "slavery chic," some young people are wearing jewelry designed to be an unmistakable reminder of the past.
"Some people say, `Why do I want to remember slavery?' " says Shawn Baker, president of a Randallstown business called Ujaama Inc. that sells "freedom bracelets," designed to resemble iron slave shackles. "I say, `It's part of our history.' "
Boom in genealogy
But the most striking way in which the growth of the black middle class has fueled interest in slavery is the boom in African-American genealogy.
Angela Walton-Raji, an administrator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is one of many genealogists shattering the myth that descendants of slaves cannot trace their roots. Among her enslaved ancestors, she has found some who were owned by Indian tribes in Oklahoma and others who, after joining the Union army, were taken prisoner by Nathan Bedford Forrest, the notorious Confederate general who later led the Ku Klux Klan.
"And then they escaped!" she declares. "Can you believe that? They escaped from Nathan Bedford Forrest!"
Recently, she took her research across the racial divide. On a tip from a librarian, she contacted a white Mississippi genealogist, the widow of the man whose great-grandfather owned Walton-Raji's great-great-grandmother.
They have exchanged documents and plan to meet in Mississippi this summer. Their connection is one of a growing number of genealogical contacts across racial lines, quieter versions of the recent quest by descendants of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's slave and presumed lover, to be recognized as Jefferson's descendants.
Walton-Raji, who is the host of a weekly African-American genealogy chat session on America Online from her Catonsville home, says she finds research in the dusty archives an antidote to anger, converting enslaved ancestors from vague victims into human beings. She uncovered, for example, the real story of her great-grandmother's brother, who disappeared from family records.