George Adam Keller enslaved a man named Zeike Quarterman in 19th-century Georgia. Keller gave 10 acres of land to Quarterman and his wife, Grace, as a reparation. That land has remained in the Quarterman family since it was bestowed in 1890, but its legal categorization as heirs’ property has kept the Quartermans from using it.
Randy Quarterman, Zeike’s great-great-great grandson, came up against the Georgia Department of Transportation when the department tried to take an acre of that land through eminent domain in 2019.
That’s when he met Sarah Eisner, a descendant of George Adam Keller. Their story is featured in the new PBS documentary “The Cost of Inheritance.”
On this week’s episode of Basic Black, Quarterman and Eisner sat down with director Yoruba Richen and executive producer Chris Hastings, two of the creatives behind the film, to discuss their story, the history of Black land loss, and reparations.
“When I got the opportunity to direct this film about reparations, I was immediately excited and intrigued,” Richen said.
She reflected on how far the movement for reparations has come, from a fringe issue in the ’80s and ’90s to a mainstream point of discussion. When she heard of the Quartermans’ land, near where Union General William T. Sherman proposed to give land to formerly enslaved people in the South in the 40-acre promise, Richen knew that Eisner and Quarterman would become part of the documentary.
What could reparations look like in Boston and beyond? A new podcast from GBH News, What Is Owed?, sets out to unpack the history, tensions, precedents, and current movement that surround reparations, and what that means for a city with such a complicated past.
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“Sarah and Randy began to ask: What does it mean if we allow land reparations given to descendants of the enslaved back in 1890, to be taken away in 2019 by eminent domain?” states the website of the nonprofit organization they co-founded together, The Reparations Project.
In launching their nonprofit, Quarterman and Eisner brainstormed how to reconcile the United States’ history of slavery and racism.
“Black education was important to us, land redress was important to us. We talked about Black art,” Quarterman said. The Reparations Project also launched scholarships for Black students, funded by white donors, Eisner explained.
Collaboration between Quarterman and Eisner has been central to their work. “[I’m] working with Sarah to show that, from white folks’ perspective, don’t fear it: embrace it. From Black folks’ perspective, I’m not coming at this angry. ... Let’s see how we can work together and build something better,” Quarterman said.
Chris Hastings, editor-in-chief and executive producer of GBH’s WORLD, was eager to share the film with a broad audience.
“These personal stories, that’s what’s transformative about what’s happening right now,” he said. “Everyday people are standing up and saying, ‘No, this ain’t right. We’re gonna make a change.’”
As Quarterman and Eisner work on The Reparations Project, Richen is optimistic that reparations will happen on a larger scale, too.
“Look at things that have happened in this country that we thought would never happen,” like having a Black president and marriage equality, said Richen. “Things happen that we think will never happen, and I’m hopeful that that will be the case for reparations,” she said.
As for the current status of the Quarterman family’s land? They’ve been working with a team of Georgia attorneys for more than three years, Eisner said.
“We’re not done yet,” she said. “If they were charging us, it would be a million-dollar bill. And yet, when Georgia Department of Transportation came to Randy’s family and said, ‘We’re gonna take this acre of land, we’ll give you fair-market value if you can clear title in 12 months… Well, now we really know that’s completely impossible.’”
“I see how heirs’ property could diminish our land ownership,” Quarterman said. “But at the same time, the ones that’s here fighting for it, how can we win when there’s already these systems in place? To know that our history of Reconstruction and migrating within the country has happened, but then you expecting us to prove every heir? That’s impossible. The laws need to change,” said Quarterman.
Watch “The Cost of Inheritance” online for free.