Evanston takes a small but historic step forward on America’s road to reparations

The nation’s first reparations payment to Black citizens seeks to address harm caused by the town’s racist housing policies.

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Evanston’s reparations ordinance is the brainchild of Robin Rue Simmons, an alderman in the suburb.

Kamil Krzaczynski/Getty file photo

Evanston deserves big credit for becoming the first U.S. city to begin paying out reparations to Black citizens, and for doing so in a way that has the potential to become a template for other cities and towns.

The suburb’s lawmakers last week approved a $400,000 housing grant program aimed at Black Evanstonians. The payout is the first to be made from a larger, $10 million reparations fund created in 2019. The grant program is designed to address the harm Black Evanston residents suffered from the suburb’s discriminatory housing policies during the 20th century.

But rather than issue funds to descendants of American slavery — something reparations advocates have sought for the past 150 years — Evanston seeks to make amends to Black residents who suffered specifically under one of the town’s own racially discriminatory practices.

It’s a small step. History will show it to have been a critical one.

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“It is not full repair alone in this one initiative, but we all know that the road to repair injustice in the Black community is going to be a generation of work,” Evanston Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, leader of the suburb’s reparation plan, told WTTW. “It's going to be many programs and initiatives and more funding.”

Relief for past harms

Ever since President Andrew Johnson reneged on Special Field Orders No. 15 — the 1865 military order that promised to give newly freed Black people 40 acres and a mule — there have been attempts at granting reparations to the formerly enslaved or their descendants.

In the 1890s, Callie House, a Black woman who had been enslaved, created the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. House envisioned a cotton tax levied against Southern plantations, which were still functioning after the Civil War, that would raise the equivalent of $2 billion in reparations.

The federal government would hound House for years, accusing her of fraud, and the organization died.

But by targeting cotton plantation owners, House was looking to make those most responsible for slavery pay for what they’d done. In some respects, it’s not dissimilar from Evanston’s current effort, in which the city is being held financially responsible for a host of racist housing policies that the suburb created or allowed, including steering Black homebuyers away from predominantly white areas and letting Northwestern University refuse housing to Black students after World War II.

The discriminatory housing practices not only were morally wrong but they also negatively impacted the financial fortunes of Black people, homeownership being a major pathway to greater wealth.

The descendants of Black residents who lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 or who suffered housing discrimination after 1969 would be eligible to receive $25,000 — to be used for home repairs or as a downpayment on a house.

“We’re very excited to see the first national direct benefit from some of the harms we’ve had to experience from the past,” National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America Co-Chair Kamm Howard told CBS News. “The more local initiatives occur, the more impetus there is on the federal government to act.”

Not true reparations?

While the federal government continues to wrestle with the question of reparations as it relates to slavery, Evanston is sending a message that states and municipalities also have a responsibility to make amends — concrete and substantive — for the specific racist sins of their past.

Just imagine Chicago’s potential laundry list, with everything from restrictive covenants to police brutality to “urban renewal” — what Black people derisively called Negro Removal at the time — and to the intentional overcrowding of classrooms in African American neighborhoods so as to resist school integration in the 1960s. Thousands of Black Chicagoans today can ruefully recall attending school in portable classrooms — basically trailers in school parking lots — while desks went unused in white schools across the “color line.”

But Cicely Fleming, a Black woman who was the lone Evanston alderman to vote against the suburb’s reparations plan, raised an interesting point in her dissent, warning local governments against an over-reliance on highly regulated forms of reparations, rather than simply making payments to those affected most, no strings attached.

“I think what we approved . . . was a housing program,” Fleming told the CBS News show, “Red and Blue.” “When African Americans — probably many Americans — when they think reparations, we usually think of the Holocaust or Japanese internment.”

Some survivors of those outrages, and in some cases their descendants, received direct cash reparations, albeit in mostly token or symbolic amounts.

Evanston’s first step is not without its weaknesses. But it is undeniably historic.

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