When she was a little girl, Robin Rue Simmons’ grandparents created a line — an invisible one but one they told her she could not cross if she wanted to stay safe.
“I could not go south of Church Street. I could not go north of Simpson,” Simmons remembers.
It wasn’t until Simmons was in third grade and attending Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Laboratory School, beyond her grandparents’ boundaries, that she first saw what Evanston’s great unknown offered: palatial homes for white people, with wide boulevards, well-pruned trees and paid gardeners.
Those images stuck with Simmons, now the alderman representing the north suburb’s predominantly Black Fifth Ward.
On March 22, Evanston became the first U.S. city to approve a plan to make reparations available to Black residents to address the harm they suffered as a result of the city’s past discriminatory housing policies. Simmons, 45, was the driving force behind the reparations effort.
“We’re not a unique city in Evanston. We reflect the racial disparity across the nation,” said Simmons, who is Black and the single mother of two grown children. “What makes us different is that we decided to take this first step — not perfect, not complete.”
That first step means distributing a total of $10 million over the next 10 years to eligible Black households, beginning as soon as this summer.
To start, each qualifying Evanston household — Black residents with ties to the city’s Black community between 1919 and 1969 and those who were victims of housing discrimination as a result of the city’s polices after 1969 — would be eligible for $25,000 toward mortgage payments, home repairs and down payments on property, among other housing expenses.
The bulk of the funding for this that the Evanston City Council approved will come from a 3% tax on the sale of recreational marijuana.
Simmons has been busy since the reparations effort was passed. Besides her aldermanic duties, her job and caring for her mother, who has terminal cancer, she has been interviewed from outside her home by reporters from as far as Moscow, Paris, London and Tokyo. She said she has encouraged the foreign reporters to hop in a car and see what she first experienced nearly four decades ago.
“Just physically driving through the city, you can see the consequences of our anti-Black history visibly through our racial segregation,” she said.
When Simmons talks about her childhood, it isn’t with bitterness or envy.
“I didn’t feel in any way bad about my experience,” she said. “I saw that there was a difference.”
Only much later did she come to understand how that happened.
“I saw that it was historic, that it was intentional, that our community had these intentional barriers that didn’t allow us to access wealth, access neighborhoods beyond the west end of the Fifth Ward,” she said.
Evanston — which is now about 16% Black, according to Dino Robinson, a community historian who worked with Simmons on the reparations effort — began to see an influx of Black people in the early 1900s as they headed for Chicago from the South during the Great Migration.
“Between 1900 and 1930, there was a concerted effort to push as many Black people into one area of Evanston,” Robinson said.
The Land Clearance Ordinance of 1948 targeted scattered pockets of Black communities, allowing the city to declare them blighted and then demolish them, Robinson said. Racist lending policies added to the Black-white divide and housing discrimination.
Robinson tells the story of a former Evanston resident, Michael Summers, who in 1960 returned with his new bride after several years away, eager to buy a home.
The real estate agent told him he didn’t provide his services to Black people, according to Robinson.
Black people in Evanston were sandwiched into an area in the west-central part of the city, which is where Simmons grew up.
From a young age, Simmons liked taking charge. She was captain of the cheerleading squad and the student council president at Evanston Township High School.
She said she never was one for skipping school: “Never once. There was too much to learn and too much to change.”
“Robin has an entrepreneurial spirit, with a passion for righting wrongs,” said Freida Morris, her mother.
Long before her daughter pushed for reparations, her mother did the same. About 30 years ago, Morris urged the city council to consider some form of reparations. At the time, she was the assistant to the alderman then representing the same Fifth Ward her daughter now represents.
“It just fizzled out,” Morris said.
Simmons, who has owned a construction company and is now the director of innovation and outreach at a Woodlawn not-for-profit, said she wasn’t thinking about campaigning on the issue of reparations when she first ran for the office she has held since 2017. She said the idea didn’t hit her to do this until February 2019.
“I remember the day I had the revelation,” she said. “I was looking at some data. I was learning that we were among the highest percentage of Black home ownership in the nation at one point. Then, I saw that our wealth trajectory was on the decline — and that was before we had COVID-19.”
Simmons said she went to the city’s Equity and Empowerment Commission that day and that her idea was “instantly welcomed.”
“I’m not surprised because it’s Evanston,” she said. “We’re progressive. We’re a liberal city.”
Three town hall meetings followed. Altogether, hundreds of people showed up. Some suggested that reparations include offering free tuition at Northwestern University, providing business grants to Black residents and opening a new school in the Fifth Ward. But the consensus was that housing should be the priority.
Simmons introduced the reparations ordinance in September 2019. That November, the council voted 8-1 to authorize $10 million towards the effort from the sale of recreational marijuana.
Ald. Cicely L. Fleming who is Black, cast the lone vote against it, calling the housing program “restrictive” and describing the reparations plan as “dictating to Black people what they need and how they will receive it” rather than, say, providing “cash payments or other options that respect the humanity and self-determination of Black people and allow them to determine how best to repair themselves.”
Simmons’ mother watched the historic vote from her bedroom on a cable access channel.
“I was crying and screaming and just full of joy and pride — not just for Robin but for the community and for our country,” she said.
It took from that November 2019 vote until this March 22 for the council to authorize the release of the first $400,000 of that money.
“It took so long because it was very important to get the guidelines very solid because this has to pass legal muster, constitutional muster,” Simmons said. “We were fully expecting to have some conservative -funded challenge.”
In mid-March, a Texas legal defense fund that “challenges racial and ethnic classifications and preferences” sent a letter to Evanston Mayor Stephen Hagerty. In it, the group acknowledged Evanston’s “ugly history of housing discrimination” but called the reparations program a “drastic remedy.”
“It provides benefits not on the basis of whether someone has suffered past discrimination, but solely on their skin color or national origin,” the letter said. “Ironically, the city’s approach would resurrect the very legal theories that were used to justify racial discrimination in the past and would perpetuate racial classifications in a way that is incompatible with the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.”
Simmons said she has gotten plenty of hate emails and been a target of “social media terror” since the November 2019 vote.
“They called it ‘ghetto lottery,’ ” she said of people who have attacked her. “They said it was ‘reverse racism.’ They feel sorry for my city.”
She said she hasn’t replied to any of them — in line with what her mother taught her.
“I’ve always told her to drown out the noise and go for what you’re doing because it’s just noise,” Morris said.
Simmons said she used to just trash the emails.
“Lately, I’ve started to keep them,” she said. “I don’t reply to them. But I keep them to remember where we are at in this nation, what we’re still fighting about and who we are still fighting against.”