Since the mid 1800s, there has been a persistent call to award federal reparations to Black Americans as amends for the generational harms of slavery and systematic racism.
Following the Civil War, the Republican Party attempted to make these amends by distributing “40 acres and a mule” to every former slave family. This proposal was swiftly vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, which set the precedent for the federal government to continuously ignore reparation demands in the following decades.
In recent years, calls for reparations have picked up steam. According to a 2019 poll from the Associated Press, 74% of Black Americans are in favor of reparations. In 2014, author Ta-Nahisi Coates was widely praised for his piece in The Atlantic, “The Case For Reparations” which addresses how the legacy of slavery resulted in generational harm through an analysis of Chicago’s discriminatory housing practices. In this piece, Coates writes that reparations would require “a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”
On January 3, 2019, Rep. Shelia Lee (D-TX) introduced the bill H.R. 40 to the House of Representatives. This bill would establish a federal commission dedicated to studying and developing a reparation proposal that addresses the generational harm of slavery. Currently, the bill remains unpassed by Congress.
However, one midwestern city of 74,587 is leading the charge as it becomes the first US city to implement a funded reparations program. That city: Evanston, IL.
Evanston, which was named the fourth wealthiest city in the midwest in 2016, might not be the first place that comes to mind as a city in need of a reparations program. But this northern Chicagoland suburb has a dark history of redlining and segregation that has led to consistent underinvestment in its Black community. For Robin Rue Simmons, alderman of Evanston’s 5th Ward and the leader behind this initiative, it was time for the city to pay up.
“I thought we might do something bold and different, something as bold and as radical as the Jim Crow-ing and the redlining and the various forms of oppression that we have right here in Evanston,” she said at a virtual town hall on January 31.
The origin of the oppression Simmons references dates back to 1900, when Evanston’s small Black population began to steadily increase. According to a 2020 city-commissioned report by local historians Dino Robinson and Jenny Thompson, white residents quickly took notice of their new neighbors and feared the gradual erosion of Evanston’s racial homogeneity. A 1904 Chicago Tribune headline reads, “North Shore Towns Aroused: Influx of Negroes alarms the Residents of Evanston, Wilmette, Winnetka, and Glencoe.”
White residents soon began implementing real estate policies, homeowner’s associations and public segregated practices that pushed Black residents into a small, dense region of West Evanston, now known as the 5th ward.
“You had landlords refuse to rent to Black families, banks that refused lending to Black families to buy a house,” Robinson says. “If you did want to buy a house, the real estate agencies would only show you a certain area in Evanston.”
To dislocate Black families living outside these boundaries, white Evanston homeowners formed the West Side Improvement Association to buy homes at risk of being bought by a Black family or to “buy back” homes that had already been sold to Black residents. In 1921, the city passed a zoning ordinance that designated almost every area outside of the 5th Ward for commercial use.
These tactics proved successful. According to Andrew Weise, historian at San Diego University and author of Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the 20th Century, of the 1400 homes constructed in Northwest Evanston between 1920 and 1930, not one was occupied by Black residents. A prime example of the impact of these policies lies within the demographics of Foster School, which was located in the 5th Ward and closed in 1979. When the school opened in 1905, the student body was 100% white, but by 1945, it was 99% Black.
According to Robinson and Thompson’s report and many Black residents with generational ties to Evanston, these practices resulted in an inequitable landscape for the Black families that can still be seen today.
“Those conditions and those actions obviously stripped away wealth, real earned wealth,” Alderman Simmons says. “It created barriers for the Black community and it is in part responsible for a wealth gap, which includes $46,000. We have a life expectancy difference between the average Black and white Evanston resident of 13 years.”
In June 2019, the city council formed a reparations subcommittee after passing a resolution that committed “to end structural racism and achieve racial equality.” The following November, the city established a reparations fund—which comes from the first $10 million in sales tax revenue from legal cannabis.
“It’s sort of fortuitous that this idea of reparations came forward just as Illinois marijuana legalization happened,” says Melissa Wynne, Alderman of the 3rd Ward. “So this is a way of using funds from something that is legal that was once illegal and was used to really punish people in the Black community.”
In the summer of 2019, the city held multiple public meetings, and housing was a consistent issue that residents recommended that the reparations fund address, according to Alderman Simmons. In the past two decades, Evanston’s Black population has dropped from 22.5% to 16.5%, which has often been attributed to a lack of affordable housing and high property taxes.
The first monetary focus of the reparations fund, pending a vote from the City Council, will be directed toward housing in the form of a direct benefit of $25,000 to 16 Black residents. To be eligible, applicants must have lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 or be a direct descendant of someone who did. According to Simmons, this benefit can go toward any housing related expense, including mortgage payments, a down payment on a new property or renovations.
Despite its historic significance, the execution of this reparations plan is being met with criticism from Black residents who would prefer direct cash payments. Ndona Muboyayi, founder of the Black Evanstonian, a Facebook group for legacy Black Evanston residents, says the scope of the reparations bill is too narrow.
“So many people are disheartened about the fact that the current initiative does not meet the needs of the community,” she says. “Many of our legacy families already own property, so they’re not going to buy a home.”
Muboyayi says that many eligible Black residents reside in senior living centers, making a housing benefit impractical.
On March 1, some community members published a Facebook page titled “Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations” to air their grievances with the program’s housing initiative, and on March 6, the group held a demonstration against the program outside of the MadMen Dispensary. A key complaint from the group is that all Black community members should be eligible for reparations, regardless of residential history. In a statement released March 2, the group stated that “the lack of community input has resulted in a reparations plan that would be detrimental to Black people and the larger movement.”
City council members, such as Alderman Wynne, say that while they acknowledge the criticism, the city is bound legally to connect reparations payments to a specific harm in order to avoid legal challenges.
“The tricky part is that there are equal protection laws so that you have to treat people equally unless you tie it to a particular harm,” Wynne says.
“I know we’re a model and it’s not perfect. And we have more work to go. This is just one step,” says Kimberly Richardson, Evanston’s deputy city manager.
The local and national response to this initiative is undoubtedly complex. On one hand, Evanston is gaining national recognition for a historic program for which it has been given no blueprint to follow in the midst of federal inaction. But within the city, there are community stakeholders that stress that this execution of funds is not enough. Many residents like Muboyayi refuse to stop speaking up until the city proposes a reparations program that sufficiently makes amends for the cumulative, generational harms that have been inflicted upon Evanston’s Black community.
“If I have to calculate every single relative who owned property who, after a period of time, their mere existence and well-being and ability to amass wealth was contingent on the color of their skin, we would be in the billions,” Muboyayi says. “It is not enough, it’s insufficient. We’ve had to overcome insurmountable barriers to be able to survive under acts of constant terrorism and extremism generation after generation.”