Evanston has become the first city in the country to offer reparations for Black residents — 144 years since the end of Reconstruction.
Last week, Evanston aldermen voted to distribute $10 million over the next 10 years, using tax money from the sale of recreational marijuana. It starts with distributing $400,000 to eligible Black households. Those who qualify can receive $25,000 for home repairs, interest or late penalties owed to the city, or down payments on property.
Evanston Ald. Robin Rue Simmons said this housing program is just the start of Evanston’s full reparations plan.
“It’s the first tangible step. It alone is not enough,” said Simmons. “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. It’s going to be many programs and initiatives and more funding.”
Morris “Dino” Robinson, who founded the Shorefront Legacy Center, the North Shore’s only archive for Black history, advised the Evanston City Council’s reparations subcommittee on the history of the Black community in Evanston — and in particular, housing disparities.
“Since it was established about 1855 as a village, and in Evanston’s early history, there was no sense of a borderline of what an African American community was. Everybody in Evanston lived everywhere,” Robinson said. “But there was a mark after 1900 that showcased where Blacks were being pushed into one area of Evanston and that took over the course of about 30 years to see the major impact of that. They used zoning … and also Jim Crow policies that were not necessarily in the books, but were a part of social life. So over the course of 30 years from a diverse community, the Black community, specifically, was targeted and pushed into one area of Evanston.”
Evanston’s City Council passed the ordinance by a vote of 8-1, with the lone no vote coming from Ald. Cicely Fleming. She told “Chicago Tonight” she was not against the concept of reparations, but had specific objections to calling this plan reparations.
“We used to have, before I was on council, a first-time homebuyer’s program here in Evanston. So it wasn’t just for African Americans but similarly helped you with a down payment and such. And so my issue with that under the banner of reparations is that I don’t think that that’s reparations. I think that’s a housing plan,” Fleming said. “This money will be transferred from the city of Evanston to a bank on your behalf. I think the idea that African Americans had no or will be able to have no input on how this money is spent is, in my opinion, contradictory to reparations. It’s really telling people, ‘Hey, we’ve decided what’s best for you and it’s housing, and so we’re going to give the money to the bank.’”
The group Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations also opposes this program for similar reasons.
“Our group doesn’t oppose reparations as a whole. We believe that reparations are the correct thing to do here in the nation,” community organizer and former mayoral candidate Sebastian Nalls said. “But this current program, as it stands, is not reparations. …These social equity programs are not reparations. The fact that $25,000 are going to 16 individuals or eight families in total, and they can’t even come together to spend that money. They have no say in this matter. They can’t choose what to do with their money. They can’t put it into their Black business if they want to or save for education for their child, that they’re focused solely on housing and the money is going directly to the banks, those are just some of the problems we have with the program.”
But Kamm Howard of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America says by his definition, this program does constitute a kind of reparations.
“Reparations really is any resources targeted specifically toward Black people for the legacy of crimes committed during the period of enslavement, Jim Crow segregation or post Jim Crow era. And so this is a housing initiative that is a reparations housing initiative,” he said.
And while this is just the beginning for Evanston, Howard believes the plan offers hope for activists in other municipalities working to secure reparations for the descendants of enslaved people.
“It’s going to look different in every community locally because every community has its own challenges,” he said. “In Evanston the priority was housing, the next initiative may be something else, and that’s for the subcommittee to determine. But we are sure that what we’re seeing in Evanston can be utilized around the country.”