How the 1st US city to fund reparations for Black residents is making amends

Monday, March 1, 2021

Evanston, Illinois, is like a lot of American cities. The city just north of Chicago appears picturesque, updated and grand on one side -- but not far away, one can see the signs of economic and racial segregation, despite the city's proud, diverse and liberal reputation.

What sets Evanston apart from other cities, however, is its groundbreaking plan to address the impact of that segregation and Black disenfranchisement: reparations.

The impetus for the city's reparations resolution, first passed in 2019 and spearheaded by 5th Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, is rooted partially in Rue Simmons' experience growing up Black in Evanston.

"Early in my childhood I was invited to have a play date," she recalled. "My white friends never had a play date at my home."

Visiting a white friend's neighborhood, she noticed, "the streets were wider. The trees were taller. The homes were bigger and brighter. As a young child, I recognized that difference."

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"I never felt, in any way, envious," she said. "I never had that feeling like, 'Why isn't my family doing better?' It was obvious that it was the barrier of race that kept us from that."

Rue Simmons still lives in the ward she represents. She says over time, resources were stripped away from her neighborhood. That, she said, coupled with a lack of investment, led to an ever-increasing wealth gap between white and Black residents in the city.

She hopes that her work will help families in her neighborhood that are "burdened ... get some relief" via reparations, which will first be distributed this year in increments of up to $25,000 per eligible resident to use for housing.

The discussion on reparations has been ongoing -- and controversial -- in the U.S. since slavery was abolished in 1865. Originally, reparations were proposed to make amends for slavery, which built the nation's wealth -- but excluded Black Americans from it.

Reparations first arose as a promise, in early 1865, to redistribute land in the southeast U.S. to formerly enslaved people. For decades, the promise is often invoked in the phrase, "40 acres and a mule."

It was a promise left unfulfilled. By the end of 1865, President Andrew Johnson overturned the land redistribution order. In the decades since, Black Americans have endured a succession of injustices, from Black codes to Jim Crow and redlining -- American policies that broadly kept generational wealth-building out of reach for many Black communities.

Today, Evanston is the first city in the U.S. to fund reparations, committing $10 million over the next decade in an attempt to repay Black residents for the wrongs and accumulated losses incurred by generations of racism.

Rue Simmons said she didn't start her elected career "even discussing reparations. It was not something I had planned to pursue," she said.

"I was looking at data," she continued. "I was looking at what we had done, what more we could do, and reparations was the only answer."

She explained that any more of the status quo would sustain "the oppressed state and the disparity that we have and that we have had for years. That's all it could do. More of the same."

"The only legislative response for us to reconcile the damages in the Black community is reparations," she said.

Rue Simmons and her colleagues had the support of local historian Dino Robinson in building the case for reparations. Robinson is the founder of the Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston, an archive dedicated solely to chronicling and celebrating the local Black history that had long gone ignored.

In a 70+ page report, Robinson documented discrimination and racism in Evanston that dated back to the late 1800s.

"We anticipate litigation to tie things up with the premise that 'You cannot use tax money that's from the public to benefit a particular group of people,'" Robinson said, referring to opposition to the city's plan. But, he countered, "the entire Black community historically has paid taxes, but were not guaranteed the same benefits."

He said part of the resistance is due to a lack of education.

"The one comment I hear most often is, 'I did not know,'" said Robinson. "'I did not know there was segregation in Evanston.' 'I did not know that your housing mortgage is higher than mine but we have the same income."

But records paint a clear picture of exactly how racial inequality developed in the city.

"Black community members were moving throughout Evanston and forming ... Black pockets in the city of Evanston," Robinson said. "It caused the white community to start panicking, like, 'What do we do about this?'

Articles, reports and studies were conducted on the Black community to discuss what should be done, Robinson said. And Evanston, like many cities across the country, embraced the practice of redlining.

"Redlining was a federal project to determine the market values of areas and neighborhoods," Robinson explained. "[There were] four categories, 'A' being the highly desired area, 'D' the lower, lowest-value properties. The 'D' areas were usually relegated to the Black community. 'D' was always in red."

In Evanston, Black residents were moved into a triangle-shaped area that became the 5th Ward, deliberately segregating them from white families, sought-after property, and ultimately, wealth.

The 5th Ward was bordered by what was then a sewage canal on one side and far removed from public transportation and the city's downtown. According to Robinson's report, homes in the area had smaller lot sizes, and at the time, many had no electricity, water or sewers.

"The only option to buy in Evanston was basically in the 5th Ward," Robinson said. "Banks in Evanston would not loan to Black families for housing [and] the real estate agencies would not show you anything other than the 5th Ward."

In the late 1940s, the city also demolished some homes belonging to Black families that were outside of the 5th Ward -- or physically took them from their foundations and moved them into the redlined boundaries.

"The historic redlining impacts our community today," Rue Simmons said. "That map still is the map of our concentrated Black community, our disinvestment, our inferior infrastructure."

Today, white people in Evanston make nearly double the income and have double the home value of their Black neighbors according to the most recent U.S. Census. This racial wealth gap is prevalent nationally, with Black Americans possessing less than 15% of the wealth that White Americans have, according to the Federal Reserve 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances.

Black residents who lived through redlining in Evanston -- and their descendants -- are eligible for reparations. That includes 98-year-old, Benjamin Gaines Sr. and his son, Benjamin Gaines Jr. The Gaines family moved to Evanston in 1959.

"We did something that not a whole lot of Black families were able to do in Evanston," Gaines Sr. told ABC News. "That's build a house from the ground up."

But Gaines Sr. said there's no doubt in his mind that the two-year process to find a plot and get financing was much more difficult than it would have been for a white man.

"The contractor, he said, 'You find a lot anywhere in Evanston, and I'll build whatever you want," Gaines Sr. said. "Well, when he said that, he meant in the Black neighborhoods ... It was just the way it was."

Gaines Sr. said he also had "big trouble" financing his home, and that he feels these problems are still present today.

"It's the old cliché about, 'The more things change, the more they remain the same.'"

Younger members of Gaines Sr.'s family say that while modern-day Evanston is outwardly progressive, inequality is still a problem.

"Growing up in Evanston for me was definitely good, despite the racism that I faced," Gaines Sr.'s grand-nephew, Jared Davis said. The father of three said he will apply for reparations, "because it's owed."

Davis' kids, 25-year-old Nic and 16-year-old Myah, have also been involved in their family's discussion on reparations, expressing fatigue over having to justify why they're owed, with the city's history so well-documented at this point.

"I don't even think it's my job to justify to you, like, why we need reparations," said Nic. "Do you not live here? Do you not know? Did you not see the demographics changing throughout the years? Like, we knew it was racist."

Alderman Rue Simmons has also noted a shrinking Black population in Evanston as a result of historic redlining, modern gentrification and rising property taxes. Black residents currently make up 16% of Evanston's population, but, Rue Simmons pointed out, "we've had much higher in the past."

Now, according to Rue Simmons, the $25,000 reparations benefit for housing is meant to combat "a lack of affordability, lack of access to living wage careers here in the city, and a lack of sense of place."

Evanston proposed a novel idea to fund reparations -- a 3% tax on newly legal recreational marijuana sales.

"It's the most appropriate use for that sales tax," Simmons said. "In our city, 70% of the marijuana arrests were in the Black community. And we are 16% of the community. All studies show that Blacks and white [people] consume cannabis at the same rate."

This funding solution has put Evanston ahead of any other city in America, and on the radar of Danny Glover, an actor and long-time reparations activist who has been vocal in his support of House Resolution 40.

The 31-year-old bill was so named to invoke the broken promise of "40 acres and a mule." The proposal would create a commission to study and develop a national plan for reparations.

The bill was first proposed in 1989 by Rep. John Conyers. He re-introduced it every year he served until he resigned in 2017. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has taken on the mantle. She cites "the idea of reparations is unworkable politically or financially" as the reason opposition has fought the bill for decades.

Glover testified before the House Judiciary subcommittee to support HR-40 in 2019.

"[It] is an opportunity to have a commission to study reparations, but also the further contexts in which we look at slavery and the impact that it had on us," he told ABC News.

Glover traveled to Evanston in 2019 to speak at a reparations town hall because, in his words, the city "did something that no other city has done in the country."

"If we're able to use that as a platform, maybe other cities might adopt the whole idea of this," he continued.

In Washington, the issue is incredibly divisive.

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell said in 2019 "it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate," and said "none of us currently living are responsible" for what happened 150 years ago. Lee currently has backing from 173 cosponsors, all Democrats.

It gained renewed attention this winter, but still has yet to advance out of committee.

Simmons says reparations are broadly supported in Evanston, despite some questions from other city leaders over whether the recreational marijuana sales tax revenue can sustain the fund in the longer-term.

For the Gaines-Davis family, and other Black Evanstonians who proudly support reparations, questions remain about how far $25,000 can go -- even as a first step -- to fulfill long-broken promises.

"It's a drop in the bucket... But it's better than nothing. It's better than what I have now," Benjamin Gaines Sr. said. "Hopefully, before I die, I'll see the world change."

Nic Davis is hesitant to celebrate too soon.

"Uncle Ben [has been] telling all these stories and things and making you understand, like, change is not an easy thing," he said, expressing wariness over years of support for progressive promises that have taken too long to fulfill throughout history.

"[There were] people who were acting like they're ready for change, and behind closed doors other things are happening, right?" he said. "We see that all the time in politics right now."

"What does it say that my 25-year-old has to feel like that?" his father Jared Davis said.

Myah Davis said she's learned a lot from her elders.

"They constantly talk to me about issues that I would not know anything about if I wasn't in the family that I'm in," she said. "[In school] we aren't really taught about a lot of Black history outside of, 'Oh, you know, slaves came from Africa.' I think part of reparations - it can't just be money. Like, you have to teach us what we need to know."

Rue Simmons acknowledges the concerns of those community members who feel $25,000 is not enough.

"$25,000 is life-saving for some families right now," she said. "But relative to the injury, it's not nearly enough. And I get that."

That's why she hopes more relief will come from reparations at the state and federal levels, including HR-40.

But Evanston's leaders are not waiting for Washington. They plan to begin dispersing funds this spring and hope that is just the first reparative step for Evanston, and for other cities across the country.

"When I introduced reparations in Evanston it was always the first step of many to come," Simmons said. "There is a lifetime of work ahead of me and my children for us to get to justice for the Black community."

She said she remains hopeful, and that she must, to do this work.

"I do believe that we're committed as a city. And I believe that we will advance reparations," Simmons said. "I can't wait to celebrate the family that receives their first reparation benefit. I cannot wait for that day."

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