Evanston adds to a string of wins for reparations

April 15, 2021

The movement toward reparations for slavery received a significant boost on March 22, 2021 when an 8-1 majority of alderman in the Chicago suburb of Evanston, Illinois approved the first expenditures in a municipal reparations program designed to compensate Black residents for discriminatory housing practices.

The reparations program in Evanston has been in the planning stages since the $10 million program was first approved in 2019. At the time it was the first of its kind in the US. The specific expenditure approved on March 22, 2021 establishes a $400,000 housing grant program. In approving the measure, the aldermen said the reparations program would revitalize, preserve and stabilize homes owned by African Americans in Evanston while increasing home ownership and building wealth.

It is widely acknowledged that housing discrimination contributed greatly to the wealth gap, particularly during the Great Migration of Blacks from the South north in search of better paying jobs after World War II. Nationally, the average Black household holds just one tenth the wealth of the average white household.

Ald. Cicely Fleming, the lone vote against the measure, told the Chicago Tribune she voted against the measure because it was “a housing program with the title reparations,” in it, adding that the housing program does not allow “people to dictate the terms of how they are repaired.”

The historical concept of reparations for slavery goes all the way back to the defeat of the Confederate States of America in the Civil War. After capturing Atlanta and securing re-election for President Lincoln in November 1864, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders No. 15 on January 16, 1865. The order allotted land to some freed former slaves. The Lincoln Administration briefly formalized the practice of giving land to former slaves with passage of the Freedmen’s Bureau bills on March 3, 1865.

The following month, the war ended and Lincoln was assassinated. His successor, President Andrew Johnson, vetoed re-authorization of the Freedmen’s Bureau and Congress failed to override the veto, ending the first reparations effort. The next push occurred around 1900 when several Black organizations asked Congress to provide former slaves and their children with pensions. That effort died with the onset of World War I.

In November 1989, Congressman John Conyers introduced HR-3745, a bill which sought to establish a commission to make recommendations to Congress on remedies for “the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery.” The bill failed to receive a House vote, but Conyers has reintroduced it at every session of Congress. The bill continues to fail, but the issue keeps gaining public attention.

In October 2000 the California legislature passed a law requiring insurance companies doing business in the state to report on their role in slavery. The language in the law has been used to pass similar laws in other states including Illinois, Maryland and Iowa. Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee have passed legislation apologizing for slavery, but offering no financial compensation.

The case for reparations gained significant momentum economic credibility after author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates published “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic magazine in June 2014. Coates focused on discriminatory housing practices and their effect on the people who experienced it.

In July 2020, Asheville, North Carolina approved a resolution establishing a Community Reparations Commission which will ultimately lead to reparations. Several religious denominations have committed to the concept of reparations, including The Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Georgetown University, Princeton Theological Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminary of The Episcopal Church are among several educational institutions to approve some form of reparations.

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