Longtime Evanston resident Judith Treadway speaking at first community reparations meeting at Gibbs-Morrison on July 11.                RoundTable photos

Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, started off the City’s first community meeting on reparations July 11 stressing that the emphasis should be on seeking solutions to repairing past injustices to the City’s African American community.

“I think we are all pretty clear on how we got here and what the impact has been, so there will be more meetings to talk  about that,” she said, addressing a turnout of close to 40 people.

“I’m hopeful that we can walk away [from this meeting] with actionable plans and suggestions, recommendations that I can get support from my colleagues on the Council,” she said, “and actually bring some repair.”

Community members did not disappoint her at the 90-minute meeting at Gibbs-Morrison, 1823 Church St. An equal or larger number of community members attended a follow-up meeting July 13 at the Morton Civic Center.

Altogether, nearly 100 community members weighed in either in person or through email, sharing their suggestions on reparations and ways to move forward, Ald. Rue Simmons said.

The meetings were officially part of a subcommittee of the Evanston Equity and Empowerment Commission. The group is hoping the discussion will be included in a larger Truth and Reconciliation initiative that the Commission will be part of, said Jane Grover, former Seventh Ward alderman and a member of the Equity and Empowerment Commission.

In line with that move, Ald. Rue Simmons is proposing to create a fund that would be used to compensate for individual and communal damage left by historical racism and discrimination.

“This is not a settlement but an opportunity to mitigate some historical damages,” she said in her invitation to community members before the July 11 meeting. “The results from these meetings will be used to support the creation of the policy and establish guidelines for the use of potential funds.”

At the meetings, speakers covered a wide range of ideas on how funds might be used.

“Let’s estimate how many years those people were disenfranchised as well as their descendants. Let’s do an estimate of what we now would think the reparations would be in dollars.”

At the July 11 meeting, Henry Wilkins, a District 65 parent, spoke of his group’s goal of bringing a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) school to the Fifth Ward, where the highest percentage of African Americans in the City live.

Currently, he said, “kids who live in the Fifth Ward are bused to four different schools.”

A school in closer proximity to home removes the transportation barriers parents face, restoring a lost intimacy residents once had with a school in their neighborhood, the group argues.

“We think a robust STEM program will ensure the children are prepared for any academic discipline,” Mr. Wilkins said.

Other speakers cited the need for greater income-based housing affordability, assistance to landlords and cooperative kitchens, with additional funds going toward the Community Room and library at the Fleetwood Jourdain Community Center.

Longtime Fifth Ward resident Carlis Sutton said a revenue stream is needed for seniors and others whose homes are in poor condition.

Under his proposal, the government would either make available no-interest loans or send in contractors to repair these properties.

“When we’re talking about reparations and giving all kinds of excuses and apologies, I don’t even want to abide by that. Let’s get to some vital action,” he said.

“First, there are about 25 identified elderly people who need roofing and windows and tuck-pointing. Their homes are over 100 years old. The homes were not built to survive more than 30 years, so this is the third generation living in the same homes.”

Others like Janet Alexander Davis called for more assistance to go to job training. She made reference to a recent report to a City Council committee indicating the contractor was far short of the City’s goal in the hiring of minorities and local residents on the $53 million Robert Crown project.

Ms. Davis said the problem existed in the 1980s when she worked for a State agency and went around to job sites, checking to see that contractors were meeting their minority hiring goals.

“It’s like catch-up,” she said. “We don’t have the people, because they weren’t given the opportunity at all.”

Judith Treadway, active in school and community issues and a longtime local NAACP officer, suggested some of the reparation funds go toward research of the City’s first black citizens.

“Let’s estimate how many years those people were disenfranchised as well as their descendants,” she said. “Let’s do an estimate of what we now would think the reparations would be in dollars.”

Former Fifth Ward Alderman Delores Holmes, also a member of the Equity and Empowerment Commission, co-chaired the meeting with Ald. Rue Simmons.

She assured participants at the meeting that the Commission planned to delve deeper into the effects of discrimination as part of its Truth and Reconciliation process.

“That’s going to happen,” she said. “And then we’ll pull back all of the onion skin that needs to be talked about in every area.”

Ald. Rue Simmons estimated that $10 million would be needed for the fund initially, spread out over 10 years, to compensate for the individual and communal damage as a result of historical racism and discrimination.

At the same time, “$10 million seems very low when you consider in this area – the west end, over decades – every home in this community was devalued.”

Revenue sources could include a portion of the graduated real estate transfer tax that Council members passed as part of the budget last year.

Some other possible funding sources could come from the sale of public property and rounding off of water bill payments, a portion going towards the fund, she said.

In creating a fund, the group should also consider a public awareness effort to the white community, suggested Nina Kavin, editor of Dear Evanston, “because in a lot of ways it’s the white community which needs to do the reparations, whether we were here or not back then.”

Evanston resident Bobby Burns said that the $10 million is a good start, given the challenges of identifying where the funds are going to be coming from.

At the same time, “$10 million seems very low when you consider in this area – the west end, over decades – every home in this community was devalued,” “ he said. “That’s what redlining was. Every single home that was in this community was devalued, which meant when they [owners] sold their homes, they got less.”

Taking into account the harm done over decades, “I think we have to be a little more aggressive with that number,” he suggested.

Ald. Rue Simmons agreed that $10 million was “way low.”

“But I’m trying to be very realistic about an attainable goal that I can do in my seat as an alderman,” she said. She said she was hopeful that if it passed it would inspire institutions in town to also step up and contribute.

A separate meeting of the City’s Equity and Empowerment Commission, held on July 13 in the Morton Civic Center drew more than 50 residents.

 The focus of this meeting was to work towards a proposal of attainable plans to bring to City Council, using ideas collected at the initial meeting on July 11.

“This has been a long time coming – to get to this sort of focus and discussion. It is my opinion, based on the continued wealth gap, opportunity gap and education gap, that an intentional repair to restore and uplift black people is necessary,” said Ald. Rue Simmons.

“Now we have the action step,” said Ms. Holmes, in referring to the focus of the July 13 meeting.

After a group discussion where participants shared their viewpoints and reviewed information gathered at the previous meeting, small groups were formed. Each group worked to propose issues or areas on which to focus for reparations in each of five categories:

• History/Culture: restrictive covenants/zoning and Shorefront Legacy Center;

• Finance: titling of homes/insurance and entrepreneurship;

• Education: educate people why reparations are needed and outreach;

• Power Structure: civic leadership class/engagement/learning to be an ally and mandated change/ordinances;

• Institutions/Systems: faith-based groups across denominations/racial healing in coordination with local institutions and job training for those who have been incarcerated/hiring Evanston police officers who live in the community.

In her closing remarks, Ald. Rue Simmons noted that U.S. Census data confirms that black residents made up 22+% of the Evanston population in 2000 while today it is 17%. She said the community has lost 10,000 black residents who have moved primarily because of employment, housing issues and discrimination.

The Equity and Empowerment Commission met on the evening of July 18 and spent the majority of its time discussing potential reparations work.

The meeting opened with citizen comments, all related to reparations. Citizens who spoke expressed hope that any resolution or proposal developed by the Commission would not just stop in the City Council, but move forward. Roberta Hudson, a participating citizen, said that one important way for the reparations work to advance would be to support older citizens who are struggling to save their homes. “These were some of first minorities in Evanston, or the offspring of those people,” said Ms. Hudson. “Evanston has neglected these homeowners. It has allowed developers to come in and take the TIF money, when it could have been going to development of affordable housing and supporting minority homeowners. The problem in this City has not changed.”

Notes from the previous meetings on reparations were included in packet for the July 18 meeting and Commission member and former alderman Delores Holmes offered an overview of the two meetings. She explained that at the meeting held July 13, potential reparation actions were divided into five priority areas: history and culture, finance, education, institutions and systems, and power structure.

Ms. Holmes said that the meetings had been focused on solutions and repairs that would address the racial wealth gap in the community. “I was inspired and excited by the excitement of the group, as well as the cooperation of everyone,” said Ms. Holmes.

Commission Chair Jane Grover, also a former alderman, added that previous discussions had been framed as a brainstorm – and that all ideas were be reported.

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, who spoke at the July 18 meeting , said, “Intentional repair is the only way to get some progress in this space . . . I’m asking people to stay engaged in the process, to retain hope and believe in a process that will bring change.” She added that the Commission’s work could go to the City Council as early as September.
                                                                                                    By Ned Schaub

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.