Ald. Robbin Rue Simmons

Evanston City Council members are moving forward with a commission’s recommendation on reparations, including property tax relief and housing assistance for the City’s black residents, to address the wealth and opportunity gap those citizens have experienced because of past discriminatory practices.

Aldermen voted 9-0 at their Sept. 9 meeting in favor of accepting the recommendations.  The proposal will next go to a Council subcommittee that will work on developing a more detailed proposal. The subcommittee will work with “the support of our legal department,” said Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, because of concerns that have been raised about the reparations program, the benefits of which are limited to one segment of Evanston’s population.

Addressing the Council before the vote, Ald. Simmons said, “We are at this point because we have done a lot in Evanston to acknowledge discrimination and oppression and racism, and we have had resolutions and various policies and different honorific actions over the lifetime of Evanston, and it has just not been enough.

“I don’t know how many other communities, localities, municipalities are taking on the burden of reparations all by themselves.  I can’t believe it’s happening every place. I think we need help. Let’s go get it, because if reparation is so well embraced by our community, then everybody has to help.” Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward

“The racial wealth gap continues, and the black residency rate continues to drop,” she said. “If we want, as one of our core values, to have racial equality and black equality and diversity inclusion as something that we celebrate and something that is a top value people usually state when they talk about why they love Evanston so much, I think we are the community that is prepared to direct this with reparations and not shy away from it.

“It might be uncomfortable,” she said. “But we have demonstrable evidence of damages done specifically, intentionally, to black Evanston residents and targeted neighborhoods in Evanston. And I think from what I have seen in my experience in doing community work, elected and before being elected, that an intentional repair, an intentional policy, a budget that calls out support to black Evanston residents specifically is what we should be working towards.”

Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, stressed that the action concerns present conditions too.

“It’s not just a historical story problem,” he said. “It’s about present, existing impediments to opportunities. The list is very long – we have existing problems now – educational opportunities, predatory lending, deceptive actions. I’ve seen a number of situations where we have reverse mortgages. It’s a lot of subversive things that continue to go on in the community. So these are things that we need to take and implement.”

The Council action came after an emotional public comment session, in which many of the 30 speakers at the Sept. 9 meeting, both black and white, spoke of the iniquities of historical racism and the need for the City to live up to its reputation for embracing diversity.

“We can invite famous authors and thinkers, teachers who inspire us for an hour to be better,” said Nina Kavin, whose group, Dear Evanston, addresses race and equity issues. “We can bring exhibits like ‘Undesign the Redline’ to educate folks about housing discrimination and restrictive covenants. We can even take two buses of a hundred residents to the Legacy Museum [in Montgomery, Alabama]. But absolutely none of  it means anything if we don’t do something truly meaningful and effective to make economic amends for the brutality of slavery and the way it has evolved through today, right here in Evanston.”

“In the 1860s,” pointed out Karla Thomas, another speaker, “when  enslaved African Americans  were a financial asset worth more than American manufacturing, all railroads and all production capacity in America, and we suggested that slavery be abolished, that seemed impossible, but it was ethically and morally central, as is reparations today.”

The Equity & Empowerment Commission recommended the City Council receive their report and follow up with a feasibility study to assess the viability of the recommendations. 

 In the housing area, Commission recommendations included providing property tax relief to African American long-time owners of residential property in Evanston down-payment assistance to income-qualified African American home-purchasers and rental assistance to African Americans who qualify.

Some of the economic development initiatives include repurposing the City’s Gibbs-Morrison Center to provide co-working or work cooperative space for African American entrepreneurs; investing in workforce training for African American Evanston residents and providing low-interest loans for African American Evanston entrepreneurs.

Ald. Simmons, whose West Side ward contains the highest percentage of African American residents, called for a “Solutions Only” approach to the issue, with emphasis on the actions that the City could take to implement a meaningful repair and reparations  program.

She has proposed the City establish an initial fund of $10 million spread out over 10 years to compensate for the individual and communal damage.

“And we will have to work on getting there,” she said at the Sept. 9 meeting. “But I’m confident that we on the City Council can come up with some innovative and appropriate ways for us to designate those dollars.”

But during discussion, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said the City cannot do this alone. She said the City must bring banks and lending institutions into the effort too.

“They have to participate with us, because that’s where the money is,” she said. “The money isn’t here. We’re asking the Council and the people in this town to contribute another quarter of a percent to the local sales tax, because we don’t have enough money,” she said of a proposal to raise the home rule sales tax now before the Council.

“The more we take out of the City budget, the more it costs everybody to survive in Evanston,” she said. “So there’s always the balance problem going on.  So I think we have to reach out and find sources of funds. I don’t know how many other communities, localities, municipalities are taking on the burden of reparations all by themselves.  I can’t believe it’s happening every place. I think we need help. Let’s go get it, because if reparation is so well embraced by our community, then everybody has to help.” 


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.