By 1940, 84% of black households in Evanston lived in the area shaded light red in the above map. The area was highly segregated - 95% black.

Evanston alderman on Nov. 25 created a Reparations Fund to address historic and institutional racism here, with the specification that revenues from the sales tax on recreational marijuana be allocated to the fund.

The City, the County and the State each add a tax to the sale of most items. The City will retain its portion of those revenues as usual. New in FY20 will be a 3% tax on the sales of recreational marijuana, and revenues from that tax only will go into the Reparations Fund.

Projected revenues for 2020 from the tax on sales of recreational marijuana are $250,000. All such tax revenues will go to the Reparations Fund until the City has contributed $10 million to the fund.

Reparations 2019

Several speakers during public comment voiced support for the measure.

Evanston resident and local historian Morris “Dino” Robinson recounted the history of discrimination in Illinois and Evanston, where, he said, “residents had to abide by ‘Black Codes.’” He added that Edwin Jourdain [Evanston’s first black alderman] ran for office for the sole purpose of defeating the Jim Crow laws and attitudes here.

Doug Sharp of Reclaim Evanston said, “We are pleased with and support the City’s intention to begin to address the longstanding theft of wealth and opportunity that has been committed against the African American residents of Evanston.

“We feel that the use of the cannabis tax as a funding source for reparations is a proper and fitting first step in righting the wrongs of past decades, especially when we consider how the arrests for possession of marijuana have been disproportionately used to incarcerate young African Americans.

Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, along with Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey have been the drivers of this move.

Ald. Simmons reported at the Nov. 25 City Council meeting that she had attended the National League of Cities convention earlier this month and found that many representatives of other municipalities were “in awe” of Evanston’s move toward reparations.

She also said there would be a community town hall meeting – the date as yet unscheduled – co-hosted by the National African American Reparations Commission, at which the “extensive feedback” from reparations meetings held over the summer would be incorporated.

Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, recalled that his predecessor, Lionel Jean-Baptiste “had wanted to get this thing going. This is a good thing. I want to acknowledge Judge Jean-Baptiste and many other people who attempted to do this. Judge Jean-Baptiste said he’d like to support it now.”

Ald. Braithwaite added, “I think it’s going to be very special for Evanston, and I think it’s going to have one of those ripple effects that create a change in our nation. This is a special moment in the City of Evanston and in the country.”

Ald. Rainey said, “Judge Jean-Baptiste began this in 2002.” She added, “We’ve had offers of counsel as late as Saturday [Nov. 23] from national leaders of the ACLU.”

Ald. Rue Simmons read a statement about the damage done to the black community by institutional racism. “We acknowledge history wrongs in our City are directly responsible for our segregation, wealth divide and overall lesser quality of life. On June 10, we passed a resolution to end structural racism and achieve racial equality.”

She said racist practices have excluded black residents from housing, employment and education, and she noted that the black population of Evanston has “declined to a historical low of 16%.”

Comparing one of the wealthiest census tracts in the City with one of the poorest, she said there is a disparity of about $46,000 in median income and a lowered life expectancy of 13 years between the two.

“It is important that the income from marijuana sales be used toward repairing the community it unfairly policed and damaged,” she said.

Sixth Ward Alderman Thomas Suffredin was the sole “No” vote on creating the Reparations Fund. Although he did not explain his vote at the meeting, he did so in a newsletter to his constituents the next day: “Any revenue that the City of Evanston realizes from recreational cannabis sales will go to the City of Evanston Reparations Fund until funding from that source has reached $10 million. The Reparations Subcommittee is currently working to determine how the Reparations Fund dollars will be utilized in the future. 

“I voted no on this, because in a town full of financial needs and obligations, I believe it is bad policy to dedicate tax revenue from a particular source, in unknown annual amounts, to a purpose that has yet to be determined.  

“Individuals and institutions who wish to make contributions to the City of Evanston Reparations Fund may do so. I voted no to funding reparations with recreational cannabis revenue not because I don’t support the City taking responsibility for the role it played in disadvantaging our African American residents, but because it is bad policy.”

Larry Gavin’s article “Developing a Segregated Town, 1900-1960,” which was published in the RoundTable’s November magazine, and is available here.

The idea of reparations is not a new one to the City Council. The minutes of the May 20, 2002, City Council meeting reflect that during the Call of the Wards, “Alderman Jean-Baptiste reported that on June 3 and June 10, he intended to put before Council a resolution on reparations. He would first go through the Human Services Committee and then come before the Council. He hoped to get information to them in the short term, did not want them to be surprised and that they would approach it with an open mind. He referred to the UN Conference Against Racism, which he had attended in South Africa, where the slave trade and colonialism were declared as crimes against humanity. He noted that the declaration stated as well that it should always have been so. He reported that the declaration further stated that former slave-owning states ought to take up reparations and that it would be on the agenda.”

Ald. Jean-Baptiste brought a resolution, 43-R-02, to the June 10, 2002, City Council meeting, supporting U.S. House of Representatives 40, proposed by Representative John Conyers of Michigan. That resolution called for the establishment of a federal commission to study slavery and its consequences and make recommendations for compensation to black people.

Rep. Conyers first introduced that resolution in the House of Representatives in 1989. On June 19 of this year – Juneteenth – Congress held hearings on reparations for the first time in a decade.

The Evanston City Council unanimously approved Ald. Jean-Baptiste’s resolution, 7-0; the two aldermen who were absent from the meeting had indicated their support for the measure.

RoundTable reporter Mark Berry wrote in the June 19, 2002, edition that Northwestern University Professor Martha Biondi spoke at the Council meeting. She said the failure of civil rights remedies has resulted in greater socio-economic disparities between African Americans and the majority of the population. She said, Mr. Berry wrote, “Eighty percent of African American males will be arrested in their lifetimes, and 13% of African American men have lost the right to vote.

Prof. Biondi attributed the increased push for reconciliation and compensation to the treatment of other groups that sought reparations. “In 1988, Congress apologized and paid $1.2 billion to the relatives of Japanese Americans detained in camps in World War II. The German government and private corporations have paid $65.2 billion to Israel in reparations. In September, 2001, the United Nations World Conference declared slavery a crime against humanity and that reparations be made,” Mr. Berry quoted Prof. Biondi as saying.

Mr. Berry also reported comments from three of the aldermen. He wrote, “Alderman Stephen Engelman, 7th Ward, stated his support of the resolution but hoped that it was not ‘solely about money.’ … I do not believe a social compact can be founded on collective guilt or collective entitlement.’

Alderman Edmund Moran, 6th Ward, reportedly said the “aim of the resolution is to achieve reconciliation and that to some extent it can be accomplished through the means of government, but ultimately it will rest with each of us – individually and collectively – to answer the question, ‘Will we be friends?’”

Fifth Ward Alderman Joseph Kent said, according to Mr. Berry’s article, “The best thing that can happen out of this is education, so we can change some of the old curriculum. Children can’t really achieve if they don’t know who they are.”

During public comment at that June 10, 2002, meeting, several speakers said they supported then- Alderman Jean-Baptiste’s resolution on reparations, which Council approved on the consent agenda that evening.

Below are excerpts of some of the comments from the public, as reflected in the minutes of that meeting.

“Rev. Mark Adams, Hillside Free Methodist Church pastor, spoke on behalf of the Evanston Ecumenical Action Council in support of Resolution 43-R-02; said that support of House Resolution 40 allows the nation to ask questions about reparations. The recommendation is that the U.S. government begin to investigate the issue of reparations by asking the question nationally and getting the facts. He did not know what reparations would look like. … He suggested they would never know or do the right thing until the nation no longer prohibits them from asking the question. He said if reparations were ever adopted, all would pay. Reparations are not an individual concept, rather national restitution and would be dealt with nationally. He could imagine a nation where brotherhood is a reality. He said it was time to ask the question and engage in the debate that can bring about the American dream for everyone. He hoped Evanston could help encourage the nation to ask questions to start healing.

“Neta Jackson and her husband are authors and recently wrote ‘No Random Act: Behind the Murder of Ricky Byrdsong.’ She stated it was important to stand up and be counted on the issue of reparations. In trying to understand racism, one stumbling block stands out. As a white person she does not have to face the consequences of racism daily, but black people do. She is not always aware of lingering racism because it does not directly affect her choices, but African Americans who are descendants of slaves don’t have that choice. She said the racism that lingers, affects attitudes and practices and, in spite of strides of civil rights laws, is the legacy that affects their lives. She noted that some will say their ancestors were not slave owners so why should they make reparations for something they had nothing to do with. She said the opposite is true and that all living in this country reap the benefit of living in the greatest democracy in the world with benefits provided by people who lived, worked, died and fought for freedom built on the backs of people enslaved for over 246 years.

“Ra Joy, suburban director for U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky and lifelong resident, read a letter from Congresswoman Schakowsky on Resolution 43-R-02 to Alderman Jean-Baptiste: ‘I was pleased to learn about the resolution you introduced at the City of Evanston Human Services Committee on Monday June 3. The proposed City Council resolution would call attention to the injustice of slavery and urge our federal government to investigate its negative effects. It has always been difficult for our country to come to grips with the unspeakable cruelty and massive human suffering resulting from slavery. It is estimated that more than four million Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and its colonies from 1619 to 1865. I believe we must acknowledge this terrible chapter in American history and, where possible, make amends. I am proud to co-sponsor H.R. 40, a bill introduced by Representative John Conyers of Michigan. This bill would establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery and subsequent discrimination against African-Americans, study the impact of these forces on living African-Americans and make recommendations on appropriate remedies to Congress. I believe this study will help stimulate public dialogue of significant importance and assist our nation in coming to terms with this unprecedented tragedy. … I wish you much success in moving this resolution forward.”

“Ayinde Jean-Baptiste, stated that Resolution 43-R-02 represents all movements for social justice in world history. Universally, it will send a message to state and federal governments and communities throughout the nation, including Evanston. Evanston is an inclusive, diverse and welcoming community committed to equity in America and the world. He said in communities such as Evanston, that real people are concerned about justice in America and making amends for the pitfalls of the past.

“Mary Goering said that while reparations may deal with monetary reparations, she thought equally important was the development of a good understanding of the effects of slavery on American society. … Her ancestors are the people who shaped the nation and that means ancestors who were slave traders and slave owners. She suggested that whole history needs to be dealt with. … She suggested this resolution calls national attention to focus on that to come to a fuller understanding.

“Bennett Johnson, president, Evanston branch NAACP, stated national NAACP has a policy supporting reparations. … He stated that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harold Washington, Elijah Mohammed and Mohammed Ali among others supported reparations in principle. He did not think it was a matter of guilt. He stated there is a social dysfunction in this nation – a cancer on the body politic. Reparations will help heal that wound, help everybody because this is one people and one country. If there is a problem in one section it needs to be taken care of. “

Mary Gavin

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...