More than 100 people attended a second public meeting on local reparations, convened by City Reparations Subcommittee members and held on May 21 via Zoom.

Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, who chairs the Reparations Subcommittee, welcomed those in attendance and guest speakers Commissioner Kamm Howard of the National African American Reparations Commission and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, local historian Morris “Dino” Robinson, and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas.

Mr. Howard said local reparations rather than “reparations” more broadly is garnering support in many states and communities across the county. Local reparations models, he said allow communities to prioritize and plan intentionally for reparations initiatives and focus intensely on outcomes. Any resource toward repairing or healing past harm can be considered a form of reparations, he said.

Racism and racist policies play a somber part in the history of Illinois and Evanston. French explorers brought slavery to the Midwest in the 1700s. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, while nominally prohibiting slavery, allowed residents to keep all their “possessions,” including people. Although Illinois was admitted to the union as a free state in 1818, federal and state laws and practices, such as the Fugitive Slave Law and Illinois Black Laws, also called Black Codes, severely limited the freedom of many black residents here and exposed them to harm and abuse at the hands of their fellow citizens as well as the government.

Evanston enforced Black Codes, Mr. Robinson said. In 1903, black residents began fighting against Jim Crow laws here, and for the next 30 years, “newspapers headlined the fight against Jim Crow.” Edwin Jourdain was elected alderman in 1931, the first black alderman in the City. A fighter for civil rights, he opposed Evanston’s many segregationist policies – sometime successfully.

Two ordinances in the past year acknowledge and address the community’s racist past. On June 10 of last year, aldermen unanimously approved a resolution proposed by Ninth Ward Alderman Cicely Fleming and described as “a commitment to end structural racism and achieve racial equity.”

City Council’s charge to the subcommittee was to consider two specific areas for reparations: housing and economic development. At the subcommittee’s May 15 meeting, City staff presented a memo detailing six types of housing programs and several economic development programs.

“We have made some progress, which I think we should be proud of,” Mr. Robinson said.

A few months later, City Council created a Reparations Fund and pledged $10 million over the course of 10 years, which would come from the City’s 3% sales tax on sales of recreational marijuana. The City’s tax is in addition to the Illinois sales tax.

Creating the Reparations Fund and funding it with money from the sale of a drug that is now legal in many instances but was responsible for the incarceration of many – predominantly young black men – put a fine irony on the measure and put Evanston in the spotlight.

The State will remit the sales tax revues on a quarterly basis beginning July 1, said Eighth Ward Alderman Ann Rainey, who also sits on the Reparations Subcommittee. The earliest Evanston could see money from the cannabis sales is September, she added. Had sales taxes on the sale of recreational cannabis been effective as of Jan.1 of this year, she said, Evanston’s share would have amounted to about $450,000, less some administrative fees.

Ald. Rainey also noted the State of Illinois has not allocated all the business license for recreational cannabis dispensaries and said she hoped more would come to Evanston. “One or two Evanston licenses will make a huge difference in [our] finances. [There are also licenses for 40 craft growers and 40 infusion licensees. All we can do its wait.”

Congresswoman Lee said cotton was the economic engine of the South, and it bolstered the wealth of the businesses in the Northeast part of the country and in Europe. “There’s never been a response to the 250 years of slavery.”   

She interwove the present COVID-19 pandemic with the history of racism in the country. She pointed to the “disproportionate illnesses and deaths among minority groups.”

Of the momentum toward reparations she said, “I just want to make [clear] that what we are doing is not out of the ordinary – it is what should be done.”

In 2019, Congresswoman Lee introduced HR 40 in the House of Representatives, following the lead of now-retired Representative John Conyers of Michigan, who for decades introduced the legislation annually. The bill proposes a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans. The House has never passed the bill.

Second Ward Alderman Peter Braithwaite, the third member of the Reparations Subcommittee, thanked the stakeholders and others working on local reparations.

With the presentations and opening and closing prayers, there was little time for questions during this second town hall meeting. Only one person, though, had a question – about when the Reparations Subcommittee meets. The subcommittee meets at noon on the first and third Fridays of the month, normally in the Civic Center but by Zoom for the duration of the stay-at-home order.

Reverend Rosalind Henderson of Bethel AME Church opened the meeting, and Reverend Dr. Michael Nabors of Second Baptist Church offered concluding remarks and a prayer. He quoted Frederick Douglass, “Where there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

He also said, “We are pioneering a victory dance hundreds of years in the making.”

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...