Leading the way has its advantages and its challenges. Evanston has been making headlines as the first U.S. city to fund reparations for Black residents. But the roll-out of a program to even begin to repair the harm that stems from the legacy of slavery has at times been controversial.

A statement posted on Facebook on March 2 by the group “Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations” spurred division among community members about what reparations should look like in Evanston.

On March 8, City council is expected to vote on the Restorative Housing Reparations program, a plan that focuses on home ownership, mortgage assistance and home improvement funds. Reparations of up to $25,000 per eligible resident for housing are set to be distributed this year. The City has dedicated the first $400,000 of a $10 million reparations fund to housing related assistance.

At least some Black residents, activists and community leaders who support the group that created the Facebook page say they believe that reparations should be in the form of direct payments. Some say funds needed to repair the damages in the Black community should not be tied to housing and mortgage assistance, given the long history of Evanston banks denying loans to Black families.

In an interview with the RoundTable, Rose Cannon said she will forgo the $25,000 “if they don’t do this correctly. I’ve been involved in Evanston Reparations from the time Alderman Robin Rue Simmons started doing Zoom talks, and even when they were holding them at the Civic Center.

“Essentially what our group is hoping to do is bring enough pressure that they will not take this final vote … on March 8. We would like for it to be suspended and … not to be voted on by a lame-duck City Council. Why are they rushing this through? The money to even give out the $25,000 is not even in the ‘pots’ yet. It hasn’t even come in from these taxes. …

“So that is my wish – that they suspend this vote or terminate it, go back to the drawing board, and make a real program that is congruent with the National structures of Reparations,” said Ms. Cannon, who is the oldest living generation of a five-generation Evanston family.

“The City Council is rushing to push an incomplete program that does not repair the damages done to Evanston’s Black community while an election is taking place. Two Council members have already lost their races, and it is irresponsible to push such a monumental program through without proper community input. Our group wants to see the vote paused until after the election, to continue the conversation on reparations,” former Evanston mayoral candidate Sebastian Nalls told the RoundTable.

There does appear to be community-wide respect and appreciation for the work that Fifth Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons has done in spearheading the historic reparations resolution, approved in 2019. Funding for the program will come from the City’s 3% tax on recreational marijuana sales, up to $10 million.

Many Evanstonians support reparations, described by a United Nations panel as “necessary to combat the disadvantages caused by  250 years of legally allowing the sale of people based on the color of their skin,” in the PBS News Hour podcast, “UN panel says the U.S. owes reparations to African-Americans,” by Eugene Mason.

In 2002, Evanston City Council approved a resolution supporting HR 40, a resolution advocating national reparations, which languished for decades in the House of Representatives.  Evanston’s local reparations format does not follow recommendation of National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America but looks solely at harm done in and by the Evanston community.

“I want to be explicitly clear that no one here is against the idea of reparations. We want reparations that give individuals the flexibility on what they can do with their money. The current plan does not allow this. We would like City Council to hold off on a vote until after the election so true reparations can be passed,” said Mr. Nalls.

Among seven points listed in the post from the group are that Evanston’s local reparations format does not follow the recommendations of National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America; that formatting errors in the survey of Black Evanston residents resulted in a flawed survey process; and – in question form – that Ald. Rue Simmons appears to have changed her stance on eligibility and compensation.

“What changed? How did it turn into a housing program, where now, Black Evanston residents actually have to go sit before a bank and go through that stressful process?” asked Meleika Gardner, founder and host of Evanston Live TV, in an interview with the RoundTable.

“I hear from the community…The community has been speaking out, saying that there are too many things that are unfair about the plan. Things that are unfair to many people, including  some of those who have lived in Evanston for a long time. …A person who lived here for one year between 1919 and 1969 stands to gain from this Reparations housing program over a Black Evanstonian who has lived here for 50 years after 1969,” said Ms. Gardner.

Although she is not part of the group that created the Facebook page, she said they are a “small group of people who have the courage to speak out for a large number of people.

“I respect and thank Robin [Rue Simmons] for opening the door to Reparations. I just think Reparations is too important to rush,” said Ms. Gardner,

Alderman Robin Rue Simmons speaking in 2019 at a meeting on reparations.

Two criticisms aimed directly at Evanston’s local reparations process are:

“Reparations are owed in a form and manner to be determined by all Black people in Evanston, not by a self-appointed Reparations Stakeholder Authority serving as a patriarchal agent for the injured group.”

“Reparations cannot be achieved by subjecting ‘qualifying’ Black residents to processes that perpetuate harms, where those processes continue to be rooted in anti-Black racism (e.g., credit checks, bank loans, real estate practices).”

Responding to the post, Ald. Rue Simmons told the RoundTable, “I don’t search Facebook for policy direction.  Also, everyone is correct.  The Black community should have all the recommended forms of redress, but we are limited as a City Council to deliver Reparations in line with our policy and enforcement of anti-Blackness.

“The Banks have a responsibility, the schools, corporations, foundations, individuals, the State and Federal Government and so on.  Additionally, thanks to Shorefront Legacy Center, we have a well-documented case for Reparations for the Black Community in Evanston and our future proposals will also need to be in line with policy specifically enforced by the City of Evanston.”

Ald. Rue Simmons added that the first proposal, aimed at helping qualifying Black residents with mortgage expenses or home repairs, accounts for only 4% of the initial $10 million targeted for local reparations.

“We look forward to more community engagement in the future. All Committee meetings are public and as we continue the work there will be community and stakeholder meetings to determine our next steps.

“Our local case for Reparations will look much different than HR40 or any other government entity for that matter.  This is a local initiative and there are no circumstances in which any single local initiative will satisfy Full Repair for our residents …  that is why our City under the leadership of Judge Lionel Jean Baptiste approved a resolution in support of HR40 in 2002.  This initiative is the first tangible step towards repair and it is a step within our purview.

“There is no question that $25,000 or up to $50,000 per household of housing equity is a wealth building action, that it can help stabilize a family, that it can assist a family in sustaining their home or make homeownership a possibility for some families. … Justice and repair for the Black community will take all hands on deck, working together, various programs, resources and various forms of compensation. It will take time, at least a lifetime of work, multiple City Councils and all institutions in town working together towards justice.  I look forward to more unity, collaboration and steps towards solutions.

“Alderman [Ann] Rainey and Alderman [Peter] Braithwaite [the two other members of the City’s Reparations Subcommittee] have been pushing financial institutions to join us in creating reparative justice financial products that complement our Reparations goals and we will keep pushing. To date we haven’t found a bank that has the same commitment to the Black community as our City. In the meantime we will continue doing our part.”

Reverend Dr. Michael C. Nabors, president of the Evanston chapter of the NAACP and senior pastor of Second Baptist Church, told the RoundTable he thinks the Reject Racist Reparations group is composed of a small number of people who feel like they have not been part of the reparations effort.

 “But I would argue that that is not the case; that they have. They have their perspective,” said Dr. Nabors, adding that people have been meeting and talking about reparations since January of 2020.

He said no one in the group had contacted him or other “people of the steering committee for Reparations” to ask if they could give their views to ask if they could get their perspective or join in.

 “Don’t get me wrong. I love these people. I know who they are. I care for them deeply. But I also believe in process and procedure. … And the [post] that came out today gives the impression that it has not been transparent, that it hasn’t been inclusive. And that is incorrect,” said Dr. Nabors.

 The Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations group will host a public Zoom forum, open to everyone in the community, at 6:30 p.m. on March 4. The Zoom link is available on their Facebook page.

 Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, in an interview with David Remnick for The New Yorker, said, “When I wrote ‘The Case for Reparations,’ my notion wasn’t that you could actually get reparations passed, even in my lifetime.”

Mary Gavin contributed to this story.

Heidi Randhava

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.