Today, the wealth of 46 million Americans can be traced back to the 1862 Homestead Act when primarily white Americans were freely gifted 270 million acres of land by the U.S. government. In contrast, after emancipation, African Americans became the only racial group in the country to almost entirely start with zero capital, according to historian Keri Leigh Merritt.

While the race gap in generational wealth for African Americans cannot be fixed by a single organization, the Dearborn Realtist Board, a Black community-centric real estate trade organization, is predicated on teaching individuals how to start.

Last Saturday, Dec. 4, the real estate organization partnered with the City of Evanston and former Fifth Ward Council member Robin Rue Simmons for the city’s second “Community Day” – a day to teach local residents about the benefits of home ownership and the home-buying process, hosted at Faith Temple Church.

“We are all about educating our African Americans on how they can build generational wealth,” said Gwendolene Newton, the president of the Dearborn Realtist Board and chair of the event. “Because it’s not taught at home. It’s not taught in schools.”

Members of the Dearborn Realtist Board sit behind the welcome desk while attendees chat opposite of them. Credit: Debbie-Marie Brown

The timing of this event was intentional. Just last month, the application closed for Evanston’s restorative housing program – the first program of the reparations initiative. The first 16 recipients are expected to receive $25,000 housing grants in the next few months. For Saturday’s event, the realty group collaborated with banking partners to put on a homebuyer education experience. The aim of the initiative was to benefit applicants for reparations, as well as the broader Black community in Evanston. 

Dearborn Realtist Board members that attended included title companies, banks, attorneys, real estate agents and real estate brokers, Newton said. Board members collaborated with institutions such as Fifth Third Bank, Bank of America, Liberty Bank, and Associated Bank to provide attendees with information on the pathway to homeownership, better money habits, the home-buying process, renovations and rehabilitation. 

“We walk you through the steps of home-buying, meaning from the moment you start looking on the internet until you close and you have the keys,” Newton said. Classes explained topics such as how to get preapproved for a mortgage loan, or the steps in the process to get a renovation loan – both of which are ways reparations recipients may be able to use their grants. Attendees could also get approved for loans on-site. 

Newton said she hopes that the classes will help recipients get more “bang for their buck” if they need to renovate. She said that grant recipients who are homebuyers can partner with Bank of America to get an additional $17,000 in grants or down payment assistance. Fifth Third Bank also offers those services. “Being able to really layer all of those financial benefits together can save you a phenomenal amount of money,” Newton said.

In 2020, Fifth Third Bank announced an initiative to invest $2.8 billion in community investment as part of its Executive Diversity Leadership Council’s Accelerating Racial Equality, Equity, and Inclusion initiative.

Neringa Valkiunas, the Fifth Third representative at the event, said that $20 million will be invested in the South Side of Chicago. The Fifth Third Bank mortgage lenders at her table spent the day talking to a “steady flow of people” about their credit scores and what each borrower needs and is looking for.

Arthur Anderson is an investment advisor and financial planner who spoke on behalf of Merrill Lynch, which is owned by Bank of America. He’s also a new member of the Dearborn Realtist Board. “The main reason we came out today was that we have grant money available for homebuyers, and we want to make sure that we help as many Evanston residents as possible.”

Community response

The Roundtable spoke with a variety of people at the all-day event, most of whom were Black residents of Evanston or Chicago. Their reasons for attending ranged from hearing about it at their church, curiosity about wealth building for the Black community, or specifically to prepare to receive local reparations eventually.

Along with guidance on home ownership, financial experts presented information on broader financial topics, such as investing and saving. 

Bernie Haddaway, 45, works in financial administration at Northwestern University and attended the event because he heard the announcement as his church, Faith Temple. He specifically enjoyed Anderson’s presentation.

“​​One good takeaway from that financial session from Merrill Lynch probably was in diversifying my portfolio,” Haddaway said. “They talked about structuring your portfolio, so you plan with the end in mind. … He got into the nitty-gritty also about how to choose funds. And he was helpful in answering questions about mutual funds and diversity in mutual funds.”

Simone Warburton, also in her 40s, who has worked at CVS Health as a quality analyst for over 20 years, also learned about the event from her church, Faith Temple. But she came specifically to learn about investing and homeownership for the Black community.

“As a mamma and potential future real estate investor I want to learn as much as I can, and network with the businesses here, to see how I can move forward in that process of being an investor.” She sat in on Fifth Third Bank’s presentation on how to buy and finance a home, and said she she learned “quite a bit.”

“They’ve got some contacts and I definitely will be reaching out to those ladies there,” Warburton said.

Michelle Hall, who lives in the west end of Evanston, works in the insurance industry and came to the event because of the reparations program. She submitted a restorative housing application under the category of “direct descendent” and anticipates the city carrying through on its promise of compensation for harm done to Black Evanstonians over the years.

“With reparations, they’re preparing us for homeownership,” Hall said. “And so I’m here for the workshop to learn the different things you need to do to prepare yourself for when the reparations become available.”

Debbie-Marie Brown

Debbie-Marie Brown is a reporter and Racial Justice Fellow at the Evanston RoundTable. They cover the local reparations initiative, Black life in Evanston, and the 5th ward. Contact Debbie-Marie at

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