“The fact that you are all here and went through the process is so meaningful,” Council Member Peter Braithwaite told the reparations recipients. Credit: Bob Seidenberg

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Evanston officials paid special tribute to the first recipients of grants through the city’s historic reparations program April 25, holding a dinner in their honor and expressing hope their participation in the program will serve as a first step in “a long overdue redress” of past racial wrongs.

Nearly all 16 recipients, longtime members of Evanston’s Black community and many middle-aged and older, attended the dinner in the fourth floor Parasol Room of the Morton Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave.

City Council Member Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, who chairs the city’s Reparations Committee, thanked the residents for coming.

“The fact that you are all here and went through the process is so meaningful,” he said. “The feedback that we have received from staff has been incredible, and it will help those behind you.”

Evanston City Council members voted in March 2021 to provide $400,000 in housing assistance and mortgage relief to eligible residents through the city’s Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program. The measure was regarded as the first step by a U.S. city to attempt to repair the historic harm to the Black and African American community caused by past racial discriminatory practices.

The program is being funded through the 3% Retailers’ Occupation Tax on recreational cannabis sales within the city. Officials initially projected marijuana sales would generate $10 million for the program within 10 years.

Grants being put to use

In January of this year, the Reparations Committee selected the first 16 beneficiaries of the city’s Restorative Housing process, drawing lots to select them from a list of 122 qualified candidates under the “Ancestor” category.

Ancestors, in this case, were defined as Black Evanston residents who were at least 18 years of age between 1919 and 1969.

City staff, working with Community Partners for Affordable Housing, met with each beneficiary to help recipients choose the benefits best suited for their needs, said Audrey Thompson, the city’s Parks and Recreation Director, in a memo on the process.

The individual beneficiaries receive up to $25,000 toward one of three benefits: home purchase, mortgage assistance and home improvement, Thompson said.

As of April 1, six of the beneficiaries had used their benefit for home improvement, six for a combination of home mortgage assistance and home improvement, two for home mortgage assistance, one for a home purchase, with one undecided, reported Thompson.

‘These individuals didn’t win a prize’

Officials stressed the dinner was not intended as a sort of congratulations for their selection.

‘’These individuals didn’t win a prize,” said Claire McFarland Barber, another member of the city’s Reparations Committee, addressing the council after the ceremony

‘They didn’t get a gift,” she said. “Evanston instead began the journey of a long overdue redress for these past wrongs. This distribution that we were celebrating was not in any way complete repair for the harm that they suffered, the family suffered, or the wider community suffered. Instead, we were saying it was the beginning of saying ‘Thank you’ to them for participating in this process.”

Evanston officials hold a dinner at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center April 25, honoring the first recipients of grants through the city’s historic reparations program. (Photo by Bob Seidenberg)

In a letter under the city’s letterhead from the Reparations Committee to the recipients, committee members drew comparisons to the Little Rock Nine, who integrated Central High School in Arkansas after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, as well as the first voters who registered and cast their ballots after the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.

“Your families came to this city and faced discrimination – both open and insidious – yet you stayed,” the letter read.

“Excluded from opportunities and assistance that other Evanstonians enjoyed, you remained steadfast. You overcame barriers and obstacles to make your homes here, to send your children to school here, and to work here. You made valuable contributions to the City of Evanston, some historic, but many unsung. Critically, you laid the foundation of the Black community in the city, and in doing so, you immeasurably enriched the city’s entire community. Thank you for your perseverance, your example, your teaching.

“Thank you for having the grace to participate in this Housing Redress Program, and for accepting your distribution, a tangible symbol of Evanston’s apology and atonement for past wrongs. This is just the beginning, and it is our committee’s humble honor to serve you in this process.”

Moving forward

At the council meeting after the dinner, several officials spoke of the importance of building on the initial step.

Mayor Daniel Biss, who attended the dinner, said while he and others “recognized the historic occasion that we were a part of, we also recognize that a single financial contribution is a small part of the preparatory work that needs to be done – and that we’re committing to do.”

Council Member Braithwaite spoke of the important role played by former Council Member and Reparations Committee member Robin Rue Simmons, who led the push for the ordinance, as well as city staff and others who have worked with the first recipients, helping them reach their housing goals.

He said while committee members recognize that the $25,000 maximum payment “is not going to make anyone whole,” it’s an important first step.

“And with this 16 [recipients] we [committee members] learned so much,” he said, and now will turn to working to secure funding for others in the Ancestors category.

Council Member Devon Reid, 8th Ward, also a member of the Reparations Committee, noted that officials had set a goal of $10 million within the first 10 years of the program.

“But right now, we’re nowhere near on track to do that,” he told council members.

He said at the current rate the city accumulates funds through tax sources, “it will be another two years before we could do another 16, and so forth and so on. It will be years, almost a decade, before we even get through the Ancestors [category],” he said.

“And so the charge that this body, I think, has to take up now,” he said, “is finding additional sources of revenue to allocate toward reparations and looking to expand the program.”

Bob Seidenberg

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.

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