Just three years ago, the City of Evanston became the first documented governmental body in the country to enact a sustained policy of reparations for the harm done to Black citizens.
What follows is information about the city’s historic reparations program, its roots and how it has developed over the years. It’s a story in multiple parts: A look at the origin of reparations in Evanston, which is below, a review of recent developments 2021-2022, which can be found here, and an examination of how the effort is funded, posted here.
What are reparations?
The National African American Reparations Committee, which in 2020 certified Evanston’s local program as legitimate, defines full reparations as including five components: Cessation and guarantees of non-repetition, restitution, compensation, satisfaction and rehabilitation.
“Cessation and guarantees of non-repetition” refers to international law that says a state responsible for international harm must cease that harm.
“Restitution” means to restore something lost or stolen back to its proper owner or to return a situation to its original state, before it was affected by the wrongful acts.
“Compensation” takes over when restitution cannot be completed.
“Satisfaction” refers to atonement for moral damages like emotional injuries or mental suffering. An apology is an example of a form of reparations that would be categorized as “satisfaction.”
“Rehabilitation” means providing resources for the harmed party to be supported through their recovery from harm.
When and how did reparations begin in Evanston?
The first record of an Evanston lawmaker proposing reparations was in 2002, when then Council Member Lionel Jean-Baptiste of the 2nd Ward presented a resolution (43-R-02) calling on local institutions and the federal government to study slavery and its impact and to then recommend solutions.
The resolution, however, didn’t go far until a later council member – Robin Rue Simmons, who grew up in Evanston’s Fifth Ward – was inspired to action by the city’s racial wealth gap. She reintroduced the reparations conversation early in 2019, 17 years after Jean-Baptiste’s resolution.
While Rue Simmons was leading conversations about reparations in the city’s Equity and Empowerment Commission (EEC), a body created by the City Council, Illinois legalized recreational marijuana in June of that year. Rue Simmons said she had the idea of using Evanston’s income from taxing recreational cannabis to fund a local reparations program.
In November 2019, at the recommendation of the EEC (which solicited community feedback on how repair should look), the City passed a resolution (126-R-1) committing to local reparations. The law: 1) made a $10 million reparations commitment and established the recreational cannabis tax as a funding source; 2) formed the Reparations Subcommittee to study community recommendations for repair; and 3) created the City Reparations Fund, where the tax revenues would be collected.
From December 2019 through 2020, several town halls and more than a dozen reparations subcommittee meetings were hosted to solicit feedback from Black Evanstonians on what local repair would look like. In June 2020, the city passed an additional resolution (54-R-20) to preserve and honor sites important to the history of African-Americans in Evanston.
The first local reparations program in a series of programs to come is called the Restorative Housing Program (37-R-21), and it was passed in March 2021. The application period for it closed November 2021. The program reserves $400,000 of the $10 million commitment for 16 housing grants of $25,000 to be awarded.
The housing grants can be used to purchase or remodel a home, or pay down a mortgage. The goal of the program is to increase Black homeownership to revitalize and preserve Black owner-occupied homes in Evanston. The home must be located in Evanston and be the applicant’s primary residence.
Why was Evanston first?
Evanston was the first known municipality in the United States to award reparations to any African American since the Reconstruction period.
In a November 2021 interview with the RoundTable, Rue Simmons said that when she pursued reparations in 2019, she hoped to find another city whose work she could follow, but there were none.
”I use my entrepreneurial background to innovate the process, day by day,” she said.
Another factor leading to Evanston’s primacy was that Morris “Dino” Robinson, founder of the Shorefront Legacy Center (which archives the history of the Black North Shore) led the archival research to lay out a report documenting “Evanston Policies and Practices Directly Affecting the African American Community.” The report equipped the City Council with the historical and legal basis to craft legislation to address the harm.
Also, although Evanston still is segregated along racial and economic lines, the town has a history of making progressive commitments and passing progressive legislation. Officials like Rue Simmons pointed to the city being among the first in the nation to desegregate, to commit to affordable housing and to make it a priority to take aggressive climate action, among other topics.
Rue Simmons said in November 2021 that the city governs with an equity lens and has community partners like Cradle to Career and Evanston Community Foundation that share the same commitment.
“And so it allowed a safe, viable infrastructure for me to make this introduction,” she said.
What is Evanston addressing historically?
In early local history, the Black population existed in pockets throughout Evanston. But as the Black population quickly increased in size between 1860 and 1930, there was a concerted and hostile effort to push Black Evanstonians into one area of Evanston, what is now called the Fifth Ward.
This forced segregation was accomplished by Evanston ordinances as well as Jim Crow segregation practices and held back the economic growth of Black residents, though the segregated Fifth Ward persisted with bustling Black businesses for many years.
Robinson and Jenny Thompson of the Evanston History Center compiled the 84-page document detailing the City of Evanston’s role in encouraging discriminatory housing practices and more.
Jasper Davidoff contributed to the timeline.