The Reparations Committee made Evanston the first city in the country to approve tax-free cash payment reparations to Black residents on Thursday, March 2.
But the option was granted to only two ancestors, Kenneth Wideman, 77, and his sister Sheila Wideman, 75, rather than all ancestors.
The listening session was the only item on the committee’s agenda, so no motions were expected. But about 30 minutes into the session, Robin Rue Simmons, the committee chair, made a motion to pay the two ancestors their $25,000 grants in cash.
There was pushback and discussion.
Eighth Ward Council Member Devon Reid, who is on the committee, disagreed, saying: “I think it would be a mistake and potentially leave a worse sentiment in the community. If we’re only to make this amendment specifically for two folks, knowing surely well that there’s more folks certainly out of the ancestor group of 120 some odd people that will be in a similar situation. So let’s just fix this, and let’s fix it now.”
Reid voted against Robin Rue Simmons’ motion. He attempted to amend the motion to include all ancestors, but no other committee member seconded his motion.
Second Ward Council Member Krissie Harris abstained from voting on Rue Simmons’ motion because, she said, she’s related to the Widemans. Committee members Claire McFarland Barber, Bonnie Lockhart, Carlis Sutton and Rue Simmons voted in favor. Council Member Bobby Burns was absent from the meeting.
This comes at a time when the city will be moving to the next round of ancestors next week, Assistant City Manager Tasheik Kerr announced at the meeting. Kerr and three interns plan on contacting all ancestor applicants to schedule in-person meetings with them, during which the city will explain the options for the grants.
The committee agreed to have a special meeting next week with Nicholas Cummings, the city’s corporation counsel, to discuss amending the restorative housing program to permit cash payment for all recipients. No specific date has been released yet. Cummings wasn’t present for the March 2 meeting.
Prior to the meeting Rue Simmons met and discussed the cash payment option with Cummings, she said.
“I think we would love to see the language that is to be amended to understand exactly if is it a fourth option, in the event you can’t satisfy homeownership eligibility or so on,” Rue Simmons said.
“So we are there, Council Member Reid. I think that it would make more sense to move forward so that we can satisfy the two that are in question, and then learn more about how that cash benefit will be available to others.”
The Widemans are the only two of the first 16 grant recipients who haven’t used any of their reparations grants. The brother and sister have never owned property and aren’t interested in doing so at this stage of their lives.
The restorative housing program was intentionally created to benefit homeownership, Rue Simmons explained. Yet, the city never asked residents during the application process if they did or didn’t own property.
After the meeting, Rue Simmons told the RoundTable she is open to Reid’s idea of amending the reparations program, but she’s also keeping an open mind to the idea of creating a whole new program all together.
Kenneth Wideman reported that the city still hasn’t spoken with him about the grant. The RoundTable was the first to inform him of the committee’s vote to award him and his sister cash payment.
“That’s wonderful,” he said in response to the news.
The city has long argued that cash payments were not a viable option. The committee’s webpage says cash is not an option because “a recipient would be liable for the tax burden associated with the award.”
But at the meeting, Rue Simmons said Cummings had somehow found a way to make it possible.
“Nick Cummings is working with his colleagues to make sure it’s disbursed in the right way so that there is no tax obligation,” Rue Simmons told the RoundTable after the meeting.
Rue Simmons said she decided to take action on the Widemans’ situation because she wanted to honor them before their grants expired in the coming weeks.
“It will allow others that have similar circumstances that applied to be given a similar option, so we’re looking forward to seeing what type of language is amended on our intake forms to allow for that,” Rue Simmons said.
This historic vote caused an influx of questions and concerns from the community both in person and on Zoom. One of the first questions concerned the timing of when more ancestors will receive reparations.
At almost every reparations committee meeting, Tina Paden asks the committee for cash payment during the public comment period. This time, she specified cash payment for all applicants.
“If two people receive cash payment, then everyone needs to receive cash payment,” Paden said. “The application process must be open again for cash payment. This will bring many lawsuits if you discriminate.
“Now you have a reparations process that’s discriminating because you have chosen two people to receive cash payment, and I’m happy that they are receiving cash payment, but all of us need to receive cash payment. So you need to really think about this carefully.”
Meleika Gardner also asked for cash payments for all. “I want to say thank you to Alderperson Reid for speaking for the people and understanding that it is not right to give direct cash payments to two people and not everyone,” Gardner said.
Some people who meet the ancestor criteria, like committee member Sutton, chose not to is apply for the restorative housing program because the cash payments were not an option, Paden explained.
Community members asked when applications will be opened again. The committee has the power to reopen applications, Rue Simmons said, but will discuss this topic at another time.
Rue Simmons added it could be a good idea to bring back the reparations subcommittee, which was dissolved in May of 2021. The subcommittee could make recommendations to improve reparations programs as they roll out, she said.
“I do think we should get back to that subcommittee work because it’s a lot for the [full] committee to do this work and the more participation and feedback and input that we can have, the better,” she said, adding that at the next meeting, “I will make a motion for us to get back to those subcommittees and see if there is support for that.”
Ndona Muboyayi, who served on the reparations subcommittee, told committee members she attended the Thursday morning meeting to advocate for the Widemans. “Thank you for coming up with a solution,” she said.
The country is watching this program as a national model for reparations for the black communities. This will only be a sample of how not run a program. This is wrong. Shame is not a strong enough word!
Black Evanstonians requested cash payments from the beginning of the discussion about reparations. In a 2019 WBEZ interview Robin Rue-Simmons promised cash payments and not a housing program. She reneged on that promise. I personally want to see authentic reparations for the descendants of chattle slaves in Evanston.
Unfortunately, what we are seeing here are the business interests of Robin Rue-Simmons intersecting with doing what is best for the Black community. Rue-Simmons is literally in the reparations business. She started a non-profit company to sell the Evanston program across America. I am not aware of City of Evanston committees making material changes to programs approved by the Evanston City Council – without going back to the City Council – no matter how well meaning. The Wideman’s and others deserve reparations in whatever ways they see fit. However, the intersection of Rue-Simmons business interests with the Reparations Committee is going to generate liabilities that will cost the taxpayers of Evanston more dollars than they are willing to pay the recipients in the reparations program. I continue to point out to the Evanston Mayor and City Council the ethical and possible legal conflicts that exist with Rue-Simmons in that role. Like other issues – the Mayor and City Council ignore the conflict. It’s unfortunate, in my view they are jeopardizing the national reparations movement.
Thank you, Ms. Muboyayi, for your advocacy for the Widemans, and also sincere thanks to Ms. Simmons for your compassion in this matter…
Gregory Morrow – Evanston 4th Ward resident
Devein Reid was right. It was wrong to make exception. The two siblings should have read rules before submitting their names. Very unfair.
That’s not what Alderperson Reid was saying… he was saying that the vote should not have been an exception for just these two individuals but a vote to allow cash payments to any of the “ancestors” who qualified.