Above photo: ABC.
Up to $25,000 per eligible resident for housing will be distributed this year.
Evanston, Illinois, is like a lot of American cities. The city just north of Chicago appears picturesque, updated and grand on one side — but not far away, one can see the signs of economic and racial segregation, despite the city’s proud, diverse and liberal reputation.
What sets Evanston apart from other cities, however, is its groundbreaking plan to address the impact of that segregation and Black disenfranchisement: reparations.
The impetus for the city’s reparations resolution, first passed in 2019 and spearheaded by 5th Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, is rooted partially in Rue Simmons’ experience growing up Black in Evanston.
“Early in my childhood I was invited to have a play date,” she recalled. “My white friends never had a play date at my home.”
Visiting a white friend’s neighborhood, she noticed, “the streets were wider. The trees were taller. The homes were bigger and brighter. As a young child, I recognized that difference.”
“I never felt, in any way, envious,” she said. “I never had that feeling like, ‘Why isn’t my family doing better?’ It was obvious that it was the barrier of race that kept us from that.”
Rue Simmons still lives in the ward she represents. She says over time, resources were stripped away from her neighborhood. That, she said, coupled with a lack of investment, led to an ever-increasing wealth gap between white and Black residents in the city.
She hopes that her work will help families in her neighborhood that are “burdened … get some relief” via reparations, which will first be distributed this year in increments of up to $25,000 per eligible resident to use for housing.
The discussion on reparations has been ongoing — and controversial — in the U.S. since slavery was abolished in 1865. Originally, reparations were proposed to make amends for slavery, which built the nation’s wealth — but excluded Black Americans from it.
Reparations first arose as a promise, in early 1865, to redistribute land in the southeast U.S. to formerly enslaved people. For decades, the promise is often invoked in the phrase, “40 acres and a mule.”
It was a promise left unfulfilled. By the end of 1865, President Andrew Johnson overturned the land redistribution order. In the decades since, Black Americans have endured a succession of injustices, from Black codes to Jim Crow and redlining — American policies that broadly kept generational wealth-building out of reach for many Black communities.
Today, Evanston is the first city in the U.S. to fund reparations, committing $10 million over the next decade in an attempt to repay Black residents for the wrongs and accumulated losses incurred by generations of racism.
Rue Simmons said she didn’t start her elected career “even discussing reparations. It was not something I had planned to pursue,” she said.
“I was looking at data,” she continued. “I was looking at what we had done, what more we could do, and reparations was the only answer.”
She explained that any more of the status quo would sustain “the oppressed state and the disparity that we have and that we have had for years. That’s all it could do. More of the same.”
“The only legislative response for us to reconcile the damages in the Black community is reparations,” she said.
Rue Simmons and her colleagues had the support of local historian Dino Robinson in building the case for reparations. Robinson is the founder of the Shorefront Legacy Center in Evanston, an archive dedicated solely to chronicling and celebrating the local Black history that had long gone ignored.
In a 70+ page report, Robinson documented discrimination and racism in Evanston that dated back to the late 1800s.
“We anticipate litigation to tie things up with the premise that ‘You cannot use tax money that’s from the public to benefit a particular group of people,'” Robinson said, referring to opposition to the city’s plan. But, he countered, “the entire Black community historically has paid taxes, but were not guaranteed the same benefits.”
He said part of the resistance is due to a lack of education.
“The one comment I hear most often is, ‘I did not know,'” said Robinson. “‘I did not know there was segregation in Evanston.’ ‘I did not know that your housing mortgage is higher than mine but we have the same income.”