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Greenbelt residents approve commission to study reparations

The city created as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initially excluded Black people.

GREENBELT, MD - AUGUST 20: Debra Cope walks past the historic friezes lining the Greenbelt Community Center in Greenbelt, MD on August 20, 2021. Built in 1937 as the Greenbelt Center Elementary School and Community Building, the friezes represent the preamble to the United States Constitution. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Residents of Greenbelt voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to form a commission that will study whether Black and Native American residents should receive reparations — launching the city into its next phase of considering how to repay those populations for generations of historical wrongs.

The city was created in 1937 as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to provide affordable housing and work for the unemployed. But Greenbelt, which was touted as a model for urban planning, excluded Black people who helped build it.

Now, voters by a margin of 1,522 to 910 have affirmed the need for a conversation that Mayor Colin Byrd (D) said “is long overdue in America — and in Greenbelt.”

“While I’m grateful that it passed, I am mindful there is a sizable portion of our electorate that didn’t support it — and felt pretty strong about that,” he said.

Greenbelt, which is located 12 miles northeast of the District, joins a growing list of cities and counties — including Providence, R.I., and Asheville, N.C., — considering reparations amid the racial justice reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis. Other organizations like the Episcopal Church and colleges like Georgetown University have models to pay reparations as well.

In neighboring College Park, officials are also exploring whether the city should pay reparations to Lakeland, a historically Black community uprooted by urban renewal. Both cities are located in Prince George’s County, which once was home to the most enslaved people in Maryland and has a long history of segregation. Beginning in the 1980s, the county transformed from a mostly White, working-class suburb into a destination for Black professionals.

A university town explores reparations for a Black community uprooted by urban renewal

Native Americans were included in the referendum because of land believed to have been stolen from them in the area, said Byrd, who became mayor in 2019.

The 21-person commission will be appointed by the council to “study some of the more thorny, logistical” issues related to reparations — including payment and eligibility, he said. A timeline for that work has not been set. The sole vote against putting the referendum on the ballot during an August meeting of the seven-person city council came from council member Silke Pope, who raised concerns about the financial ability of the city of 23,000 to tackle reparations.

Byrd said his decision to push for the referendum cost him support Tuesday, noting that he was not among the top vote-getters. Because the council in Greenbelt traditionally selects as mayor the candidate who wins the most votes, that means Byrd will probably lose his title at the meeting Monday.

“I paid a price … but I am willing to take the hits to do the right thing,” Byrd said.

Greenbelt Museum Director Megan Searing Young said that the diverse city — where 47 percent of residents identify as Black, 24 percent as White and 16 percent as Latino — was not integrated until 1967. And it was not until 2009 that the first Black city council member, Emmett V. Jordan, was elected.

Noting how long it took Greenbelt integrate, and how long it took before Black residents assumed power, Young described the city as “a place with a fair amount of contradictions.”

Jordan, who as the top vote-getter in this year’s election will probably be sworn in as mayor Monday, said that progress in the city, and throughout the county, “often comes slowly.” But residents in Greenbelt today, he said, tend “to be forward-looking, but also conscious of the past.”

He said residents of diverse backgrounds must be selected to ensure the commission engages in robust discussions.

“I’m excited to see that it passed,” he said, “and excited to see how it plays out.”