EVANSTON, Ill. — Inside a chandelier-lit hotel ballroom, dozens of government officials and nonprofit leaders from across the country gathered recently to trade strategies for a once fringe idea: paying reparations to compensate Black Americans for slavery and decades of racist government policies.
Evanston is the “epicenter” of the movement’s success, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), who has been calling for a federal study of reparations for years, told assembled local leaders. “What’s happening here captures the reality that ‘reparations’ is not an evil word. It is not a dangerous word. It’s not a word that will divide us,” Lee said.
But outside that ballroom, the program is failing to meet many of its initial promises. So far, the city has only spent $400,000 of the $10 million promised in 2019. Out of hundreds of Black residents who applied, 16 have received money. Another 106 are on a waiting list, with hundreds more behind them. At least five people have died before their promised reparations could be dispersed, the program’s leaders acknowledge.
City officials say these early stumbles don’t diminish their ambitions for the program, which is aimed at addressing decades of housing discrimination rather than slavery. And it’s just a starting point, they say.
“The moral urgency of the issue does not allow us to just keep on talking,” said Mayor Daniel Biss (D). “It was long past time to act. And it can be scary to go first. It can feel risky to go first. It can be controversial to go first. But someone’s got to go first.”
Rue Simmons told the crowd packed into a reparations conference that Evanston’s Restorative Housing Program, which local leaders call the first phase of their reparations efforts, had already changed lives. Some recipients used their $25,000 grant to help pay down mortgages, others gave it to their kids to do the same, she said, and one “balled out” and upgraded their bathroom with marble.
“All of them have expressed how much hope they have for their future generations’ life circumstances in Evanston,” said Rue Simmons.
Evanston, a town of 78,000, is at the forefront of a movement that has turned reparations for Black Americans from a purely academic discussion into a national political debate. Later this year, a California task force is expected to release a report laying out how much state reparations would cost. Illinois is on the verge of setting up its own reparations committee, and New York and New Jersey are considering it.
Despite the growing reparations movement in some liberal cities — President Biden endorsed studying the issue during the 2020 Democratic primary — the idea remains widely unpopular, particularly among White voters and Republicans. Lee has repeatedly introduced legislation calling for a reparations study, but it has languished in the House and failed to gain support in the Senate.
The harm caused by slavery is far in the past and there’s no way to recompense the descendants of enslaved people fairly, opponents argue. Some Republicans have also argued it’s unfair to have citizens who have no family ties to slavery or were not involved in racist government policies pay for the misdeeds of others.
The desire for reparations is understandable, said Richard A. Epstein, a law professor and senior fellow at the right-leaning Hoover Institution. But nearly 60 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the relationship between Black and White America has changed significantly, he said.
“The danger of seeking reparations is that you are going to have some down-on-their-luck White families that are in real trouble” saddled with the costs of such efforts, said Epstein.
Meanwhile, some longtime reparations advocates worry the current spate of disparate efforts exemplified by Evanston will take pressure off national leaders to develop a federal program that could offer Black Americans more benefits.
“All of these piecemeal local, state and private efforts that people are calling reparations are just a detour,” said William Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University, who has been advocating for reparations for more than three decades.
Evanston began debating reparations for its more than 12,000 Black residents in 2019, more than a year before George Floyd’s murder inspired many to examine the country’s racial divides.
Longtime residents say the city has a clear problem: In the socially liberal town, the median White household income is $108,000, nearly double that of Black households, at $55,000. Nearly half of Black households, about 16 percent of the population, make less than $50,000 per year, compared with 27 percent of White households, which make up 57 percent of the population. About 34 percent of Latinos, who make up 11 percent of the population, make less than $50,000 per year, and it’s 37 percent for Asian Americans, 10 percent of the population.
Evanston, the home of Northwestern University, is among the affluent suburbs that line Lake Michigan north of Chicago, an area collectively called the North Shore — one of the wealthiest stretches of America.
It also has a long history of racist policies.
Black people began settling in the area in the 1850s, after Illinois outlawed slavery, and working in the homes of rich White residents. As more flooded north during the Great Migration, Evanston began a decades-long effort to keep its Black and White residents separated.
Black people were allowed to live in the city, but local covenants kept them confined to one neighborhood, the 5th Ward. Packed into overpriced homes, they struggled to find economic stability in what is now one of the city’s poorest areas and the only ward without its own elementary school or major grocery store.
“We spent decades enforcing segregation,” Biss, who is White, said. “And we are suffering from the consequences of those unjust acts at this very minute here in December 2022.”
Evanston is really two cities, local residents say. One is prosperous and politically powerful and, like the rest of the North Shore, overwhelmingly White. The other is a more diverse, lower-income city where residents often feel their needs are overlooked.
“As much as Evanston is celebrated for being this diverse place, we are a really segregated community,” said Rue Simmons, whose family has lived in the town for four generations.
Rose Cannon’s family moved to Evanston in 1919, when her father and his family arrived from Tennessee and settled in the 5th Ward. As her family prospered, in the early 1960s, when Cannon was in high school, they moved into their dream home, a brand new house in the historically White 2nd Ward neighborhood. They were unable to secure a conventional mortgage and resorted to a contract for deed, she said, referring to a predatory financial agreement commonly required for Black people in the 1960s.
When a family member’s business collapsed, they began to financially struggle and missed a payment, Cannon said. They lost the home and moved back to the 5th Ward.
“My mother spent a lot of sleepless nights crying over it and feeling that they were disgraced and people would needle them if they saw them in public, ‘Oh, you’re back, what happened to that lovely house?’” said Cannon. “I still love the 5th Ward, but when I could move, I did. … We all felt like crabs in a bucket.”
When Rue Simmons was elected to the city council in 2017 to represent the 5th Ward, she began pushing her colleagues to consider reparations. The council formed the Evanston Reparations Committee in 2019. And she found a powerful ally in Chuck Lewis, a White retired investment banker, who is one of the city’s wealthiest residents and served on former president Barack Obama’s campaign finance committees.
“When I moved here in 1969, Evanston was just coming out of Jim Crow,” Lewis said in an interview. “We had a Black hospital. We had an all-Black school and we had a Black branch of the YMCA. This is not ancient history. That’s why we’re so interested in local reparations, not slavery reparations, because it’s proximate, it’s close by in terms of geography and time.”
The effort got a jump-start in June 2019, after Illinois’s legislature legalized recreational use of marijuana. The city council voted to establish a reparations program and pledged the first $10 million in cannabis tax dollars it received to the effort. The marijuana tax would bring in between $500,000 and $750,000 per year, they predicted.
In hours of council meetings, there was virtually no public pushback against the idea of reparations, including among White residents, in this city where former president Donald Trump received about 7 percent of the town’s vote in 2016 and 2020.
Nearly every critic who spoke at the city council meetings complained that the program wasn’t generous enough, said Biss, the mayor.
Many wanted Black residents to be given direct unrestricted cash payments, but officials decided against it, arguing the money could be taxed.
Early in the process “the conversation went to, ‘Oh, people can’t get cash.’ So I was like, well I’m out,” said former alderwoman Cicely Fleming, who is Black. “What’s happening is people are starting to call any policy that might benefit Black people reparations. I heard from one city where they were repairing streets and infrastructure in a Black community and they were calling that reparations. That’s not reparations, that’s just good government.”
Fleming was the only member of the council, which consisted of six White and three Black members, to vote against the plan.
The council settled on a $25,000 housing voucher program they estimated would help about 400 of its thousands of Black residents. To qualify, Black residents must show that they or their ancestors lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969, when the city enforced segregation. The money can only be used for buying or repairing a home, leaving out the majority of Black Evanston residents, who are renters. According to census data, 35 percent of Black households own their homes in Evanston, compared with 65 percent of their White peers.
Ramona Burton, 73, was among the first recipients. She used her $25,000 voucher for a new roof and windows in the three-bedroom ranch-style home she has lived in since the 1970s.
“I really needed these home improvements, so this has been a really good thing for me,” Burton said.
But she’s aware that the vouchers won’t help everyone, including renters who may have other financial woes. “I don’t think they should have restricted it in the way they did,” she said.
The program quickly ran into problems. Instead of the three marijuana dispensaries the city was expecting, only one opened, bringing in a trickle of the tax money initially forecast. A year after the reparations effort launched, few were receiving housing vouchers.
In August, Carlis Sutton, a member of the city’s reparations committee, announced that his brother, Arthur Sutton, had died, still on the waiting list for one of the reparations grants.
At least four others have also died while waiting, Sutton said. “Because of you not getting these funds distributed, many of the ancestors have been adversely affected,” Sutton told the council. “I think this is a disgrace, and whatever commitment the city made to make these payments, they should fulfill it.”
Acknowledging the program’s slow start, the council voted in December to set aside an additional $10 million over 10 years, this time from a tax on real estate sales over $1.5 million.
That hasn’t been enough to convince some Black residents, who are holding out for unrestricted cash payments and other efforts to address the city’s racist history.
“This is not reparations, but the city has attached on to it in order to make themselves famous across the United States,” said Cannon, noting that 33 Black city employees recently called on the city to investigate racial discrimination by supervisors and White co-workers. “This is all about getting good press, when in reality, our city is in shambles.” Cannon has not applied for the reparations program, though she qualifies.
Bennett Johnson, another longtime Evanston resident, lobbied the council to adopt a reparations plan but has been disappointed in the results.
Growing up in Evanston, Johnson, 93, said his family was one of the few who didn’t live in the 5th Ward. His father was the groundskeeper at a mansion on the lake, and they lived in the carriage house on the property. White children would tease him as they walked by, headed to a school around the corner that Johnson wasn’t allowed to attend.
“That’s what we’ve always had in Evanston, drive-by diversity,” said Johnson, who worked with civil rights leaders in the 1960s, including the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Johnson says he welcomed Evanston’s effort to be the first in the nation to launch a government-sponsored program. But the city’s money should be going to help Black residents build new institutions, such as Black-owned venture capital firms and banks, that would provide long-lasting change for the community, he said.
“I think we can modify it as people realize this current program has no teeth,” Johnson said. “It’s flawed, but we’re trying.”
Despite the program’s early stumbles and criticism of its structure, supporters of Evanston’s efforts see it as a potential model for the communities considering their own reparations program.
Rue Simmons now tours the country, working with community activists in more than two dozen cities to replicate Evanston’s program. Last month, she spoke at the United Nations’ first session of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent. Meanwhile, a documentary film about Evanston’s program, “The Big Payback,” featuring Rue Simmons and Lee, the Texas congresswoman, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in June.
“It has been slow in terms of the obvious metrics of success,” Rue Simmons said. “But it has been wildly, wildly transformative for our community.”