The fence may not seem momentous. But its symbolism is deep. It adds dignity and definition to a small, grassy yard that is full of memories. It’s where Ramona Burton’s young son drove in his red toy convertible; where she and her husband, Edward, barbecued steaks; where they raised AKC German shepherd puppies like Shii, who was bashful at first but became “the wildest thing in the world.”
Burton and her husband bought the one-story brick home 46 years ago, and she’s lived there alone—surrounded by family photos—since Edward passed away in 1993. Along with the fence, Burton recently got crucial roof and chimney repairs. She is thrilled with the improvements, but the investment also represents something larger. It is a tangible product, one of the first in fact, of Evanston, Illinois’s ascendancy as the first municipality in the country to implement reparations for racial discrimination. As debate over and proposals for reparations have heated up nationwide, this midsize lakefront Chicago suburb has taken the bold if still small step of rolling out a reparations program compensating Black residents for housing discrimination that locked them into segregated neighborhoods and denied families a fair chance to build generational wealth.
Evanston, just across Howard Street from Chicago, is the home of Northwestern University, and a town long famed for its liberal politics, diversity, and geniality. But its all-too-recent history includes copious examples of discrimination against Black people, and Evanston’s Black residents still fare significantly worse than white residents on indicators of wealth and well-being. The median income in Evanston’s main Black enclave is just over half the city’s median income, and Black residents are much less likely than white residents to own their homes, for example. Meanwhile, racial tension still simmers, especially around the schools. In May, three nooses were found near Haven Middle School. Bitter debates over fights at Haven have pitted largely white parents worried about their children’s safety against Black parents and students who feel criminalized. Latino families have said they feel ignored, including by a Black principal.
Robin Rue Simmons, the Evanston native and former city council member who launched the reparations initiative, points to the tension in the schools as evidence that systemic racism still exists in Evanston. She thinks reparations can force the city to reckon with its past and present problems with race, and push justice and healing. Rue Simmons, 46, has become an internationally known proponent of reparations, founding a nonprofit consulting firm, FirstRepair. A former Realtor and small-business owner, she emanates confidence and charisma. Over the past few years, Rue Simmons and some allies—including Jamaican American city council member Peter Braithwaite, Haitian American Judge Lionel Jean-Baptiste, and Black historian Morris “Dino” Robinson Jr.—undertook a painstaking research and community engagement process to decide how best to pursue the controversial and somewhat abstract topic of reparations. They concluded that addressing the city’s decades of blatant housing discrimination would be a good place to start.
Robinson had, for more than a quarter-century, compiled extensive archives and oral histories of Black communities on the North Shore, housed in the Shorefront Legacy Center he founded. He and a co-author produced a detailed report cataloging the concrete ways the city of Evanston had caused housing discrimination and segregation—like the practice, beginning in the 1940s, of acquiring and demolishing Black-owned homes that were deemed blighted.
The first round of reparations this spring involved granting $25,000 worth of mortgage or down payment assistance or home repairs to each of 16 Black residents who lived in Evanston and were at least 18 between 1919 and 1969; they are known under the program as “ancestors.” Their descendants will be eligible for future grants. Funding comes from the 3 percent tax on gross cannabis sales, a new source of revenue that makes symbolic sense, since Black people have disproportionately suffered from the war on drugs. The reparations fund will be $10 million in all, with the initial 16 grants of $25,000 making up 4 percent of the total, or $400,000.
Rue Simmons and her colleagues acknowledge that improvements like Burton’s nice fence won’t even begin to make up for all the ways Black families were harmed and cheated over the decades. But Evanston is the first place to distribute tangible, concrete reparations to African Americans, and the housing grants are only the start. “It’s hard to say I’m satisfied, because our circumstances as a Black community have not changed,” said Rue Simmons, in Evanston on a steamy July day between trips to Rome and Ghana to discuss reparations with local leaders. “But I’m encouraged we’ve taken this bold step, and we can expand and improve.”
Evanston officials emphasize that unlike the federal reparations bill, their program is not meant to address slavery and continuing discrimination but rather the specific past actions of the municipal government. The city has taken up the fraught task of trying to actually quantify and mitigate harm done locally, but harm that flowed from the country’s original sin. Estimates of the economic toll of slavery nationwide, drafted by different economists, tote up into the trillions. Evanston’s comparably tiny, specific program is a way to help Black families build the generational wealth that was denied them for so long and protect their stake in an increasingly expensive city.
Burton noted that, while fixing up her home and yard make it more comfortable, it also makes the value of the house go up: “Once I pass, all of this will belong to my son”—a financial aid adviser for students at Georgia State University. Reparations committee chair Braithwaite said, “what’s keeping me up at night” is finding funding to do more, and more quickly. But in the meantime, he added, “my task is to execute on what’s in front of us, which is delivering that first remedy…. One step, one step at a time.”
The village that would become Evanston was founded in the mid-1800s by elites fleeing the pollution and social strife of Chicago. In 1851, Methodist leaders, including John Evans, founded Northwestern University, followed by the Northwestern Female College in 1855. Upper-class and influential residents, including Frances Willard—famous leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—exalted Evanston as a bastion of intellectualism, religion, morality, and gorgeous greenery.
Evanston’s first Black resident was Maria Murray Robinson, an indentured domestic worker for a family who moved to the city in 1855. After Emancipation, Black people from the South steadily moved to Evanston to work as servants and laborers for the burgeoning town and campus. “It was a rural type of place to live the leisure life”—for white residents, said Robinson, who brims with enthusiasm over the family stories he’s collected and turns stoic discussing the underlying injustice. “In order to attain that leisure life, you need to have a working pool that will help take care of you.”
The city began implementing laws and policies as early as 1900 meant to segregate and control the growing Black population, numbering 737 at the turn of the century, Robinson wrote in his report. Between roughly 1910 and 1940, during the Great Migration, the population grew to more than 6,000 Black people, and the great majority were forced to live in the small triangle between a railroad track and canal that has remained the core of Evanston’s Black community through the present day. Black families were highly likely to own their homes, but the lack of housing stock led to overcrowding and rising prices.
Amid Evanston’s deep segregation, a nonetheless thriving Black economy developed. There existed a Black taxi service, a Black newspaper, Black lawyers and doctors, and countless other Black-owned businesses, along with multiple popular Black churches. With no nearby hospital that would admit Black people, Black doctors Isabella Garnett and Arthur Butler created a clinic and medical training center in their Evanston home. Black people were not welcome in the Evanston YMCA on Grove Street, but Black youth flocked to a YMCA that opened on Emerson Street in 1914.
In 1921, Evanston passed a zoning ordinance that would displace Black families and further enshrine segregation. Blocks where Black families lived outside the main Black neighborhood were zoned commercial, and residents were forced to move, with the already-overcrowded triangle, now known as the Fifth Ward, being the main option. In the ensuing decades, developers and neighborhood associations drafted racial covenants that explicitly banned Black people from buying homes in much of Evanston. Minimum prices and other provisions also kept Black people out of white neighborhoods.
In Evanston, as in other cities nationwide, banks routinely denied mortgage loans to Black homebuyers, driven by the redlining of Black neighborhoods—the designation by the federal government that mortgages in those areas were too risky to insure. Indeed, a 1940 map of Evanston shows the current Fifth Ward area in red, labeled D on an A to D scale of riskiness. D meant “hazardous,” according to the map’s legend, while adjacent areas were labeled C, which signified “risk of an ‘infiltration of a lower grade of population,’” according to Robinson’s report.
The lack of bank financing forced Black families to rely on predatory contract-buying schemes, in which a buyer would make a down payment and monthly payments without receiving any equity in the home until the balance was nearly or fully paid off. Contract buyers had virtually no legal protection, and sellers might evict the buyer for one missed payment or almost any reason at all.
In the early 1940s, city officials decided that “blighted” areas needed to be cleared for economic development, and Black homes and businesses were seized. Owners were paid but struggled to find replacement housing, Robinson noted. Evanston’s first Black city council member, Edwin B. Jourdain Jr., railed against the practice. But shortly after he lost his seat in 1947, a Land Clearance Commission was instituted that enshrined in policy the practice of demolishing Black homes and businesses outside the traditional Black area, by designating them as substandard buildings. “‘Beautification,’ it’s a really good code word,” said Robinson, surrounded by shelves stuffed with books and papers in the legacy center. “That usually means removal of undesirable people, and those are usually people of color.”
At Northwestern, meanwhile, Black students were not allowed to live in campus housing until 1947. Black leaders were outraged that Evanston approved permits for new Northwestern housing that barred Black students, including a building for students who were veterans. At a 1946 city council meeting, Jourdain decried the city’s “help[ing] Northwestern University erect Jim Crow housing projects.” In the 1940s, Evanston also built its own veterans’ housing that was segregated and inequitable. Residential segregation inherently meant the schools also remained largely segregated, even years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.
Black parents and other leaders demanded that Evanston’s schools be meaningfully desegregated, and the school board passed a resolution in 1964 promising to do so, then adopted a desegregation plan two years later. An ambitious and chaotic busing program ensued, disliked by both white and Black families, especially since it forced Black students to do most of the traveling and made it impossible for them to walk home for lunch as their white peers did. New schools Superintendent Gregory C. Coffin—a white New England transplant and cousin of the civil rights leader and Yale University chaplain the Reverend William Sloane Coffin Jr.—hired Black teachers and staff for previously white schools and instituted teacher trainings and curriculum overhauls to root out racism. It proved too much for many white residents. The standoff became a national symbol, and despite the NAACP and multiple other groups passionately arguing, organizing, and demonstrating on Coffin’s behalf, he was removed by the school board in 1970.
Meanwhile, as Evanston slowly desegregated, it also destroyed several landmarks dear to Black residents. Foster School, where most Black students had gone, ceased to be a neighborhood school in 1967 under the desegregation plan and closed altogether in 1979. The Grove Street YMCA was finally desegregated in 1963; but Robinson noted that “it was met with mixed emotions,” especially in the teen hangout area called the Plantation Room, which “included a painting that depicted enslaved Black people working in a field.” The Emerson YMCA, site of countless warm memories for Black residents, became a training facility for the fire department. It was destroyed in 1980.
A few statistics show how far from integration and equity Evanston remains. In 2020, the 8092 census tract, largely encompassing the Fifth Ward, had a 61 percent Black and 21 percent white population, and a median household income of $43,613. The city’s overall median household income was $82,335, and median household income in various largely white tracts was much higher—for example, $142,237 in the 8088 tract on Evanston’s northern edge, with only 2 percent Black residents. The median value of owner-occupied homes in 8092 was $237,800, compared to $409,900 Evanston-wide and $749,500 in 8088. Life expectancy in 8092 is 75.5 years, compared to 88.8 years in 8088, according to the most recently available data.
“Where whites saw progress and improvement,” wrote sociologist and Evanston native Mary Barr, “Blacks saw dreams dwindle.”
Taking the Leap
Robin Rue Simmons spun a ping-pong ball machine full of 123 little white balls. She drew one out and then clearly read the number on it twice: “878399340.” It was January 13, 2022, and for Rue Simmons, Braithwaite, Robinson, and others in the room at a Fifth Ward community center, this was the culmination of many months of long hours and difficult discussions.
At a meeting just a week earlier, tensions had simmered. Braithwaite lamented that three “ancestors” registered for reparations had died as the process dragged on. He tried to keep the meandering session on track and threatened to mute a fellow committee member on Zoom. Deputy City Manager Kimberly Richardson struggled to allay residents’ concerns that there was something problematic about a nonprofit helping reparations recipients carry out home repairs.
Now, the recipients of the first round of reparations were being chosen. “Is this a perfect process?” asked committee member Carlis Sutton, a retired teacher and deacon who grew up in Evanston schools and served in the Peace Corps in Liberia. “No. No first-time effort ever is. But we can truthfully say no other community, no other state, no other government has gone this far.”
The program’s roots go back a full two decades. In 2002, Lionel Jean-Baptiste sponsored a resolution, which the Evanston City Council approved, urging Congress to pass H.R. 40, U.S. Representative John Conyers’s bill calling for a federal commission to study the impacts of slavery and possibility of reparations. At that time, Rue Simmons had recently moved back to Evanston from Michigan, where she was working as a real estate broker in Detroit. She saw firsthand the legacy of housing discrimination, as she served buyers in neighborhoods “with generations of systemic harm and plunder and discrimination and inferior infrastructure.” The disparity directly affected Rue Simmons’s ability to provide for her two children, since her colleagues serving wealthier white suburbs earned many times more on commission selling a $400,000 home than she did selling a $40,000 home. It took Rue Simmons nearly a decade to save enough money and find an affordable home to buy in Evanston, in the Fifth Ward where she had grown up. She owned a Christian bookstore and a small construction firm, and then in 2017 ran successfully for city council.
Nothing much reparations-related had happened in those years since Jean-Baptiste’s resolution, but almost immediately upon joining the council, Rue Simmons began pushing reparations. The changes she was seeing in her own neighborhood—housing prices rising, and Black people leaving—were a prime motivator. “Homes have been lost by multiple generations of Black families,” Rue Simmons said. “I felt a responsibility to run for office and make change.” But where to even start? What would reparations entail? Who would be eligible? Where would the funds come from?
In the summer of 2019, community meetings were held to identify reparations priorities, and housing rose to the top. In November 2019, a resolution was adopted authorizing the use of cannabis tax funds for reparations.
The reparations initiative had its big public coming out at Evanston’s First Church of God in December 2019. Actor Danny Glover addressed the crowd, as did Ron Daniels, convener of the National African American Reparations Commission. Jean-Baptiste, who immigrated to Evanston from Haiti as a child, teared up as he reflected on the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But just as the reparations committee’s work got underway, the pandemic hit, and their monthly meetings moved to Zoom. The May 2020 killing of George Floyd and ensuing demands for racial justice added extra urgency, and perhaps made the challenge of administering reparations even more daunting.
During monthly reparations committee meetings and town halls, residents who tuned in by Zoom peppered the committee with complaints and concerns. Why were only homeowners eligible, since those who suffered most from housing discrimination might not own homes? Why couldn’t people get cash to start a business or do with as they pleased? Why wasn’t Northwestern University kicking in funds? What about the owners of palatial homes on the lakefront, where few Black people got the chance to live? How would Evanston ensure Black contractors were hired for home repairs?
These complaints made for an unexpected state of affairs: While there was little opposition to the concept of reparations, and little opposition from white people, many Black residents were suspicious and unsatisfied. In March 2021, the city council allocated funding for the first phase of reparations, in an 8–1 vote. The sole no vote came from Cicely Fleming, a Black city council member representing the Ninth Ward on Evanston’s south side. In a scathing op-ed for the Evanston RoundTable newspaper, Fleming called the plan “a dim, weak light” and wrote: “It will be a travesty for Black communities around the US if it becomes our model going forward.” She echoed widespread criticisms that the program is “restrictive,” and that cash payments would be better than mortgage and home repair assistance. Later that year, Fleming resigned from her seat, citing her frustration with the city council.
Some leading experts share in those criticisms. Economist William A. Darity Jr. of Duke University, a high-profile proponent of federal reparations, has criticized Evanston’s program and emphasized that reparations should consist of unrestricted direct payments. He has calculated the wealth gap between Black and white Evanstonians at about $3.3 billion, almost 10 times the city’s entire $360 million budget. “They cannot come close to meeting the bar for true reparations,” he said via email of Evanston and other municipalities, “and it would be desirable for them to stop calling local initiatives of the type Evanston adopted ‘reparations.’” He continued: “The danger is this array of local and state initiatives will lead people to say enough has been done and a comprehensive national program is not needed.”
Salim Muwakkil—longtime political analyst, journalist, and former Black Panther Party member in Chicago—agreed that “these piecemeal attempts diminish the power of the overall demand for reparations. They diminish the grandeur.”
Evanston did not even tap its general operating budget for reparations. The city had to wait for taxes to roll in from its sole cannabis dispensary, Zen Leaf. Evanston is able to host up to three dispensaries, which could mean more funds for reparations. But the state so far has not released additional licenses.
Reparations leaders say the cannabis tax was a good place to start, but they also want the private sector to contribute. A Reparations Community Fund was set up, administered by faith leaders, to accept donations to carry out reparations decided by a nonprofit stakeholders group. That fund has collected about $300,000, according to Rue Simmons. Donations can also be made to the city’s reparations fund, though the city had collected just $35,544 in donations as of July. To reparations leaders’ chagrin, Northwestern University has not contributed or participated. (The university did not respond to questions about Evanston’s reparations initiative, but pointed to a racial justice initiative that includes grants for projects like a Northwestern Athletics summer camp for young Black men from Evanston and the engineering school’s work with minority women tech entrepreneurs.)
Mayor Daniel Biss said that tapping a new revenue stream—cannabis—was perhaps an easier sell than taking funds from another part of the budget. He noted that the property taxes and sales taxes that account for most of the revenue in municipalities like Evanston are inherently regressive, burdening lower-income people more, and he would like to see new methods to fund city services and future reparations. “Can we identify more progressive ways to raise revenue that are consistent with state law and allow us to ask those in this community who really do have the means to pay to contribute towards these projects of advancing justice?” asked Biss, whose grandmother—a survivor of Auschwitz—received reparations payments from the German government. “We were a part of this machine that destroyed and oppressed people. And now we’re in a situation today that is the outcome of that machine doing exactly what it was designed to do.”
In April, almost all of the 16 ancestors chosen in the lottery convened for a celebratory dinner at Evanston’s civic center, named for Lorraine Morton, the legendary first Black mayor. Ramona Burton, who wore a comfortable tan suit and animal print shirt, realized that she knew many of the recipients. After dinner, the recipients’ names were announced at the council meeting. Reparations committee member Claire McFarland Barber stepped to the mic. “Their names I hope will be remembered like we know the names of the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas, who integrated the school system, or first voters after the 1965 Voting Rights Act enabled so many to come forward and vote,” said McFarland Barber, founder and executive director of the Elder Law & Wellness Initiative.
While Evanston was highly segregated in the 1950s and 1960s, Burton said she didn’t feel it as a child. Her 1959 fourth-grade class picture shows Black and white students who learned together in room 203 of Dewey Elementary School. She had Black and white friends and participated in an integrated Girl Scout troop. But in many other ways, Burton’s family very much represented the common experience and history of Black families in Evanston. She was born at the public county hospital in Chicago, since neither of Evanston’s two hospitals allowed Black patients to give birth. Her father was the personal driver for hot dog scion Oscar Mayer, who lived in a Victorian mansion near the lake. It was the type of personal service job that many Black Evanstonians worked since the town’s early days. Mayer lent her father the money for a down payment on their home, Burton said, “so they didn’t have to go through the bank, because the banks were redlining minorities.”
Burton dreamed of going to Howard University and becoming a psychologist. But one day after church, she met a charming Army veteran seven years her senior. They were soon married at the First Church of God, the same church where decades later Burton would learn about reparations. “My parents begged me to go to college,” she said. “But no, I was so in love.” After her mother died and her father remarried and moved to Pittsburgh, Burton and her husband lived in her childhood home, on the southern edge of the “triangle” that was the Black neighborhood, until it was sold, and she and her husband moved into the home they bought 46 years ago, the one where she just had the new fence installed.
Her warm personality and slightly wicked sense of humor fill up a room. She has worked in insurance companies, as an administrative secretary at an educational testing standards company, at a YMCA, and for a debt collection agency. Lately, she’s been selling knives through presentations she gives over the phone, touting how one could entertain with the elaborate cutlery sets and pointing listeners toward short videos. She earns money for each presentation, but also depends on commission. Another city housing program is helping her afford central air conditioning.
Burton’s fellow reparations recipient, Louis J. Weathers, has been keenly aware of housing discrimination since his youth. He still lives in the home his parents bought in the early 1930s in one of the typical contract-buying arrangements. When he was a child, he recalled, the family would take a “Sunday drive” north to Wisconsin once a month to pay the house’s owner. They were only the second Black family on the block, among Swedish, Italian, and Armenian neighbors, he remembered, but more Black families soon moved in. “We had a lot of fun,” Weathers reminisced. “We played ball in the street, everybody knew everybody. You did something you weren’t supposed to do, when your mother or father came home from work, they already knew about it.”
Weathers, now 87, went to the University of Illinois on a music scholarship, but left after two years to join the Army, planning to continue his education later with the GI Bill. Ultimately, he left the service and married his high school sweetheart in 1957. He was working at the post office, and he and his wife borrowed his father-in-law’s old car to drive around looking at houses. They found an affordable modest ranch house on Leland Avenue, blocks from his childhood home. But Weathers’s bank, First National Bank of Illinois, declined to make a loan, he said. “Banks were not giving minorities home loans,” he recalled. “They said, ‘We will give you a loan for a car.’ I said, ‘No I want to buy a house.’”
He ultimately got money through the post office credit union to buy the home on contract. Eventually, he was able to get off contract and take ownership. When he and his wife and their two kids were ready for a bigger place, they decided to rent out the little ranch house and bought a house further south. “We walked into this place and knew right away it was for us,” he said, despite the fact that they would be the only Black family in the immediate area. The woman showing the house said she was not the Realtor and couldn’t initiate a sale, but Weathers was insistent, he recounted. “I figured we’d come back next day and they’d say it’s sold,” he said. “That’s how the discrimination worked.”
They ultimately secured the house. At first, their white neighbors were hostile; his son was called a racial epithet. “But it didn’t last long—they saw we were there to stay, they ended up playing together.” He and his daughter were in the “Indian Princesses” program where “tribes” met in a different neighbor’s home each week—“that was a quick way to get to know each other.”
Weathers—who had gone on to jobs doing finance for a pharmaceutical and other companies—realized the power of investing in real estate. Some years later, he bought a six-flat building to rent out, and, by this point, getting a bank mortgage was no problem. Next, he bought a larger rental building. He moved to Maryland in the 1980s, but returned to Evanston in 1997, after he’d retired, to take care of his mother—back in their original home. And the ice cream truck still came at the same time he remembered from his childhood.
When Weathers found out his number was drawn in the reparations lottery, he was “elated.” He is devoting the $25,000 to help his son, Michael, 60, pay off his Evanston condo. Michael works in nutritional health for the state of Illinois. The two have dinner together every night—the elder Weathers always cooks. They often go together to see jazz around the Chicago area.
“The reparations were more meaningful because I was able to share it with the next generation,” Weathers said. “He loves Evanston, too. It’s all he’s known.”
Back to the Future
“Pass to the shooter! Pass to the shooter!” Tosha Wilson coaches the girls dashing around the same basketball courts where she played as a kid three decades ago, in Mason Park. Wilson, 44, grew up in a pretty, blue house on Florence Avenue across the street, and her cousin Jacqui White lived next door. The block was the eastern edge of the Black neighborhood in those days, Wilson remembered. Immediately to the east are notably more grandiose homes with sprawling lush gardens. Just west of the park is the former railroad viaduct that marks the edge of the Fifth Ward, which stretches west, full of tightly spaced modest bungalows and apartments of brick and siding. “That’s the garbage dump,” said Wilson, pointing to a waste transfer station, as the tired and happy basketball players pack up. “They moved all the Black folks between the railroad and the canal, that’s kind of the way Evanston is laid out.”
Black people have left Evanston’s Fifth Ward, and the town as a whole, as prices have risen. Evanston’s Black population dropped from 16,412 in 2000 to 12,542 in 2020. The white population saw a much smaller drop, from 48,382 to 46,133; meanwhile, the Latino population almost doubled, from 4,633 to 8,749. Monthly housing costs for Evanston renters climbed from a median $856 in 2000 to $1,433 in 2020, census data shows. In 2020, 62 percent of Evanston Black households were renters, compared to 36 percent of white households. Median owner-occupied home prices meanwhile increased from $290,800 in 2000 to $409,900 in 2020.
The changes mean Mason Park isn’t as lively as it used to be, as Wilson sees it. She started the evening basketball program because she was disappointed that girls were not shooting hoops in the park anymore. She volunteers her time to coach after long days as an Evanston police sergeant, following in the footsteps of her uncle, William Logan Jr., who became Evanston’s first Black police chief in 1984. Jacqui White, Wilson’s cousin, is a police officer in Highland Park, the posher suburb just north of Evanston.
Wilson and White were eligible to apply for reparations as “descendants,” but neither did, though White plans on doing so when applications open up again. They have mixed feelings about the effort. They describe their own mission as looking forward instead of back, and striving to build Black-owned, racially inclusive institutions, especially in the historically Black community that they’ve seen change. They are co-founders, along with several partners, of the AUX, a small, wellness-focused business incubator and gathering space in a former vegetable processing plant. They’re completing extensive renovations on the cavernous space and received a million-dollar grant from Evanston’s federal Covid-19 relief funds. Last year, they bought the building with the Growing Season, a local nonprofit partner in the wellness space. They hope the AUX will be a place to build community in Evanston while centering social justice, health, and wellness, and bolstering Black businesses of the type Wilson remembers from her youth. “I saw a Black dentist, a Black currency exchange owner, [Black] barbershops, the [Black-owned] grocery store,” Wilson remembered. “That was normal to me.”
The cousins loved growing up in Evanston, playing at Mason Park, trick-or-treating, riding bikes, and doorbell ditching—“we had an absolute ball,” Wilson remembered. But housing insecurity plagued Wilson’s family. Her parents never owned a home, and after they had to leave the house near the park, owned by her aunt who lived on the first floor, they bounced between other relatives. Wilson went to college at Illinois State University, then planned to move to Atlanta in the hopes of becoming a broadcast journalist for ESPN. But her father, a youth worker at the organization Family Focus, pleaded with her to come back to Evanston after she graduated in 2001. “Your community needs you,” she remembered him saying.
Wilson took responsibility for raising her two younger sisters, ages five years and 11 months, at the time. Even as she spent her days serving her community as an officer, Wilson was ultimately priced out, unable to afford a home. She bought instead in Zion, 30 miles north, near the Wisconsin border, and moved there with her sisters. White, 50, took advantage of lower prices following the market crash to buy a home in the Fifth Ward in 2009 in which to raise her daughter, Jazmyn—now a player in Wilson’s basketball program.
When Wilson and White sought bank loans for the Laundry Café, a small business within the AUX’s hub, they say they were repeatedly turned down, with lenders citing insufficient business experience. “Despite a solid business plan, excellent credit scores, and spotless 20-year employment record with the city, we were denied,” Wilson wrote in an op-ed for the Evanston RoundTable. “That’s when it hit me: This is how things have been for generations for Black and Brown entrepreneurs. The opportunity gap is so consistent that we did not even notice it until it was brought to our attention.”
Rue Simmons thinks the reparations initiative and its ripple effects can help mitigate such discrimination and build the fortunes of Black-owned businesses.
Future stages of reparations are meant to address other priority areas identified through community meetings, namely economic development, education, finances, and history and culture. How exactly that will be done will be determined in a collective process unfolding over months and years. “It must be the injured party that has to say this is what will make me whole, this is what will do the repair, fully understanding that in most instances, there will never, ever be quite full repair,” said Daniels, the national reparations leader.
Municipalities and states nationwide are considering reparations programs and legislation, and local programs could provide a structure for federal funds if—“when,” in Daniels’s words—federal reparations are passed. Cities including St. Louis, Los Angeles, Providence, Austin, and Asheville, North Carolina, have promised to create reparations programs, and the state of California this summer issued an interim report on reparations. The Chicago City Council vowed to study reparations after the George Floyd protests, though that effort has stalled.
The July reparations committee meeting was Braithwaite’s last before stepping down from the city council, as he’d recently lost his mother and taken a new job at Northwestern. Rue Simmons was unanimously tapped as new chair of the committee. She warmly thanked Braithwaite for mentoring her as a new city council member and assured the group that even as her international profile grew, Evanston would always be her top priority. The committee decided to release $25,000 grants to additional recipients as soon as the cannabis tax funds become available. In all, 123 Evanstonians who applied qualified as ancestors. All those numbers were drawn from the ping-pong ball machine, and they’ll get reparations in that order.
So, whether aging ancestors get reparations in their lifetime depends, oddly, on how quickly locals buy cannabis.
The longer-term scope and success of Evanston’s reparations seemingly depend on how much Evanstonians are really willing to commit to the effort. Black Lives Matter signs proliferate throughout the city. But will residents of all races be willing to pay more taxes, shift budget priorities, or otherwise sacrifice in small or big ways to address harm done to Black people across generations? In cities less progressive than Evanston, even making statements and symbolic gestures is not easy. Evanston has that down. But since the legacy of slavery fundamentally shaped our country’s economy over centuries, making lasting repair likely comes down to cold, hard economics.
“The most difficult part is to convince people they must sacrifice some prospective [individual] well-being for what will be the collective well-being,” said Muwakkil. “The pandemic convinced a lot of people we can manufacture economic resources a lot more easily than we thought, and distribute them efficiently. If we really want to.”