Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By Erich Bridges
Ramona Burton made history in January, and that’s no exaggeration.
Burton, 72, a retired widow, was selected for a $25,000 grant she plans to use to fix up the house she’s lived in for 46 years in Evanston, Illinois.
“I want to get a new roof,” she told the Evanston RoundTable, a local news outlet. “I want to get new windows all the way around. And a new back fence in my backyard, because the fence that is up … is getting pretty raggedy. If there’s any money left, I’d like to get central air conditioning.”
What’s so historic about some modest improvements on an aging house?
Burton and 15 other African American residents of Evanston are the initial beneficiaries of Evanston’s Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program, the first formal reparations program for Black citizens in the United States. It’s designed to compensate some of the Black families affected by Evanston’s long history of systemic racism in housing and other areas.
Here’s a bit of that history….
Black and White Evanston
Evanston is a community founded in the mid-1800s just north of Chicago on Lake Michigan’s North Shore. It’s best known as the home of prestigious Northwestern University, begun in the same era as Illinois’ first chartered public university. Burton’s parents (she’s the youngest of six children) both came to Evanston from the South. They were part of “The Great Migration” of some 6 million African Americans who left the racism and poverty of rural Southern areas in the early 1900s, looking for better jobs – and lives – in the urban North.
Many of them found better jobs and lives. But they didn’t escape racism.
As in countless other Northern destinations of “The Great Migration,” the White establishment of Evanston comprehensively discriminated against the growing Black population, which ballooned from 737 in 1900 to more than 6,000 in 1940. Most Black workers toiled in menial jobs as maids, manual laborers and the like. They attended strictly segregated public schools and were barred from most restaurants, stores, parks and movie theaters. Even the two local hospitals would not treat most Black patients.
Burton was born in Chicago’s Cook County Hospital in 1949. At the time, she said, “Evanston Hospital was not allowing Black babies to be born there.”
Local housing and real estate practices produced some of the worst discrimination against African Americans. Black families had once lived all over town, but as their numbers grew they were systematically pushed into one area – roughly, the town’s Fifth Ward. White developers, lenders, real estate companies and government officials used zoning laws and informal “redlining” (refusing home loans to Black applicants or restricting them to certain areas) to force most Black residents out of “desirable” areas and into the Fifth.
The Home Owners Loan Corporation (an arm of the Federal Loan Bank Board) and the Federal Housing Administration actively assisted in the practice – as they did in many other American communities – producing maps for lenders clearly showing “desirable” and “undesirable” areas of Evanston. Black buyers invariably were steered toward the latter.
By 1940, more than 80 percent of Black families in Evanston lived in one congested, triangular area in and around the Fifth Ward. Even there, many of them couldn’t afford mortgage loans and were forced to rent – preventing them from building generational wealth, or even relative housing security, through home ownership.
Racist housing practices in Evanston lasted well into the 1960s, when civil rights activists (including Martin Luther King, Jr.) marched and held demonstrations, demanding justice. Local and federal fair-housing laws were not passed until 1968, and even they had limitations.
Debate, Delay, Action
The damage done in those years persists. Lost opportunities and lost wealth continue to plague the more than 12,000 Black residents of today’s Evanston – a microcosm of the ongoing Black struggle for equity across America. A $46,000 difference in median annual income still exists between White and Black Evanston households, along with a 13-year difference in life expectancy.
Tangible reparations for the losses suffered by African Americans during and since slavery have been debated for decades. A national reparations bill in Congress, long championed by the late Rep. John Conyers of Detroit, languished for more than 30 years. But Conyers’ perennial proposal, H.R. 40 (the 40 represents the “40 acres and a mule” freed Black slaves were promised and never got), finally passed the House Judiciary Committee last April – the first time it has ever been voted on by any Congressional committee. It now has 176 sponsors in the House of Representatives. If passed, it would create a commission to study slavery and racial discrimination in the United States since 1619 and make reparations proposals for African Americans.
Hundreds of cities and localities around the country have considered various forms of reparations for the damage done to African Americans over the years. The most common objection: Significant measures would cost too much. Even supporters acknowledge any real compensation for past wrongs committed against Black Americans would run into the trillions of dollars. Many Whites, meanwhile, ask why they should be held financially responsible for evils committed before they were born.
Too often, such objections had become excuses for doing nothing. Until the city of Evanston decided to do something.
In February 2019, Evanston City Council member Robin Rue Simmons, a fourth-generation daughter of the Fifth Ward and its then-representative, formally proposed a reparations ordinance. A commission gathered local input and attracted national support, including a high-profile visit from African American actor Danny Glover. In November of that year, the council passed a proposal committing the first $10 million from taxes on recently legalized cannabis sales in Evanston to fund reparation efforts.
In March 2021, the council voted 8-1 to devote the first $400,000 to finance home repairs or mortgage down payments of $25,000 each for 16 Evanston residents. How would they be selected? Applications opened last September for Black residents who could document they or their direct “ancestors” (living or dead) had lived in Evanston between 1919 and 1969 and suffered housing discrimination from racist policies after 1969. More than 600 people applied, including 122 “ancestors” who received first priority in consideration.
On Jan. 13, numbers representing the 16 housing grant recipients were randomly picked from a spinning lottery cage. Ramona Burton’s number was one of them. “I never thought I would ever be picked, especially in the first 16,” she said. She’s thrilled. There’s no way she could afford to pay for major home repairs otherwise.
A “Bold First Step”
There has been no shortage of criticism, local and beyond, during the two-year journey to reparations in Evanston. It’s a drop in the bucket, some Black voices object – “reparations on the cheap.” It’s a housing program, not a true reparations program, others say. Still others claim it is a patronizing insult to Black Evanstonians, since the money will be disbursed through some of the very financial institutions who participated in past discrimination, not directly to recipients. One local group of Black residents calls itself Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations.
“Is it perfect? No,” responds former Deputy City Manager Kimberly Richardson (who is African American, along with about half of the current City Council). “We are making the first attempt at reparations for the Black population. Hopefully there are opportunities for other communities who are watching us to improve upon it and do even greater things. So this is a first step, a bold step. It’s something in my close to 20 years in local government that I’ve never seen.”
Richardson’s portfolio included implementing the initial reparation program (she left city government in mid-January). As for the housing money being a “drop in the bucket” for grant recipients, she doesn’t buy it.
“$25,000 is a significant amount of money for someone who doesn’t have $20 in their bank account,” she says. “I think people who make these statements are looking at it from a very narrow point of view. I have to look at it in a different way. We’re not the federal government.”
Michael Nabors is pastor of Second Baptist Church, one of Evanston’s oldest historically Black congregations, and head of the local NAACP. He’s been a strong supporter and participant in the reparations initiative from the beginning, but he’s not surprised by the criticism.
“There is no Black community that agrees on everything,” he says. “If you look at our history, we’ve never been a monolithic people. For every smooth-talking W.E.B. Du Bois, there was also a radical-talking Marcus Garvey. For every Baptist preacher and orator like Martin Luther King, there was a powerful, Muslim Malcom X. …
“[But] I will bet my bottom dollar that all of these folks who are critical will not be able to persuade any of these 16 families that receive $25,000. Because that money is going to begin to build generational wealth in Black families, and that’s what we’re trying to address.”
Nabors calls the initial housing grants the “first step of a 1,000-mile journey. We have appropriated $400,000 out of $10 million, so we have $9.6 million more to work with” – for investments in everything from educational scholarships to job training and economic development.
“When we begin to put together programs and innovations that people see making a difference in the lives of Black families, people of goodwill and philanthropists will begin to donate to reparations. I think the sky’s the limit. I think we’re going to end up having millions and millions of dollars come in.”
Nabors is helping lead a nonprofit organization and related foundation, the Reparations Stakeholders Authority of Evanston, to facilitate that. A national symposium on reparation initiatives, held in Evanston in December, drew donors, activists, professionals and government officials from around the country to study the Evanston model and other ideas.
Nabors knows the current national mood around race and other social issues is toxic, divisive and dangerous. He knows there’s a long way to go, even in Evanston. But he believes Evanston and other local communities can lead the way.
“Thousands of smaller communities in America have that same ability to get things done,” he says. “Maybe it’s time for the local to begin to influence the national, instead of the national influencing the local.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erich Bridges, a nonprofit journalist for more than 40 years, has covered stories in many countries about disaster relief and humanitarian work, development, education, medical care and Christian missions. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.