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As Chicago Considers Reparations For Descendants Of Enslaved People, Aldermen Learn From Evanston’s Groundbreaking Program

In Evanston, longtime residents and their families who are descendants of enslaved people can get $50,000 per household to buy or fix up a home.

Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th) leads City Council's Reparations Subcommittee.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CHICAGO — At the first meeting of a new City Council committee to discuss reparations for the Chicago descendants of enslaved people, aldermen were advised they have “a lifetime of work ahead” of them.

Although Thursday’s meeting of the Subcommittee on Reparations marked a beginning, it was years in the making. 

The subcommittee was created last summer after the Health and Human Relations Committee initially greenlit the formation of a reparations commission, only to subsequently meet again and approve an amendment, pushed for by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, that voided the commission and created a subcommittee chaired by freshman South Side Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th) instead.

On Thursday, the committee heard testimony from Kamm Howard, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations, and Ald. Robin Simons, who represents suburban Evanston’s 5th Ward. Simons led an effort to create a groundbreaking reparations program in Evanston that is backed by $10 million in future tax revenue from cannabis sales. 

Coleman said the committee’s work will put Chicago “on the right side of history.”

“It’s going to be a tough conversation, and there are going to be some tougher, harder days ahead, but it’s necessary and we have to start somewhere,” she said.

Simons shared her experience fighting for the reparations program in Evanston.

“I’ll tell you what I’ve learned in the process, you need to start the work now,” she said. “A lifetime of work ahead of you … You need to build your local case.”

Evanston’s initial policy included up to $25,000 for an individual, or $50,000 per household towards “building wealth through housing,” Simons told the subcommittee. That money can be used to purchase or fix up a home.

To qualify, Evanston residents must have lived or be a descendant of someone who lived in Evanston before 1969 who suffered from discriminatory housing practices, the Guardian reported.

Simons told the committee Evanston’s program is backed with an initial investment from cannabis tax revenue, but since it was announced, additional funding flowed into the effort.

“We started with $10 million of tax dollars from cannabis, but now we have residents, we have synagogues, we have Catholic churches, businesses that have earmarked a percentage of their funds to build up our reparations fund,” she said.

Ald. Andre Vasquez (40th), vice chair of the subcommittee, said the city should also look at tapping cannabis tax revenue to launch a reparations program.

“There is this amount of funding that can be used to start something like that, especially thinking about the damage caused due to these fake drug wars that occurred in the country,” Vasquez said.

Chicago’s 2021 budget relied on borrowing $15 million from future cannabis tax revenues to avert the layoffs of 350 city workers. However, city officials said the cannabis revenue could be left alone if federal stimulus funds materialized to replace the borrowed revenue. 

Howard told the committee reparations were not only meant to be financial, but could redress injuries to Black descendants of enslaved people in other ways. He urged the subcommittee to begin enforcing a 20-year city ordinance that calls on businesses in the city to disclose any past ties to slavery.

Championed by former Ald. Dorothy Tillman (3rd), the ordinance, passed in 2002, requires all companies that do business to disclose if the company profited from slavery in the past. 

But Howard said the city does little to enforce the ordinance.

“This council has the ability to ensure that the law is followed to ensure that corporations that want to take advantage of the business climate in this city, the resources that this consumer base has in the city, if they want to take advantage of that then they have to do right,” he said.

Howard said there are five pillars of reparations work the subcommittee should address:

  • Cessation that guarantees a non-repetition, including an end of “police terrorism” and the creation of civilian oversight of the police department.
  • Restitution, including business development, wealth building and housing initiatives.
  • Compensation, in the form of tuition waivers and business and housing grants.
  • Satisfaction, by repairing the dignity of people descended from slavery through cultural institutions, curriculum changes and apologies.
  • Rehabilitation, which COVID-19 has highlighted, is the need for research in to the “transgenerational genetic injury” and transmission of trauma caused by enslavement and centuries of inequity.

“We need this subcommittee to assist us in pushing these initiatives through City Council, and we need you to assist us in getting funding for this and other initiatives that will bring repair to our people in this city,” he said.

Longtime Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) said she hoped the council’s “new blood,” including Coleman, will spur “action.”

“I don’t want to leave this council and we’re still talking about the same thing,” she said. “I’ve been here 26 years, we’re still talking. I want to see action.”

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