Illinois city becomes first in nation to offer reparations to Black Americans

Funds to be distributed from 3% tax on newly legal recreational marijuana sales

40 acres and a mule: The path to reparations in America. The phrase "40 acres and a mule" has been used in conversations about reparations for a long time. . But where did the phrase come from?. During Reconstruction, historians believe reparations were introduced as compensation for unpaid labor work during slavery. On Jan. 16, 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15, which set aside a 30-mile tract of land along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts for former slaves and promised the Army’s help securing loaned mules. That order was necessary considering the 4 million slaves who were freed after the Civil War were left with no money, little education and no land. . Despite the efforts during this period, the land redistribution measures were ultimately abandoned. Most of that Southern land returned to white owners, who allowed former slaves to sharecrop for pennies on the dollar. One bill introduced in the Senate in 1894 would have granted direct payments of up to $500 to all ex-slaves plus monthly pensions ranging from $4 to $15. It never made it past congressional committees. Many civil rights activists rallied for reparations as well, but it often fell on deaf ears. . James Forman, then head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, proclaimed a “Black Manifesto.” . This manifesto demanded $500 million from American churches and synagogues for their role in supporting slavery before the Civil War. . Black nationalist organizations, such as the Black Panther Party, also supported the idea of repayment. Other minority groups have received some form of reparations. . In 1988, Japanese Americans received $20,000 checks and a letter of apology for the imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. . As a result of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, eventually more than $1.6 billion was disbursed to more than 82,000 Japanese Americans, deeming it the most successful push for reparations in U.S. history. There is now a modern-day push for reparations, especially within the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's deaths. . Rep. John Conyers fought for reparations until he died. He presented bills every year from 1989 until 2017 to review reparations for Black people. Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee reintroduced the bill after Conyers' death, with additions. . Although there has been a reinvigorated push for reparations, many have argued against it. . The latest U.S. Census Bureau data reveals the median net worth for the typical white family is $171,000, while the net worth for the typical Black family is $17,150. But, a June Washington Post/ABC poll found that 63% of Americans do not agree with Black Americans receiving reparations. . Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he disapproves of paying reparations for slavery because “none of us currently living are responsible” for what he and many have called America’s original sin. The financial atonement has been the focus for many debating reparations, but some cities and institutions have found a combination of ways to offer that restoration. In 2015, Chicago enacted a reparations ordinance benefiting hundreds of African Americans brutalized by police from the 1970s to the 1990s. . The law designates $5.5 million in financial compensation, as well as funding for a public memorial, and a range of assistance related to health, education and emotional well-being. This summer, Asheville, North Carolina, was added to the list of communities to vote to study and eventually offer reparations. Evanston, Illinois, plans to use marijuana sales taxes to fund reparations and Burlington, Vermont, is also considering it

Evanston, Illinois, has become the first city in the country to fund reparations in an effort to compensate Black Americans for the loss of generational wealth due to inequality and systemically racist policies that emerged after the era of slavery.

The 158-year-old city, located in Chicagoland along the north shore of Lake Michigan, plans to distribute $10 million in tax dollars to the cause over the next decade, with $25,000 payments to eligible residents beginning this spring, according to ABC News.

The program is being funded by a 3% tax on newly legal recreational marijuana sales.

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The dispersals will be focused toward housing and will seek to remedy “a lack of affordability, lack of access to living wage careers here in the city, and a lack of sense of place,” said 5th Ward Alderman Robin Rue Simmons, who has spearheaded the reparations effort since 2019, when Evanston first approved a resolution on the matter.

“It’s the most appropriate use for that sales tax,” Simmons told ABC. “In our city, 70% of the marijuana arrests were in the Black community. And we are 16% of the community. All studies show that Blacks and white [people] consume cannabis at the same rate.”

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Simmons built a convincing case for reparations with the help of local historian Dino Robinson, who produced a 70-page report documenting racist and discriminatory practices dating to the late 1800s.

“We anticipate litigation to tie things up with the premise that ‘You cannot use tax money that’s from the public to benefit a particular group of people,’” Robinson said about opposition to the plan. But, “the entire Black community historically has paid taxes but were not guaranteed the same benefits,” he said.

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Robinson’s report highlighted how racial inequality came to thrive in the city through segregation and the federal practice of redlining, which deliberately sought to suppress wealth and lower property values in the Black community.

In Evanston, the practice — combined with Black codes and Jim Crow laws — relegated Black families to an area of the city that ultimately became the 5th Ward. For generations, the area had no access to basic public amenities and was choked off from economic opportunities that were generally afforded to white people.

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“Banks in Evanston would not loan to Black families for housing, [and] the real estate agencies would not show you anything other than the 5th Ward,” Robinson said.

White people who live in Evanston today make almost double the income and enjoy double the home value of their Black counterparts, according to U.S. Census data.

The wealth gap in Evanston reflects a consistent pattern that persists in nearly every city across the country.

Black Americans continue to possess less than 15% of the wealth that white Americans have, ABC reported, citing the Federal Reserve 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances.

Black residents who experienced redlining and their descendants are now eligible for reparations in Evanston.

The debate over reparations is one of the most divisive and controversial issues that has come up in Congress.

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The phrase “40 acres and a mule” has resonated for Black people since the first days of life post-slavery, but the concept, despite being posed as legislation multiple times for at least the last three decades, has failed to become a reality for Black Americans who have waited more than 155 years for such a repayment.

What began as a promise made to freed slaves in 1865 has become a centuries-long pursuit. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, wants to turn pursuit into promise with House Resolution 40, a 31-year-old bill, first proposed in 1989 by Rep. John Conyers, that aims to create a committee tasked with developing a national plan for reparations. Conyers resurfaced H.R. 40 every year until he resigned in 2017, and now Lee has taken up the cause.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has renewed a 30-year congressional push to establish a commission that would study the impact of slavery and possible reparations for African Americans.

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Last month, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony for and against the formation of the committee, which invited commentary from conservative talk show host Larry Elder, former NFL player Herschel Walker, Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri), California Secretary of State Shirley Weber and several others.

“My religion teaches togetherness. Reparations teaches separation,” Walker said in his testimony. “Slavery ended over 130 years ago. How can a father ask his son to do prison time for a crime he committed?”

Republicans have opposed reparations for some time. Sen. Mitch McConnell said in 2019 “it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate,” and said “none of us currently living are responsible” for what happened 150 years ago.

Congressional Democrats stand alone in support of the plan, which has yet to advance out of committee.

Stephanie Toone of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this report.