Evanston, Illinois Passed a Reparations Program. Can its Liberal Present Confront the Segregated Past?Breaking News
tags: African American history, Chicago, reparations, Evanston Illinois
Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist and author and assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University.
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.
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