St. Louis studies Evanston’s pioneering approach to reparations

By Elizabeth Tharakan

A town hall on Evanston’s reparations program. Photo credit: City of Evanston

When the St. Louis Reparations Commission presented its first proposal last week to begin to address systemic racial discrimination against Black residents of the city , it drew on pioneering reparations programs in California and in the Chicago suburb of Evanson, which has already disturbed more than $1 million in funds since its inception.

St. Louis is looking closely at Evanston’s experience as it moves ahead with its own reparations process. The commission in St. Louis is continuing to receive comments from citizens in advance of finalizing the report later this year.

As of last August the Evanston program had disbursed $1,092,924 in reparations funds through the Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program. Another $439,397 is pending for mortgage assistance and construction or remodeling projects. 

Funded by a local tax on cannabis, the program is focused specifically on redressing housing discrimination. Qualifying applicants can put down $25,000 toward a down payment on a new property, mortgage assistance or housing renovations.

The pioneering programs have led to others across the country, with several gaining momentum in recent years, including St. Louis, where the mayor signed a bill in 2022 allowing residents to make voluntary donations to a reparations program, the first step. Other Midwestern cities with new reparations programs, at various stages, include St. Paul, Minnesota, Kansas City, Missouri and Detroit, Michigan.

Evanston’s reparations program specifically addresses housing discrimination and segregation between 1919 and 1969, which have been documented in the “Evanston Policies and Practices Directly Affecting the African-American Community” report. The report led to the City Council to pass Resolution 126-R-19 and Resolution 37-R-21. The City Council members said the program is an attempt to rectify the past harm caused to Black residents. 

Black codes

The discrimination Evanston seeks to address dates back to slavery. Before the Civil War, the state of Illinois established “Black codes” restricting residences, settlements and job opportunities. Segregation occurred in restaurants, theaters, street cars and housing in 1918, when an Evanston branch of the NAACP was founded.

“Practically every restaurant in Evanston refuses to serve Negroes who, when they go to even the less respectable ones, are simply ignored,” the Daily Northwestern, the university’s student newspaper, reported in 1936. Evanston’s Cooley’s Cupboard restaurant, a popular place for college students, regularly refused service to Black people. Early sit-in protests were held at the restaurant. 

Black attendees of the New Theater of Evanston had a separate stairway and sat only in a reserved block of seats in the balcony. Evanston’s Alderman Edwin B. Jourdain led the fight against the practice. When the issue of whether or not to allow theaters to open on Sundays was before the City Council, Jourdain spoke out against allowing Sunday openings, arguing that it would only add another day that Black residents would experience segregation in theaters. 

For years, Evanston’s two hospitals, Evanston Hospital and St. Francis Hospital, restricted access to Black residents and employed no Black doctors on their staff. As a result, in 1914, two Black doctors, Arthur Butler and Isabella Garnett, opened a hospital for Black patients at 1918 Asbury Ave., known as the Evanston Sanitarium. Over the next 15 years, the sanitarium served Evanston’s Black population from a converted residential home. The operating room was next to the furnace room, separated by a door. After Butler’s death, the sanitarium was renamed Butler Memorial. 

National discrimination

The history of discrimination in Evanston is not unique. Frederick Douglass, the Black Civil War-era abolitionist, said “the history of civilization shows that no people can well rise to a high degree of mental or even moral excellence without wealth. A people uniformly poor and compelled to struggle for barely a physical existence will be dependent and despised by their neighbors and will finally despite themselves.” 

Thinking like this prefigured the development of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Co., which Congress established on March 3, 1865. Deposits were invested in safe government securities. Congress created a board of trustees with prominent citizens who lent their reputations to the bank. Within 10 years, it handled $75 million of deposits made by more than 75,000 depositors.

In 1917, the Department of Labor under President Woodrow Wilson promoted an “Own Your Own Home” campaign and convinced people to buy single-family units rather than rent. The Wilson program was targeted to white veteran homeowners, and closed to Black people. 

James Taylor, the head of the Department of Commerce’s Housing Division, advised residents to “buy partnership in the community. Restricted residential districts may serve as protection against persons with whom your family won’t care to associate, provided the restrictions are enforced and not merely temporary.”

Property owners and builders included language in home deeds and neighbors’ pacts that prohibited future resale to African Americans. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) recommended that deeds to property for which it issued mortgage insurance should prohibit resale to African Americans. When neighborhoods integrated, property values initially increased because of Blacks’ need to pay higher prices. But then white homeowners sold at big discounts and property values fell. Because of this phenomenon, it was seen as a problem when Black families moved to white neighborhoods.

Last month, Alvin B. Tillery Jr., a political science professor at Northwestern University said in an interview, “City governments and banks would conspire to redline Black areas so they would not loan for mortgages in those areas.” This practice of not lending for mortgages would drive up rental prices for Black communities and families, when the federal government was helping white people buy their homes and get low-cost loans because of their veteran status. Northwestern University’s research did support the reparations program, but its newspaper took a neutral stance in deciding how to cover it.

“White men were getting sweetheart deals,” Tillery said. “Prior to the 1940s, when Freddie Mac was created, you had to put down 15% of the principal and pay it off within 15 years.” The federal government created lending instruments that made homeownership easier and within the reach of most Americans. “The problem for Black Americans, if you track the history, is that the military was segregated prior to 1948 so the city through racially restrictive covenants conspired to keep the new housing stock built for the white veterans and so they redlined neighborhoods,” Tillery added.

In the unanimous Shelley v. Kraemer decision in 1948, the court ruled in a St. Louis case that deeds that barred sales to Black people could not be enforced in state courts because of the 14th Amendment.

How the reparations work

Evanston is awarding $25,000 cash payments for mortgage payments, down payments or furniture. The program is run on an honor system, Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons told the Evanston Roundtable. Rue Simmons is the founder and executive director of FirstRepair, a nonprofit that informs local reparations on the national level. She is also a residential real estate broker seeking to help young adults build wealth through homeownership.

“It is my understanding to keep with your legal framework that has allowed us the success to disburse and it’d be a cash benefit, unrestricted related to housing, and not for us to sort of manage or dictate in what way that it’s used,” Simmons said. 

The city’s Reparations Committee decided on an electronic process randomly selects city direct descendants for the cash payments, akin to a lottery system for Black residents who lived in Evanston during 1919-1969.

“They have to prove that they lived in the time period between 1919-1969 before the city passed its housing discrimination ordinance,” said Tasheik Kerr, assistant to the city manager. 

Broad support for program

A recent survey conducted by Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy found that every ethnic and racial demographic group within the city, across all nine of its political wards, supports this historical reparations program. Northwestern surveyed about 3,500 Evanston residents between February and June 2023. About 70% of caucasian respondents viewed the reparations program as “good public policy” for the city of Evanston. This Northwestern survey differs from nationwide surveys, which have historically recorded about 20% support among white respondents. The Evanston survey shows that other groups also support this program, including 64% of Black respondents, 61% of Latino respondents, and 62% of Asian respondents.

City Manager Clayton Black told the Daily Northwestern that committee members suggested using Liberty Bank and OneUnited Bank, two Black-owned banks with which the city is considering depositing money, as long as the bank can promise to hold collateral worth 105% of the city’s original deposit. 

Student journalist Joyce Li covered the story.

“I would have imagined that opposition to reparations would be more likely to come from conservatives, but the debate that’s going on is within the Evanston Black community about how it can be done or whether reparations are sufficient,” Li said. “Our coverage has been able to include perspectives that are critical of the reparations program.”

Evanston’s program has faced some opposition. There were local community groups who advocated for cash payments to be an option.

“We didn’t have that in the beginning, but the reparations committee added that option,” Kerr said. “All their meetings are public – members of that group showed up to meetings and voiced their opinion and made public comments. There wasn’t a lot of interaction with city staff.”

An ABC7 Chicago report featured Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations, whose member Rose Cannon argued that no reparations can ever be enough to repair the damages. Kevin Brown, a member of the group, described the Evanston program as “managed by a white-run finance company, and a meager $25,000 is not given to the injured but to white-run perpetrator banks who redlined Black people out of beautiful areas and caused generational harm.” 

The groups prone to criticizing the program, such as Evanston Rejects Racist Reparations, want to give people cash rather than giving money to the banking industry. The Evanston Reparations Program is evolving in response to their demands.

Elizabeth Tharakan Is an attorney and doctoral student in Mass Communications and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University’s College of Arts and Media.

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