Chicago Suburb’s Black Residents Explain Why Reparations Are Owed To Them

Evanston Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, proposed a reparations fund that Evanston City Council approved at their meeting on Nov. 25, 2019. (Genevieve Bookwalter/Pioneer Press/TNS)

Chicago Suburb’s Black Residents Explain Why Reparations Are Owed To Them

The Chicago suburb has a history of systemic racism that has left its Black citizens disenfranchised, supporters say.

Published March 2nd

Written by Madison J. Gray

Evanston, Ill., a suburb just north of Chicago, is embarking on plans to use reparations to address a wealth gap in the city. Even though Evanston has a reputation for being diverse and liberal, it is segregated and has dealt with its own racial issues.

The city passed a reparations resolution in 2019. Funds in increments of up to $25,000 will be distributed to eligible citizens, ABC News reports. That makes Evanston the first city in the United States to financially back reparations with a commitment of $10 million to compensate its Black citizens for years of systemic racism.

Rue Simmons, an Evanston alderman who represents the ward where she grew up, said that when she first took office, she hadn’t even given thought to reparations through the city.

"I was looking at data," she said. "I was looking at what we had done, what more we could do, and reparations was the only answer."

She said that keeping things the way they are would only perpetuate a status quo that leaves a racial economic chasm that would maintain "the oppressed state and the disparity that we have and that we have had for years. That's all it could do. More of the same. "The only legislative response for us to reconcile the damages in the Black community is reparations," said Simmons.

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Simmons teamed up with local historian Dino Robinson, who founded the Shorefront Legacy Center, which records Evanston’s Black history. A report Robinson produced chronicled the history of racism in the town dating back to the late 19th century.

"The one comment I hear most often is, 'I did not know,'" Robinson told ABC News. " 'I did not know there was segregation in Evanston.' 'I did not know that your housing mortgage is higher than mine but we have the same income."

He said he expects opposition to the resolution and has a response to it.

"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,'" But he says, "the entire Black community historically has paid taxes, but were not guaranteed the same benefits."

He said that as time went on, racial inequality grew and African Americans formed their own groups and spaces, which alarmed the white majority. The response was the practice of redlining, or placing finances and resources out of reach for the Black community based on where they lived.

"[There were] four categories, 'A' being the highly desired area, 'D' the lower, lowest-value properties. The 'D' areas were usually relegated to the Black community. 'D' was always in red."
Black people were grouped into an area that became Evanston’s 5th ward, which separated them from the rest of the population, property ownership opportunities and the chance to build generational wealth.

"The only option to buy in Evanston was basically in the 5th Ward," said Robinson. "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."

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In the 1940s, the city went as far as tearing down homes outside the 5th Ward belonging to Black people -- or physically moving them into the redlined area.

"The historic redlining impacts our community today," Simmons said. "That map still is the map of our concentrated Black community, our disinvestment, our inferior infrastructure."

The $25,000 would help to fight dwindling affordability in the town, which is now 16 percent Black, but was higher in the past, Simmons said. To fund reparations, city officials have proposed a three percent sales tax on recreational marijuana, which became legal in Illinois in 2020.

"It's the most appropriate use for that sales tax," explained Simmons. "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."

Whites in Evanston, which is where Northwestern University is located, have double the income and home value of Black residents, ABC News says, citing U.S. Census data.  Those who lived through the era of redlining are eligible for reparations payments.

Benjamin Gaines Sr., 98, and his son, Benjamin Jr., who moved there in 1959 are among those eligible. He said he built his family home from the ground up, but had a difficult time finding a place to put it before it was built.

"The contractor, he said, 'You find a lot anywhere in Evanston, and I'll build whatever you want," Gaines Sr. said. "Well, when he said that, he meant in the Black neighborhoods … It was just the way it was."

Although the culture in Evanston is now changed, the inequity still exists, so Gaines' grand-nephew Jared Davis said he would apply for reparations.

"Growing up in Evanston for me was definitely good, despite the racism that I faced," said Davis. He said he wants to apply, "because it's owed."

Photo Credit: Genevieve Bookwalter/Pioneer Press/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

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