THE EVANSTON REPARATIONS EXPERIMENT
Bloomberg Businessweek|May 31 - June 07, 2021 (Double Issue)
In the first American city to offer reparations to its Black residents, a million questions remain— including whether the payments should even be called reparations
Susan Berfield and Jordyn Holman

Lucious Sutton disconnected the waterline, the gas line, and the sewer line for the home he’d built on Bauer Place on the northwestern edge of Evanston. He and his brothers removed the appliances and the furniture. They secured the windows. Then he watched as men he didn’t know— maybe they worked for the city, maybe for a property developer—jacked up the wooden house, set it onto a truck, and drove it a mile-and-a-half to the neighborhood the city had deemed more suitable for Black families. A sheriff stood by.

It was May 1929, five months before the onset of the Great Depression. Evanston, just north of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan, even then thought itself the ideal American town, with fine homes, a university, and a certain class. The city’s population had grown by tens of thousands in a decade, so that by the time Lucious and his wife, Minerva, were removed from their property, 63,000 people lived there, almost 5,000 of them Black. Homebuilding was lucrative, and the rules of segregation—some coded, some official—were well established. A 1921 ordinance allowed the city to limit where Black residents could live by rezoning residential blocks into commercial ones; racial covenants kept them away from other neighborhoods. More rules and restrictions were to come.

Bauer Place was prime real estate. It was near a new elementary school and lush woods, and at least one developer could imagine some grand brick homes in the area. “There was only one problem,” says Carlis Sutton, a grandson of Lucious and Minerva. “They were afraid and Collinses—had to leave too. The developer demolished the homes of those who were renting and paid the $130 permit fee to transport the others. The families had no recourse, no city agency to appeal to, no hope that the matter could be sorted out in the courts quickly or at all.

During that decade about 300 other families were also required to move their homes. The permits didn’t list the owners’ race, and it wasn’t the reason for every relocation, says Morris Robinson, founder of the Shorefront Legacy Center, which studies the history of the local Black community. When Black homes were moved, though, it was to the Fifth Ward. Among them was the home where Carlis now lives.

The losses for the Suttons began to accumulate soon after they settled in the Fifth Ward. Their new neighborhood was bounded by a sanitary canal to the west and north, train tracks to the east. The lots were smaller than those on Bauer Place. Not all the streets were paved; not every new resident had running water at first. Newspapers called the area “undesirable.”

Sutton says his grandfather had come from Tennessee in his teens and by the 1920s owned a successful plastering business. He had three employees and two cars. But after the family had to relocate, he started drinking and gambling and cheating on his wife. “To be disgraced like that in front of your family was a hard thing for him,” Sutton says. “It was emasculating.” The Depression made everyone’s life more difficult. Minerva divorced Lucious, took a job as a live-in maid for a White family in the nearby town of Wilmette and had to send her sons to stay with relatives. Sutton thinks about that loss of stability, the economic precarity that followed, the narrowing prospects for his own father, and the impossibility of a full accounting. And he thinks about 2931 Bauer. It’s a parking lot for a church, has been for years. Just to the side is an elm tree his grandparents planted. “If the house still sat where my grandfather put it, it would be worth $500,000,” he says. Sitting where it does in the Fifth Ward, the house sold four years ago for $152,000.

Sutton has been calculating his family’s losses in these specific, often painful ways because Evanston is the first city in the U.S. to attempt to redress such harm. It’s begun a $10 million, 10-year local reparations program to pay down its debt to Black residents, starting with housing. Sutton, a retired teacher and longtime activist, is one of four residents recently appointed to the City Council’s new reparations committee to help figure out the details.

Sutton’s great grandfather had been eligible for the 40 acres and the mule that the federal government promised the formerly enslaved after the Civil War. Sutton’s grandfather was building his business when Callie House, a Black woman born into slavery, led the first national movement for reparations and was imprisoned for nearly a year. A century later, the pandemic has laid bare the country’s inequities, and the protests after the murder of George Floyd have started a racial reckoning. In April the U.S. House of Representatives agreed to discuss the possibility of establishing a commission to study reparations, more than three decades after the proposal was first introduced. President Joe Biden called the resolution, H.R. 40, a good idea. But full reparations from the federal government—an apology for slavery and the harm done afterward, compensation in some form— probably won’t be coming anytime soon.

Cities across the country and the state of California are starting to make a case for local reparations. They would have to be more limited but could come sooner. Evanston is relatively small and relatively wealthy, with some 75,000 people living in eight square miles. About 16% of the city’s residents are Black, and some of the families, like the Suttons, have lived there for more than a hundred years. Evanston had set up an Equity and Empowerment Commission in 2018 and apologized for its history of discrimination. It’s not a surprise that it was the first to agree to pay reparations.

But Evanston’s ambitions have collided with the program’s particulars, especially since the City Council voted in late March to begin paying out the first $400,000 to a select few applicants in the coming months. Some Black residents wonder about the ways and the means. They worry about institutions that might benefit and people who won’t. They think the program is too modest. These reactions are probably inevitable. Restitution is complex and emotional, and at the local level it will never be enough. Sutton says he knows people have complaints and concerns and ideas of how to do better. He does too. He also says he’s encouraging residents to apply anyway.

Robin Rue Simmons was born and raised in Evanston. She’s 45, fourth-generation, and has been a real estate broker, books to re-owner, and nonprofit executive. She started a construction company. Now she owns and manages affordable housing and commercial property in her hometown. In February 2019 she was representing the Fifth Ward on the City Council—one of nine aldermen, as they’re called—when she sent an email to the Equity and Empowerment Commission. The subject was reparations, but the subject line was “Black Equality Policy.” She wasn’t sure how receptive everyone would be otherwise. She began the message: “Because ‘reparations’ makes people uncomfortable.”

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