Chicago suburb set to pay reparations, but not all on board

Racial Injustice Reparations Evanston

EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — When Teri Murray tried to buy her first home in 1968, searching this leafy college town for the perfect place, she thought she was an ideal candidate: married, steadily employed, ample savings.

But banks rejected her, giving dubious excuses that they had stopped offering loans or the application period had closed.

At 76, Murray now realizes those experiences were common for Black residents like her who faced decades of racist housing practices designed to stymie homeownership or force them to live in certain areas.

“Whatever reasons they gave us, I completely bought it,” said Murray, who eventually purchased the Evanston property where she lives. “I was discriminated against and didn’t know it.”

Now her community is trying to make amends as the first American city to pay reparations. Acknowledging past racist policies, Evanston is giving eligible Black residents $25,000 housing grants for down payments, repairs or existing mortgages this year. Although the approach is considered a model and homeowners like Murray are ready to apply, some Black residents say the effort falls short and true atonement hasn't begun.

The idea of reparations wasn’t a hard sell in the predominantly white Chicago suburb of about 74,000 that's known for liberal activism, intellectual discourse and Northwestern University. Alderwoman Robin Rue Simmons, a fourth generation Black resident, spearheaded the effort after studying racial disparity data, which shows the average income of Black families in Evanston is $46,000 less than white families.

“We had to create ordinances and laws that said we are committed to inclusion in a tangible way, not just in a sign, not just in a resolution, but with our budget,” said Simmons, who represents the predominantly Black 5th Ward.

Last summer's reckoning over racial injustice revived interest in reparations in communities across the country, including the state of California and cities like Chicago; Amherst, Massachusetts; Asheville, North Carolina; and Iowa City, Iowa. Federal legislation for a commission has also gained traction.

The Rev. Michael Nabors, a local NAACP chapter president who leads Evanston's Second Baptist Church, said this is the most exciting time in his 61 years.

“It is Evanston today and, in my opinion, it is going to be the United States tomorrow,” he said. “We are leading the way.”

But not everyone agrees.

Alderwoman Cicely Fleming, the sole vote against the grants, said she supports reparations but Evanston's effort isn’t that. Instead of giving money to banks, direct cash payments would give Black people power in deciding how they need repair, she said.

“The bank continues to be the largest beneficiary and perpetrator of housing discrimination,” said Fleming, who's Black. “It really lays under the guise of a narrative that poor and/or African American people don’t know how to manage their money. Therefore, when the government gives them money, there are lots of parameters on how they can use it.”

Experts also questioned calling it reparations.

Duke University economist William Darity said the label is overused and often has little to do with making restitution for Black American descendants of slavery. While Evanston's program was a positive step, he co-wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece, calling it reparations "does more harm than good.”

Bennett Johnson, 92, won't apply.