Posted on July 12, 2023

Chicago Suburb Pays Reparations to Black Residents

Joe Barrett, Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2023

Louis Weathers still remembers one of his first experiences with racial prejudice in this Chicago suburb along Lake Michigan, home of Northwestern University.


Now 88 years old, the retired postal worker and Korean War veteran is among the initial beneficiaries of a city program—the first of its kind in the U.S.—that pays Black Evanston residents reparations for discrimination and a lack of access to housing. It is also working on programs to address gaps in education and economic development.

In 2019, the city of about 75,000 just north of Chicago committed to spend $10 million over 10 years on local reparations. Dozens of other municipalities across the U.S. have taken initial steps toward reparations since.

Nearly four years later, Evanston is the only city that is delivering on its promise. By the end of this year, it expects to have distributed $25,000 each to 140 mostly elderly residents like Weathers who were at least 18 and lived in the city between 1919 and 1969, when the city passed a fair-housing ordinance. The payments can come in either vouchers or cash and are funded by marijuana and real-estate transfer taxes.

“I see it as like a test run for the whole country,” said Justin Hansford, a leading advocate for reparations at the federal and local level and head of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University.


Evanston’s modest program to compensate for decades of discrimination faced plenty of internal challenges and comes as grander efforts at reparations could be years off—if they come at all.

A task force in California last month recommended spending billions on reparations. Many of the proposals are expected to face an uphill battle for adoption.


Evanston’s road to reparations began with Robin Rue Simmons, the then-city council member representing the predominantly Black Fifth Ward. She was aware of the reparations movement, but had long considered it a national issue dealing directly with slavery. Then she realized some local policies—such as zoning that concentrated Blacks in one neighborhood—led to overcrowding, redlining, fewer city amenities and other harms. In early 2019, she said, she began to think that she could hold her own city accountable for those wrongs.

“We’ve done all forms of affirmative action and equity work that has been really good, but we have not repaired the past harm by the municipal government,” she said.

With strong input from the community, the city passed its plan to spend $10 million on reparations in November 2019.

A local reparations committee that Rue Simmons now heads took applications from more than 670 people who either lived in Evanston during the period of greatest harm, or were their children. The city held a public drawing to identify the first 16 people to receive $25,000 vouchers that could be used to reduce mortgage debt, go toward a down payment or make repairs on a home.

Initially, the city planned to fund the program through marijuana tax revenue, but those revenues were coming in too slowly, so the city council voted to use funds from the real-estate transfer tax on higher-value properties.


Rue Simmons said the new cash option has reduced the amount of staff work needed to disburse funds, but has raised questions about taxes and whether the award could affect the recipient’s ability to get aid from other programs. The city and committee are working their way through those issues, she said.

The city’s reparations committee is going through the verification process for the more than 500 direct descendants of the initial 140 recipients, who will also get reparations. Subcommittees within the group are also exploring how it can address educational disparities and bolster economic development for Black residents.