At the end of Boston's Long Wharf is a glass and metal slab that tells a story of the city's role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The monument stands to remind those walking along the waterfront that Boston was a hub for ships carrying African people who were sold into slavery.
The marker could be seen as a symbol of how the city is grappling with its past. But when it comes to slavery, and the centuries of systemic racism that followed, folks like NAACP Boston president Tanisha Sullivan want more than symbols for Black people — they want reparations.
“This is a conversation that is a long time coming, and action that is a long time in coming,” she said.
Some cities and towns across the country have begun initiatives to address reparations for Black residents who have been impacted by systemic racism, and Boston could soon join them.
At-large City Councilor Julia Mejia is leading an effort in City Hall to establish a commission that would examine the negative effects of slavery and racial discrimination on Boston’s Black residents and how the city can repair the damage.
“Even though slavery happened years ago, this is so much more than just slavery,” said Mejia. “It's really about [addressing] the harm that has been caused and how we continue to pass on generational poverty year after year to Black Bostonians.”
Mejia recently hosted a hearing where supporters of reparations called for the commission. She said her goal is to pass a bill to establish the group next year.
“We have to allow government a little bit of grace,” she said. “Because things sometimes move like molasses, but my hope is to act with a sense of urgency. That is what the people have called for and that’s what our office committed to do.”
The U.S. House of Representatives is considering legislation that would establish a federal reparations commission to study the impact of slavery and its legacy on Black Americans and offer ways to remedy the damage. The idea was first introduced more than 30 years ago. Congress has never approved it, and it's likely to fail again this session.
But that hasn’t stopped local officials from places like nearby Cambridge and Amherst; and further afield San Francisco and Asheville, North Carolina, from pursuing reparations initiatives of their own.
“This is a federal issue and nationally we need to wrestle with and reckon with the issue of our history,” said Sullivan, who is working with Mejia to get the commission established. “But there's also work that can be done at the local level. We don't have to wait for the federal government to take action.”
Boston’s role in slavery can be traced back to 1638. Slave ships sailed from the city even after Massachusetts outlawed slavery in 1783. And though slavery ended in the state, Black Bostonians were denied the same rights and privileges that allowed their white counterparts to prosper. That discrimination still has tangible consequences today as the city’s Black communities lag behind in areas like wealth, education and health.
Yvette Modestin, of the National African American Reparations Commission, also known as NAARC, is working with Mejia on the reparations effort. She says slavery may be over for Black people but their freedom is still in question.
“We don't have the chains around our ankles and our hands anymore,” said Modestin. “But there is a chain still there.”
People often associate reparations with the idea of cash payments to Black people from the government. That’s one way to do it, but some municipalities are taking different approaches.
Cambridge is exploring a reparations program that would provide money to Black-owned businesses. Officials in Amherst recently established a reparations fund and created a group to develop a plan for the money.
The city council in Evanston, Illinois voted back in March to use $400,000 of a $10 million reparations fund, also funded by revenue from cannabis sales, to provide housing grants to its Black residents. The program would give applicants up to $25,000 for the purchase of a home, renovations, or mortgage assistance.
Evanston is lauded as the first U.S. city to pay reparations to its Black residents. However, Evanston Alderwoman Cicely Fleming is not on board.
“Evanston is a place that likes to be the first at things,” said Fleming, who cast the only dissenting vote against the program. “It also likes to kind of meet the standard of being very diverse… This definitely fit into that narrative.”
Fleming said Evanston basically launched a housing program that is only available to a select few residents disguised as a reparations program. Also, she said, the program doesn’t give Black residents the freedom to decide how to use the funds.
The alderwoman said Evanston’s reparations program should not be a model for other cities.
“I would say don't model it, but people have their own communities,” she said. “I don't know [what] their community needs. I don't know what the harms have been in their community by their local government, but I would say at least have something fleshed out to make sure you can meet the needs of all the residents, of which we do not have at this point.”
While the idea for reparations in Boston isn't new, Sullivan said now that a city council hearing has been officially documented, future proponents have something to build on.
“For the very first time,” said Sullivan, “we are building a structure around which a record can be established on this issue of reparations for the descendants of formerly enslaved Black folks.”
This segment aired on December 1, 2021.