ASHEVILLE – Leaders from local reparations movements across the country called for a Black census and grassroots movements that would spur action by the federal government. Those representatives from places including Asheville; Evanston, Illinois; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Columbia University spoke Nov. 6 at the annual African Americans in Western North Carolina conference at UNC Asheville.
ASHEVILLE – Leaders from local reparations movements across the country called for a Black census and grassroots movements that would spur action by the federal government.
Those representatives from places including Asheville; Evanston, Illinois; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Columbia University spoke Nov. 6 at the annual African Americans in Western North Carolina conference at UNC Asheville.
“The United States of America took out a loan. And with that loan, they proceeded to build an economic superpower unmatched in modern times,” said former City Council member and the architect of Asheville’s reparations initiative Keith Young in the conference’s first address. “However, that loan that Americans took out has never been repaid. The underwriter of that loan is none other none other than Black America.”
Opening the conference was Darin Waters, former UNC Asheville professor and Blue Ridge Public Radio “Waters and Harvey Show” co-host. Newly appointed as North Carolina Natural and Cultural Resources Archives and History deputy secretary, Waters said he was pleased to see “how much work is going on across our state to actually collect the stories of traditionally underrepresented groups.”
Tiece Ruffin, the university’s Africana Studies interim director, made note of the 421 registered attendees of the conference with the theme “Reparations, Revelations and Racial Justice.”
“We are no longer being pushed to the margins, and not being invisible. The African American experience in WNC and Southern Appalachia is visible,” Ruffin said.
A panel of representatives from local reparations and racial justice movements around the country said reparations would help make up for the forced labor of slaves and lack of opportunities Black Americans have had to build wealth and pass it on to children.
“We’re like in this terrible Monopoly game that has been going on for 450 to 500 years. And don’t want to give us the same $200 that you got 500 years ago,” said Asheville Racial Justice Coalition Community Liaison Rob Thomas.
Leading the panel, Young noted how other groups facing government-sanctioned discrimination, such as Native Americans and Japanese Americans, had received reparations.
The former council member said the government had “multiple opportunities to atone for slavery,” including the famously unfulfilled post-Civil War promise of 40 acres and mule, Depression-era New Deal programs and the post-World War II G.I. Bill that propelled many returning veterans into the middle class but was not accessible to his veteran grandfather.
“Black veterans couldn’t retain their post-war benefits, like their white peers. While the G.I. Bill was mandated federally, guess what? It was implemented locally.”
Young said Asheville’s historic 2020 reparations initiative presented the chance to right those wrongs. But he criticized some of the city’s most recent steps, including the $366,000 contract paid to a consultant to help create and guide the Community Reparations Commission, which is accepting applications through Nov. 15.
Instead, he said a census to gather opinions on reparations should be taken of Black residents, who number 9,938, according to 2020 data.
“We could have easily used that (nearly) $400,000 to employ part time census workers for a Black census, right? Because every Black voice still needs to be heard.”
Robin Rue Simmons, who was an Evanston alderman when the city passed reparations for Black residents in 2019, talked about how the municipality became the first to implement a program.
Rue said there was no one blueprint that would work for all cities and counties and that each in each place, Black residents “must come to the table and give their lived expertise on what the harm was.
“And then the legislators, a strong legislative leader, like the ones that are here, need to come up with a viable path to pass a policy and fund it.”
After hearing discriminatory housing laws had deprived Black residents of homes that could stabilize a family and be passed on or sold, Evanston gave money for home down payments, mortgage payments or home repairs. The funds came from a tax on recreational marijuana, which is legal in Illinois.
Rue said a shift happened among federal legislators. There are now 194 House co-sponsors and 22 Senate co-sponsors for a national reparations law, “triple what it has ever been,” she said.
“When we begin looking at local reparations, there were less than 70 co-sponsors in the House. So we’re seeing the momentum.”
Tulsa City Councilor Lori Decter-Wright, the one white panelist, talked about her city’s movement from denial to acceptance and an official apology this year for the 1921 race massacre that wiped out one of the most successful Black communities in the nation. After Asheville’s reparations resolution, Young was recruited to work with Decter-Wright and other councilors to change attitudes in the solidly Republican state.
She urged community members to be the impetus and for “Black churches to mobilize the way they did 50 years ago,” in the push for civil rights. The local movements in turn, she said, can become what pushes through federal legislation.
“The folks in D.C. can’t say, ‘Well, it’s never been done before. We don’t know how to do it. Let’s debate it for another 50 years.’ Because you can say, ‘Evanston did this. Asheville did this. Tulsa did this. What are you going to do?”
Polling shows that many Americans have dramatically changed attitudes about race and race relations over recent years. But the data shows feelings about reparations remain mostly negative, said Sydni Scott, a Columbia University student who started the student-led Amendment Project that lobbies local leaders for reparations and does advocacy work on college and high school campuses.
Scott said there is “much room” to make the conversation about reparations more nuanced and to talk about “what repair means, about what debt is, about what is owed, regardless of whether there are Black people that have found successes despite systemic racism.”
“I think that we can develop from the ground up, from the local level up, an understanding of reparations that is focused on repair and restoration. It’s not punitive, it is about making whole a demographic of people that have never had the opportunity to build and accumulate wealth in the same way that other people in this country have.”
Joel Burgess has lived in WNC for more than 20 years, covering politics, government and other news. He’s written award-winning stories on topics ranging from gerrymandering to police use of force. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.