The price of slavery
Last month, the Saint Paul City Council launched the application process for the Recovery Act Community Reparations Commission. Part of a racial reckoning movement among U.S. cities, towns and institutions, St. Paul is creating a commission that will explore reparations to local Black people and communities for slavery and other institutional racism.
When the commission is finally formed later this year, the 11-member group will serve as an advisory body to the St. Paul mayor and the city council “on matters related to damage caused by public and private systemic racism in the City of Saint Paul which resulted in racial disparities in generational wealth, homeownership, health care, education, employment and pay…,” according to a statement released on February 13. It is the result of the city council’s Ordinance 22-52 January vote establishing the commission.
The reparations debate has a longstanding history, beginning with the 1865 Special Field Order No. 15 by Union General William T. Sherman, which promised 40 acres and a mule to the formerly enslaved Black people. A 2019 NAACP resolution on reparations asked for a national apology and land grants “to every descendant of an enslaved African American and Black person [or] a descendant of those living in the United States including during American slavery until the Jim Crow era.”
Last March, Evanston, Illinois became the first U.S. city to establish reparations for Black residents after its city council passed a resolution in 2019 to set aside $10 million of the city’s cannabis tax revenues over 10 years to support housing and economic development programs for its Black residents.
In St. Paul, a limited-term Reparations Legislative Advisory Committee met from July 2021 through June 2022. Last spring, virtual sessions were co-hosted by East Side Freedom Library (April 7 and April 29), as well as two in-person sessions held at Dayton’s Bluff Recreation Center (April 14), and at Rondo Library (April 21).
A committee report recommended that St. Paul use federal funds from the city’s American Rescue Plan, sales tax revenue, land sale proceeds, and philanthropic contributions for reparations. The St. Paul City Council later passed Ordinance 22-52 to establish the reparations commission.
According to community activist Trahern Crews, the top two reparations recommendations are direct cash payments and educational opportunities. He told the MSR that when he was elected chairperson of the Green Party reparations working group a few years ago, “I started working on it. I wanted to start at the local level,” he recalled. “We want to get community input.”
COVID-19 stopped the work for a time, and the deadly virus “showed us why reparations were so important,” because of the health disparities among Blacks both locally and nationwide, observed Crews.
He quickly warns, however, that just because the city council set up a reparations commission doesn’t mean that the issue is close to becoming reality.
“Reparations aren’t charity,” stated Crews.
St. Paul’s Black residents and businesses were displaced from the Rondo neighborhood in the 1950s to build Interstate 94. Debbie Montgomery and her family lived in Rondo, and the longtime St. Paulite vividly remembers the upheaval.
“I’ll just use my family as an example,” she told the MSR. “We had a four-bedroom home, and in 1956 they gave my parents $10,000 for their house” said Montgomery, after City officials used eminent domain to move families out to make way for the highway.
“They took our property,” she said. “Black folks are taking care of their homes because that was something that they had worked hard to get. Understand the injustice that was done when they took our property.
“If you go down to the Minnesota Historical Society, there is a map of the city of St. Paul and [written] over the Rondo neighborhood is ‘slum area’,” she continued. “Right now, on either side of the old Rondo neighborhood, data has shown that we have the highest incidence of lung cancer, asthma, breathing problems from the gas from the cars that go through since the freeway [I-94] was built.
She supports reparations but questions if it really can be done beneficially. “I have not seen a lot that the government has done for Black people,” noted Montgomery. “I know it’s hard to understand that what happened to African Americans is an injustice.”
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter has proposed an Inheritance Fund program that would allow some former Rondo residents and their descendants to apply for up to $100,000 in forgivable loans for a down payment or housing rehabilitation in St. Paul.
Montgomery said she heard about Carter’s plan but expressed concerns about it, as well as the entire reparations issue.
“I am 77 years old,” she said. “My question, based on what I understand, is that you have to be in that house for 15 years,” she said, in order to qualify for the Inheritance Fund housing program. “I was fortunate enough to have a City job and I have a pension, and from what I understand, with my income, I’m not qualified.”
The St. Paul City Council is now taking online applications for the Recovery Act Community Reparations Commission through March 24. The council is expected to announce the appointments sometime in May, and the commission will begin its work in June.
Both Crews and Montgomery believe that the reparations issue is far from being decided in both St. Paul and nationwide. “I feel it’s not all put together yet,” Montgomery concluded.