Following the Civil War, former slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule as reparations. The federal government never made good on that promise.
More than 150 years later, local governments are trying to do what the federal government has failed to achieve— make amends with the citizens they have wronged in the past.
“African Americans helped to build this community. African Americans could not live here initially,” said Emmett Jordan.
Jordan is the mayor of Greenbelt, Maryland. It is one of three American towns commissioned nearly a century ago by the U.S. government during the New Deal.
“The idea was to create a somewhat self-contained community with affordable housing for workers, but at the same time, providing open space and recreational amenities and good schools, sort of a self-contained experiment in urban planning,” Jordan said.
Workers of all backgrounds built Greenbelt. But because of federal law, Black Americans couldn’t buy homes there. Today, the old brick structures still stand, but the population is diverse and progressive.
Last fall, Greenbelt became the latest American town to commit to reparations.
Nkechi Taifa has spent her career of five decades focused on disparities.
She hosts a radio show that discusses criminal justice. She's also a standing member of the National African American Reparations Commission.
“I’ve spent the majority of my career just trying to get people to not be afraid to just utter the word reparations, and now we are at the point where we are actually determining just how we actualize all this data for measurement,” Taifa said.
So often, just the word reparation ends the conversation. But in many places around the nation, the conversation has finally begun. That, too, is messy.
In Athens, Georgia, the city agreed to compensate descendants of a demolished Black neighborhood to make way for university dorms. However, the city is still deciding on how to go about providing the compensation.
In Evanston, Illinois, leaders voted to provide home improvements and mortgage relief to long-ago victims of housing discrimination. But they can’t pay everyone at the same time. They’re deciding with a lottery.
In Greenbelt, a commission will launch this summer to decide how the past should meet the present.
There is still division in where people live. There was division about reparations. And even this diverse population didn’t elect a person of color to the city council until 2009.
“To me, you know, the bottom line is making that connection. What is the city directly responsible for? What is it indirectly responsible for? And what can we do to make our residents who were impacted and are being impacted – what can we do to make them whole,” Jordan said.