windows and mirrors - stepping up - florence sprague - march 2023

Much of the wealth of this nation is founded upon the unpaid labor of kidnapped and enslaved people, unwillingly transported to North America from Africa. It is an ugly fact. Uglier still, though, is the fact that more than 150 years after slavery was abolished, the descendants of those enslaved people are not equitably included in the wealth of this society.

For too long we have stumbled over the immense challenge of determining how, and to whom, reparatory payments or benefits should be distributed, but in recent years communities have begun to step beyond the search for the perfect solution to doing something good, rather than nothing.

For many Americans, home ownership has been a major way to build wealth and transfer it to the next generation. Redlining, limited access to mortgage funding, highway disruptions to neighborhoods, and other factors have too often made this unavailable to Black Americans. The recently passed Inheritance Fund, an initiative promoted by Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul, will seek to help low-income families from St. Paul’s historic Rondo Neighborhood. It has two components: a Downpayment Assistance Program and the Homeowner Rehab Program. These are exciting and innovative programs. Read more about this at St. Paul Inheritance Fund and Sahan Journal .

Education is another area of unequal access; older educational institutions often uncover tragic complicity with slavery upon close inspection. For example, when in financial need, Georgetown University and the Jesuits who founded it, sold a large number of the enslaved from the relative safety of their Maryland and District of Columbia properties to harsh labor in the deep South, among other injustices. To begin the process of repair, they have created a number of initiatives, including The Reconciliation Fund. This fund “awards $400,000 annually to community-based projects that have direct impact on descendant communities whose ancestors were once enslaved on the Maryland Jesuit plantations.” Read more here.

But it is not only large communities or wealthy institutions that are acting. In 2019, Evanston, Illinois, became the first US city to offer reparations to Black residents, pledging $400,000 in $25,000 blocks to residents, or their descendants, who suffered housing discrimination between 1919 and 1969. It was to go into effect in 2021, and I hope it is going well. As in St. Paul, the funds could be used for down payments or to rehabilitate homes. Read more here.

Many locations in Maryland have engaged in reparations work, according to the National African-American Reparations Commission. Even small communities like Greenbelt, a town of 25,000 residents, are stepping up.

I find that even this quick dip into what is happening around the country is energizing. We live in a northern state. The discriminatory redlining of our past has been outlawed. Still, we know that our history has not been equitable and has not really been redressed. What steps can we take to improve housing equity in our suburban communities? We can continue to actively work for housing for all income levels. We have talked about creating welcoming neighborhoods and schools, about educating ourselves to be inclusive, but more is needed.