In the first official step of a process some advocates have been calling for for decades, Boston City Councilor at Large Julia Mejia Wednesday introduced a proposal for a commission to study reparations for Boston’s Black residents as restitution for slavery and systemic racism.
What reparations would look like, and exactly who would receive them, is still undetermined. In an interview with the Globe, Mejia said she would like to see a commission that examines harms caused to Black Bostonians in a wide range of areas, from slavery to housing segregation to school and health discrimination.
“The reparations process is so much bigger than just a dollar amount,” Mejia said. “It is about systemic change in our community in the city of Boston.”
The ordinance would create a 15-member commission charged with studying systemic racism and reparations in Boston over the course of about two years. Specifically, the commission would consider how that harm might be reversed, whether through money or additional community support programs, as well as consider a formal apology for Boston’s role in the transatlantic slave trade.
Mejia said she hoped to get the proposed ordinance up for a vote by June.
“I’m not here to drag my feet,” Mejia said. “There’s a sense of urgency around this work.”
Mejia’s office began looking at reparations at the suggestion of Boston NAACP president Tanisha Sullivan, Mejia said. They tapped two community members to write it: Yvette Modestin, founder and director of Encuentro Diaspora Afro, and Jemadari Kamara, chair of the Africana Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Modestin recalled working with City Councilor Chuck Turner, who died in 2019, and seeing people laugh or wince when he mentioned reparations.
“He would say the word and people would be like, ‘Oh, are you giving me my 40 acres and a mule?’” Modestin said, referring to Civil War-era Union General William T. Sherman’s short-lived promise of granting land to freed Black families.
But over the years, she has seen the thinking of community members evolve. In the conversations she’s had more recently, she said, people now see reparations less as a one-time check and more as a way to acknowledge harm and change the fabric of society.
“People have even become more advanced in their thinking beyond the check, and understanding that it’s more than the check,” Modestin said. “To me, this is about the reality of those who walk in the streets of Boston who deserve better. We deserve better.”
Though Boston had a prominent abolitionist community in the 19th century, the city was still a player in the transatlantic slave trade. Merchants from Boston would travel to the West Indies, where they sold Indigenous people for enslaved African people and raw materials, or to West Africa, where they sold rum for enslaved people. Almost 200 recorded voyages left Boston between 1638 and 1858, according to the Trans-Atlantic and Intra-American slave trade databases.
Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783. Yet Boston’s connection to slavery endured through the Fugitive Slave Acts, a federal law first passed in 1793 and strengthened in 1850. The law meant freed Black people living in states where slavery was outlawed could be captured and sent back into slavery without due process.
There were a number of high-profile cases in Boston in which activists attempted to free people captured under the law from incarceration in Boston’s courthouse. Some, such as Shadrach Minkins in 1850, were freed and smuggled to Canada. In other cases, abolitionists failed and freed people such as Anthony Burns in 1854 were sent back to the South under heavy guard.
Conversations about reparations are not new in Massachusetts. State Senator Bill Owens, who died last month, advocated for them in the 1980s. Last year, Cambridge asked its residents for feedback on a possible reparations program.
“The suffering and misery experienced by Black people in 2022 cannot be disconnected from the role that the city of Boston played in terms of supporting the African slave trade,” said Kevin Peterson, founder of the New Democracy Coalition, who has been advocating for reparations for the last few years.
A spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu said she will work with the council on the proposal after council members pass a final version.
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, members did not debate Mejia’s proposal. At Large City Councilor Michael Flaherty asked for clarification about how the commission’s 15 members will be paid, as the proposed ordinance’s current language stipulates they could receive $100 an hour and up to $50,000 a year.
Mejia said she wanted to make sure commission members are compensated, and the proposed pay mirrors Boston’s Civilian Review Board, but that she was open to working out specifics at a later date.
Reparations would help address the city’s wealth gap, said Aziza Robinson-Goodnight, project director for the Boston-based New Democracy Coalition’s reparations campaign. It’s a goal that is especially important, she noted, as housing prices soar. Black families, some of whom were blocked from building generational wealth because of discriminatory housing practices, get pushed out.
“We built this country, we put in work,” Robinson-Goodnight said of Black Americans. “We are constantly in positions of labor, and we are constantly under-appreciated.”
If Mejia’s proposal passes, the commission would be tasked with determining how the city can apologize for its role in the transatlantic slave trade. Some might question the need for an apology for something that happened long ago, said Carroy (Cuf) Ferguson, a professor of psychology at UMass Boston who supports studying reparations in Boston.
“I view [an apology] mostly in a human relationship type of manner,” Ferguson said. To apologize would mean recognizing that there has been pain and hurt, and though the people apologizing in the 21st century did not cause the initial harm, they want to do better, he said.
“If it’s authentic then you’re really opening up a dialogue for what I call corrective action,” Ferguson said. “What we’re really talking about right now is a historic relationship between the city of Boston and the Black community. It’s not directed at any specific person.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan is a former Globe staff member.