The Boston City Council on Wednesday agreed to create a commission to study ways to provide reparations for African Americans, another step in a decades-long effort to deliver reparative justice for the local Black community.
More than 50 attendees applauded as the council unanimously agreed to create the commission, in the form of a city ordinance, more than 30 years after the late senator Bill Owens pressed the state to look into the matter. Councilor Julia Mejia, who introduced the ordinance in February, thanked stakeholders and community leaders who saw the proposal through to the finish line.
“What this moment means is for us to recognize not just the harm, but the opportunity we have to heal,” Mejia said. The only way to repair this harm, she said, is for the council “to have the political courage and will to finally right the wrong.”
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said the ordinance outlines three phases of the commission’s work: a study into Boston’s ties to the transatlantic slave trade; assessing the city’s actions to address the harm done to date; and making recommendations for what repair could look like.
The ordinance also specifies that at least five of the commission members must be descendants of American freedmen, or Africans enslaved in the United States, he said.
Arroyo said the commission would complete its work by the end of 2024, but “in no way should this limit the actions by the council itself for the alleviation of those harms.”
Some observers called on the council to not let the formation of a commission delay important work. Alvin Tillery Jr., director for Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy, said studies are often a way to kill social progress, when leaders could instead move more quickly with actionable steps.
“We have people who have already done the work, and we have actionable models at the local level,” Tillery said. “Commissions are just ways to socialize the issue, and make people more comfortable with it.”
Councilors Mejia, Brian Worrell, and Tania Fernandes Anderson cosponsored the ordinance. Worrell praised the council’s intentions, saying he’s seen structural racism’s effects firsthand as a lifelong Black resident of Boston.
“Reparations, in my mind, is not a one-time payment,” Worrell said. “It’s a more holistic approach to right past wrongs … and ensure a brighter future for generations of Black Bostonians.”
In a press conference before Wednesday’s vote, local community leaders applauded the council’s intentions, but called for stronger language in the ordinance to set clear guidelines for the commission’s work.
Saskia VannJames, director of racial justice and health equity policy at the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, said the language causes harm because it outlines “descendants of formerly enslaved Black people,” and not just those with roots in the United States.
“When you speak of Black people, who are you referencing?” VannJames said. “There are many Black people who have been enslaved by many, many countries.”
The council’s votes to issue an apology for the city’s role in the slave trade and to form a commission to study reparations are part of a series of recommendations laid out by the National African-American Reparations Commission, a group that was formed to promote reparative justice for African Americans at all levels. The committee has encouraged cities nationwide to take similar actions to educate the public on harms caused by chattel slavery. Other recommendations the committee has made include the creation of a national African Holocaust Institute.
Municipalities across the country have looked to the reparations plan roadmap to inform their own efforts at reparative justice.
In May, Evanston, Ill., became the first US city to pay reparations to citizens, in the form $25,000 grants toward home down payments, mortgage payments, or house repairs.
Providence officials earlier this month approved a $10 million budget for reparations programs for Black and Indigenous residents, but the program guidelines imply that some white residents can apply, too. The city is accepting proposals for reparative justice programs suggested in its 11-point investment plan, which includes advancing African heritage-owned media and studying racial and gender business disparities.
Last week, Mayor Tishaura O. Jones appointed a commission to study reparations in St. Louis, where nearly half of the population identifies as Black or African American.
And in July, Amherst Town Council members approved an initial $2 million for a reparative justice fund, and established an African Heritage Reparation Assembly (AHRA) to study reparations for its residents.
Amilcar Shabazz, an AHRA member and professor in the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies, said a reparations process in Boston could serve as a model for similar-sized metropolitan areas in the country.
“There’s no expiration date on justice,” Shabazz said. “If Boston could begin to show concerted efforts towards repair, it will certainly be a benefit there, and a beacon beyond.”