Racial Justice

Two city councilors want Boston to consider issuing reparations for slavery to Black residents

The city must also come to terms with its involvement in the slave trade, Councilor Julia Mejia said.

City Councilor Julia Mejia. Erin Clark / The Boston Globe

City Councilor Julia Mejia wants Boston to talk about “the how.”

The “why,” she says, is already clear: The average net worth of a Black family in Boston is $8, while white families hold an average of $247,500. Black homeownership in the city is nearly half of that for white residents.

“From red lining to the busing era, the economic inequities in our system can all be traced back to America’s original sin: slavery,” Mejia, the council’s first Afro-Latina, told her fellow councilors on Wednesday. “We know the why. But as for the how, that is the subject of this hearing order.”

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The focus of that meeting will be to discuss how Boston could potentially issue reparations for slavery to its Black residents — a form of justice to address the socio-economic disadvantages Black Americans have faced for centuries as their white counterparts have prospered, Mejia and hearing co-sponsor Councilor Kenzie Bok say.

“There is not an endowment of an august institution in this city that existed prior to 1865 that was not built upon the backs of slaves. There is not,” said Bok, who is also a historian of American history. “And that is a thing that if you do any of the historical work on the receipts, it stops striking you as a shock and it starts to become commonplace.”

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The conversation on reparations has started in communities across the country, as Americans grapple with the continuing existence and impacts of systemic racism into the 21st century. And several cities have taken some steps toward administering reparations, according to Mejia.

Lawmakers in Evanston, Illinois, voted in March to grant qualifying households up to $25,000 for down payments or home repairs, while San Francisco officials formed a task force last month to consider the idea.

In Massachusetts, the Amherst City Council expressed support last month for the concept, and voted to have the city further study the matter.

Mejia said reparations would serve as a version of “transitional justice” and can take on different forms.

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“It could be so much more than just a check in the mail,” she said. “Reparations could be compensation, yes, but they can also take place in a form of providing care and services to descendants of slaves as well as issuing public apologies.”

The hearing order spells out several different forms for reparations but doesn’t put forth a specific one for Boston to consider:

“Restitution, which seeks to restore a victim to their position before the violations occurred; Compensation, which is a financial award for harms; Rehabilitation, which seeks to provide care and services for victims beyond monetary payment; Satisfaction, which includes symbolic reparations such as public apologies and verifying facts; and Guarantee of non-repetition, which assures that this kind of harm shall never be repeated.”

But councilors say the conversation must also focus on a history that the city has not fully come to terms with — the fact that Boston played an active role in the slave trade.

“When we talk about the impact of slavery … we (have to) understand that the ships that made this a profitable state, the shipping industry that made this a profitable state, were taking slaves to the South, taking the goods that they made (and brought) them to the North to our factories in Lowell,” said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who also voiced support for the idea of reparations. “And that’s the kind of stuff that is wrapped up in the fabric of this country, and sometimes it’s very difficult I think for us to have very honest conversations about what the impacts of that are, and why certain business magnets were able to accumulate the wealth they were able to have … and create trickle down impacts in their own family.”

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Mejia said her office has worked on the subject with Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston Branch, who has pointed out that the fact Boston has not recognized its role in perpetuating slavery is “one of the biggest hurdles to reparations.”

“We need a common and agreed-upon narrative to understand what hurt the City of Boston has caused so that we can determine how to address that pain,” Mejia said.

Bok said repair, the root word of reparations, is key.

“You can’t repair something that you don’t recognize is broken,” she said.

Councilors Lydia Edwards and Andrea Campbell, also a candidate for mayor, expressed an eagerness for the discussion to come.

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“The fact of the matter is the conversation about reparations is holding up a mirror to ourselves — the community — and saying not only where the injury was, but how it continues, and we’re honest about it and how our hands — and I include all colors of all hands in all institutional bodies — maintain that system,” Edwards said. “We do. We must acknowledge that.”

The hearing order was referred to the Committee on Civil Rights for review.

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