Robin Rue Simmons had been very curious about the truth of American life as a young person. But it was only after she finished high school, left her native Evanston, Ill., and returned as an adult—ready to buy a house in the historically Black neighborhood in which she grew up—that she delved deep into her city’s history and fully understood the policies that had kept Black residents poor while enriching their white neighbors. Of course, this isn’t the kind of history that’s taught in school, even if today’s students do sometimes learn unsavory truths about the American empire. Local history is different, perhaps because it can be especially uncomfortable to examine how that empire’s economic plunder shaped our present-day communities. Yet experiencing such discomfort may be preferable to any alternative—and I write this as a white person.
In 2017, Simmons ran for Evanston City Council and won. She was interested in the idea of reparations and began studying a bill that has been sitting in Congress for decades. HR 40, as it’s called—the number refers to a broken promise of the post–Civil War era that formerly enslaved people should receive 40 acres and a mule—would establish a commission to examine the legacy of slavery and how restitution could be made. Federal reparations will be necessary to address this country’s vast racial wealth gap that’s the cumulative result of economically oppressive policies since the plantation era. Yet Simmons also knew that the federal government was hardly alone when it came to committing such injustices—and here she had a visionary idea.
“I thought, I’ll start with one in my community,” she told me by phone. Specifically, she would seek reparations for harms caused by her own city’s 20th-century housing policies, which effectively restricted Black residents to a single neighborhood known as the 5th Ward. As Evanston’s Black population grew during the Great Migration—in which African Americans fled terror and oppression in the South—the 5th Ward became overcrowded, and the cost of housing ballooned. By 1940, when the Home Owners Loan Corporation of the Federal Loan Bank Board drew up a map denoting the “risk” of lending in certain places, it shaded the 5th Ward red. That nationwide practice, known as redlining, indicated that the area was ineligible for the sort of loans that would help white families build intergenerational wealth. Today, whites in Evanston on average enjoy property values twice that of their Black neighbors.