Boston Poised To Jump on the Reparations Bandwagon

Boston was a hotbed of abolitionist thought and organizing throughout the 19th century.

AP/Stefan Kleinowitz
Secretary Yellen stands in the 'Door Of No Return' on Goree Island, Senegal, an island off Senegal that is one of the most recognized symbols of the Atlantic slave trade. AP/Stefan Kleinowitz

Boston’s mayor has announced the membership of the city’s new commission to study reparations, joining a growing number of cities and states across the country considering the possibility of making direct payments to the descendants of American slaves. 

Speaking at Boston’s Museum of African American History on Tuesday, Mayor Michelle Wu highlighted the city’s role in the slave trade. “Even after Massachusetts outlawed slavery, we still benefited from the labor of enslaved people. Inequities are evident even today in what we see in home ownership, wealth, and education.”

The mayor announced that a Boston attorney, Joseph Feaster, who said he has “long been” a supporter of reparations, would be chairman of the commission. “I can feel in this room the reverberations of my ancestors,” Mr. Feaster said. Previously, he served as the president of the eastern Massachusetts chapter of the Urban League and was the youngest president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP.

Critics of the task force in Boston say that Bostonians have no reason to pay for reparations. A conservative Boston Globe columnist, Jeff Jacoby, said that “reparations are equitable only when they provide redress to victims who suffered unjustly,” citing federal payments to victims of Japanese internment and the Tuskegee experiments as examples of just payments. 

Boston itself was a hotbed of abolitionist thought and organizing throughout the 19th century. Massachusetts abolished slavery after a court ruling in 1783.

The legislation to establish the committee was passed unanimously by the city council in December. The original sponsor, Councilwoman Julia Mejia, crafted the legislation to ensure the commission does three things: study Boston’s participation in the slave trade and slavery, evaluate what the city has done in the past to make up for those injustices, and make recommendations for what to do moving forward.

The legislation came after the city issued a formal apology for its role in the slave trade and “the death, misery, and deprivation that this practice caused.”

Other members of the commission include local community leaders, academics, and young organizers. A local community planner, Dorothea Jones, a professor at Tufts University, Kerri Greenidge, and a University of Massachusetts Boston student, Carrie Mays, are some of the members that Ms. Wu introduced on Tuesday. The commission will consist of 10 members, including the chairman. 

The commission is due to deliver its report to the mayor some time in 2024. 

The chief of economic opportunity and inclusion for the city of Boston, Segun Idowu, told the crowd that the commission is meant to determine “how the city moves forward” with possible reparations, hoping that this “conversation will reverberate across the country.”

Other cities and states have already led Boston on this issue. 

On Tuesday, San Francisco was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the city’s plan to give $5 million to every eligible resident who can prove he or she is descended from slaves. Under the city’s standard, an “eligible person” is anyone who is at least 18 years of age and has identified as African American on public documents for at least 10 years. 

Although California entered the union as a free state in the year 1850 and never allowed slavery, San Francisco is attempting to make reparations for gentrification policies that drove many African Americans from the historic Fillmore District during the 1960s and ’70s. 

The state of California had its own reparations commission, similar to the one Ms. Wu in Boston introduced Tuesday. Governor Newsom signed a bill in 2020 that established the group, saying that “while there is still so much work to do to unravel this legacy, these pieces of legislation are important steps in the right direction to building a more inclusive and equitable future for all.” 

The task force proposed giving $233,000 to Black Californians who can directly trace their lineage to enslaved people. 

Providence, Rhode Island, used federal funds from Covid relief to pay reparations to Black and indigenous residents. The money was also used for affordable housing units, and the Democratic mayor, Jorge Elorza, said “reparations can take a lot of different shapes.”

Correction: 1783 is the year Massachusetts abolished slavery and 1776 is when Massachusetts ceased to be a British colony. The dates were referred to incorrectly in an earlier version of this article.


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