Slavery reparations in Amherst could include funding for youth programs and housing

BOSTON (AP) — A Massachusetts college town that established one of the nation’s first reparation funds for Black residents is considering spending the proceeds of the $2 million endowment on youth programs, affordable housing and grants for businesses.

The Amherst Town Council established the reparation fund two years ago, inspired by nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, to atone for slavery, discrimination and past wrongs.

The council Monday night will consider a report from the town’s African Heritage Reparation Assembly on how those funds should be spent.

The amount of funding would be equivalent to the annual tax revenue the town raises from cannabis sales, which is projected to be about $200,000 a year. The plan has been to grow the fund over a decade and then sustainably donate as much as $100,000 a year in the town, which is about 6% Black.

The assembly, which was appointed by the town manager, now wants the town to consider accelerating the timeline, perhaps by borrowing from reserves to allocate the money immediately, dedicating $100,000 from cannabis tax revenue to be spent on reparations annually, or aiming to reach the $2 million goal in four years, rather than 10.

“The recommendations we’ve made will begin to make this space one that is more inviting, welcoming and hospitable for people of African descent,” said Amilcar Shabazz, a professor in the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, University of Massachusetts, who has written a book on reparations and is a member of the assembly.


Past Amherst, Mass., area residents Henry Jackson, center, Lt. Frazar Stearns, left, and Anna Reed Goodwin, right, are featured on the Amherst Community History Mural, as seen through the adjacent West Cemetery fence, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Amherst, Mass. Amherst is on a path toward providing reparations to Black residents for past injustices following the town council’s adoption of a resolution calling for the community to become an anti-racist town.AP Photo/Charles Krupa

“I believe this project that we have embarked upon will contribute to the national momentum toward Black reparations, the kind of reparations that will meaningfully change the status of African Americans in this country,” Shabazz said.

The report lays out a case for reparations, including that Black residents were enslaved in the 17th and 18th centuries in Amherst, a city of 40,000 that is home to Amherst College and University of Massachusetts Amherst. The report cites a document from 1754-55 showing that 18 residents of Amherst and nearby Hadley were enslaved and that a doctor treated enslaved people.

The 160-page report also found that Amherst College benefited from wealth generated through slavery and that Black residents into the 20th century were excluded from hotels, restaurants, barbershops and Amherst College fraternities. It cites restrictive housing policies preventing Black families from purchasing homes in desirable parts of town and other structural racism that shut them out of jobs and educational opportunities.

Amherst is among hundreds of American communities and organizations seeking to provide reparations to Black people, from the state of California to cities such as Providence, Rhode Island, religious denominations including the Episcopal Church and prominent colleges such as Georgetown University.

Amherst advocates have cited Evanston, Illinois, which became the first American city to pay reparations last month, as a model. That program uses marijuana tax revenues to give eligible Black residents $25,000 housing grants for downpayments, repairs or existing mortgages.

Earlier this year, a reparations task force in California handed lawmakers a report with more than 100 recommendations. That 1,100-page report details California’s role in perpetuating discrimination against Black residents. Ideas for repairing the harm range from formally apologizing to paying descendants of enslaved people for having suffered under discriminatory policing and housing policies.

Last year, Boston created a task force to study how it can provide reparations for and other forms of atonement to Black Bostonians for the city’s role in slavery and its legacy of inequality.

Along with spending funds on programs, the Amherst report is calling for special state legislation that would allow the town to provide direct cash payments to eligible Black residents who have experienced racism. The report didn’t say how many residents would be eligible or how large those payments would be.

Town councilor Michele Miller chairs the assembly, whose six other members identify as Black. She acknowledged that some residents have challenged the idea of giving city revenue directly to descendants, but said the members feel it should be explored. If not direct payments, another option might be providing eligible residents with downpayments for a home, she said.

“There are cases, as we’ve indicated in our report, where direct cash benefits are necessary and where they will make a difference in terms of reparative justice,” Miller said.

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