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As Juneteenth nears, St. Louis organizations call for reparations

St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones spoke during the Juneteenth Caribbean Heritage Walkathon on June 19, 2021, in Forest Park.
Wiley Price
St. Louis American
St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones spoke during the Juneteenth Caribbean Heritage Walkathon on June 19, 2021, in Forest Park.

Residents living in some majority Black neighborhoods in St. Louis have a 18-year lower life expectancy than residents of majority white neighborhoods less than 10 miles away, a regional health study found.

For over a century, Black St. Louis residents have experienced housing policies and development strategies that have trapped generations in segregated and disinvested neighborhoods, according to the 2018 report Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide.

“Slavery didn’t end,” said Mike Milton, founder and executive director of Freedom Community Center in St. Louis. “It just continued to reform.”

As Juneteenth nears, a coalition of over 25 local community organizations are asking St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones to map out a plan for reparations, or actions that would repair the harm that these and other discriminatory policies inflicted on Black residents.

“Juneteenth is a celebration of our freedom,” Milton said. “And what we know is that we’re still fighting for our freedom to this day. This is a united voice saying that our freedom is not yet realized. And we will get more free, if you repair what you’ve done.”

On Friday, the coalition published a memo asking Jones to establish a reparations commission to explore the history of race-based harms in the city, gather community input on what those reparations would look like and eventually propose a reparations plan.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed legislation in April, establishing two reparations funds to “support African Americans who have been victims of the effects of slavery” and provide economic development for disinvested neighborhoods. Jones supported and signed the bill, making her the first St. Louis mayor to publicly support a local reparations action.

Last year on Juneteenth, Jones announced that she had joined the group, “Mayors Organized for Reparations and Equity,” which is backing creation of a federal commission to study and “develop reparation proposals for African-Americans.”

“Cities across the country are having major discussions about reparations and what proposals it would take to make them a reality,” Vernon Mitchell, the chief equity & inclusion officer for the mayor’s office, said in response to the memo. “As a member of the MORE Mayors coalition, the administration will continue to engage stakeholders and community leaders to explore what a possible reparations plan could look like and where our goals align.”

The memo released Friday provides recent examples of reparation actions nationwide, including one in Evanston, Illinois, where the city council committed $10 million in 2019 to fund local reparations for the harm done to Black residents from its past discriminatory practices in housing and economic development.

In January, the Evanston’s reparations committee approved 122 Black “ancestor” applicants qualifying for grants up to $25,000 to purchase a home, home improvement or mortgage assistance.

Kristian Blackmon, an organizer with the advocacy group Homes for All St. Louis, said she’d like to see a similar program in St. Louis.

“There’s been a lot of discriminatory housing as it pertains to Black folks here in St. Louis,” she said. “It’s still happening in so many different ways. This city, specifically, deserves reparations.”

Redlining, gentrification and displacement are all issues that the Black community still experiences, she said.

Milton said direct cash payments should be part of the plan.

“It’s not enough to just provide social services,” Milton said. “People need cash. The playing field would be even if it wasn’t for slavery, so it’s really about leveling the playing field.”

Milton pointed to California, where a state reparations task force was established after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. The task force released its first 500-page report on June 1, and it describes how federal, state, and local government created segregation in California through redlining, zoning ordinances, decisions on where to build schools and highways and discriminatory federal mortgage policies. Proposals to offer housing grants, free tuition and to raise the minimum wage will likely be among the task force’s recommendations to state legislators in July.

The memo released Friday is asking to start the “historical excavation process” that California and other places have already begun by creating a task force, said Blake Strode, executive director of ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm.

Several historians and local academic institutions have already done much work, he said, around the “causes of racial disparities and anti-black harms in the St. Louis region and the ways that those manifests today.”

“And the obvious question is: well, what do we do about that?” Strode said. “You can’t seriously engage with that question and not engage with reparations as a legal, moral and economic imperative.”

*This story has been edited to include the comment from Mayor Tishaura Jones’ office.

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