What’s Next for Reparations In Amherst?


Photo: City of Ashville, NC

Funding and Committee Succession Referred To Town Council Committees
Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, October 16, 2023 (Part 3)

This meeting was held in hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here. 

In Town Hall: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Cathy Schoen and Michele Miller (District 1), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large), Pam Rooney and Anika Lopes (District 4), and Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5). Participating remotely: Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Dorothy Pam (District 3) and Ellisha Walker (at large). Absent: Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5).

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Eight members of the public attended in person and 20 were present on Zoom.

Five members of the AHRA (African Heritage Reparations Assembly) were also present: Michelle Miller (Chair), Debora Bridges, Alexis Reed, Irv Rhodes, and Amilcar Shabazz. Yvonne Mendez was absent.

The comprehensive final report of the African Heritage Reparations Assembly was released to the public on September 26. The report, dedicated to the memory of Demetria Shabazz, is 38 pages long, 161 pages including the appendices, and AHRA Chair Michele Miller noted that it is not an end to the repair process, but a road mark to follow. The report recommends that reparations efforts to repair the harm done to those of African heritage, especially descendants of those previously enslaved, concentrate on youth programming, affordable housing, and business entrepreneurship. It asks the council to accelerate the funding of reparations, which by the current use of cannabis tax revenues could take more than 10 years, and to approve a successor body to oversee the reparations efforts.

Three options were suggested for increasing the funds in the Reparations Stabilization Fund to permit earlier use for programs:

  1. The town fully funds the fund up to $2 million by borrowing from reserves, and then pays back the reserves through the annual flow of free cash. The fund then serves as an endowment from which the interest can fund programs.
  2. The town commits $100,000 a year from cannabis tax revenues to reparative justice initiatives, and contributes the remaining tax revenues to the stabilization fund.
  3. The town moves enough money from reserves annually to bring the stabilization fund to $2 million by 2028.

Revision of the financing of the stabilization fund was referred to the Finance Committee. 

The report takes an inclusive view of eligibility, prioritizing descendants of those enslaved in Amherst, followed by descendants of all African American slaves in the United States who currently reside in Amherst, and lastly by those of African heritage who are not descendants of slaves. Because the town cannot provide cash payments to individuals without special legislation from the state, early reparations efforts would go to programs that benefit Amherst residents of African heritage. The establishment of a Black Assembly to prioritize reparative justice efforts was referred to the council’s Governance, Organization, and Legislation Committee (GOL). 

Comments from AHRA Members
Each member of the AHRA present told the council what the group meant to them. Debora Bridges said she was happy to join the group to ensure that the early generations of Black residents of Amherst are acknowledged in the report. Amilcar Shabazz stated that the ramifications and magnitude of this report and the work that the town is engaged in might not be seen this year or next, but “There’s a real long-term matter here—how it plays out for Ellisha Walker’s great-great-grandchildren, seven generations from now.”

Alexis Reed thanked the AHRA members and the council for their cooperation in producing the report. Heather Hala Lord stated that the report was long overdue, considering the harms that happen to Black people every day that aren’t noticed by people who don’t experience it. She said, “I still feel a strong sense of urgency. There’s a lot of harm happening.”

Irv Rhodes concluded, “My hope is that the council will see the benefit of our work, give it value, and ensure that it goes on into the future. My hope and my desire is that this report not be put on a shelf somewhere to gather dust and be forgotten in a year.”

Concerns from Councilors
Dorothy Pam (District 3) said she worries about the referral of funding changes to the Finance Committee, saying, “I don’t like what happens after many things get referred to the Finance Committee. They get cut down, reduced, and sometimes they die.” Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg (at large) responded that the Finance Committee does not make decisions on funding. It studies issues and makes recommendations, but the full council makes the ultimate spending decisions. Finance Committee member Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) wondered if adopting any of the suggested funding options would eliminate the choice of allocating funds from subsequent councils.

Anika Lopes thanked Miller for bringing forward the strength of her ancestors and what they had to endure and for calling attention to cultural appropriation. She did have questions about housing, given the history of redlining in the neighborhoods adjacent to downtown that prohibited Black people, Jewish people, and poor people from living there. Now those areas are unaffordable. She wondered if the AHRA had any “specific ideas or recommendations in terms of housing practices to ensure that we are not continuing this disgrace and discrimination going forward.” 

Shabazz noted that housing affordability is an issue throughout the country, and he hoped the successor body would work with the other groups in town tackling this problem.

Cathy Schoen (District 1) wanted to see more data on the survey conducted, other than the graphs included in the report. She also asked why youth services were highlighted instead of pre-K. Miller answered that the survey information was handled by the Donahue Institute, which felt that releasing the actual data might inadvertently identify respondents to the survey; the survey was supposed to be anonymous. She added that pre-K was not discussed by the assembly.

Eligibility Criteria for Reparations Questioned
As Shabazz noted earlier, the AHRA took an inclusive attitude toward reparations. This was supported by some and criticized by others. Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) criticized it, citing  Amherst native William A. Darity’s book From Here to Equality, co-authored with Kirsten Mullen, that states that reparations should be restricted to descendants of enslaved people who have identified as Black for at least 12 years. Darity and Mullen’s book referred to national compensation for slavery, which would amount to over $1 million per descendent. Hanneke also pointed to Evanston, Illinois’ reparations program, which requires recipients to have resided in the city between 1919 and 1969 or were a descendant of such a person, and that the family must have been a victim of housing discrimination. 

Shabazz replied that, after considerable debate, the assembly opted for an inclusive model for eligibility. He said the report recognizes the American freedmen as the center of concern for a Black reparative justice project, but does not exclude other Black Amherst residents, leaving the determination of the use of funds at the town level to the successor body.

Ellisha Walker (at large) pointed out that determining eligibility is complicated, given the circumstances and the lack of documentation among those previously enslaved. She said the burden of proof doesn’t always exist and appreciates that the program is starting out with broad eligibility. Pam agreed that requiring records for documentation of eligibility is problematic, because survivors of trauma often do not have carefully preserved pedigree charts. She gave, as an example, her husband’s family, which had been subject to pogroms and forced relocation, and knows little about previous generations.

Pam’s statement drew a harsh rebuke from Lopes, however, who said, “I usually do not respond to such comments, but I need to because, Mrs. Pam, you just made a very careless comment about some of my ancestors. We know our history, not because of caste, but because we are of cultures who are not meant to know our histories, and what happens amongst us is oral history. And this is passed down, and it is passed down through inheritance and through specific people and the work that I have done is to share this experience.” She continued, “We have no idea of the majority of our history. We are linked to those who experienced genocide in the land that you call your neighborhood today, land that we were banned from living around. My cousins have gone back to the 1400s to track us on the ships that we came here on. There are many stories on those Civil War tablets that Amherst hasn’t heard yet.”

Hanneke questioned whether the recommended uses of funds are actually reparations or if they are social programs that should be included in the town operating budget. Shabazz answered that reparations are not “affirmative action renamed.” Reparations address specific harm against a specific people, not repairing structural racism against people of a certain skin color, which is why he hopes special legislation to allow direct payments to residents will be passed. He said that although slavery ended in Amherst in the early 1800s, Amherst College trustee Israel Trask benefited from owning slaves in the South and used that wealth to build up the town and Amherst College. Shabazz also advocated establishing a genealogical project to allow Black residents to trace their ancestry and said that Amherst should take a lead in these areas. 

Public Comments on the Report
Jeffrey Gold and Devorah Jacobson, who chair the Reparations Committee of the Jewish Community of Amherst, praised the report as a significant milestone in content and process, representing multigenerational voices. They hoped it would spur the cause of reparations on a national level.

Lauren Mills and Pat Ononibaku were pleased that it includes not only descendants of slaves but a broader segment of the Black population.

However, Ciara Cosby and Antonia Edwards felt just the opposite. Edwards stated that she felt it was disrespectful not to make reference to the freedman, the four million emancipated slaves, as distinct from the broader terms of BIPOC or African Americans.

Ash Hartwell, Allegra Clark, Mary Porcino, Anita Sarro, Diana Stein, and Carly Tartakov all praised the report and hoped its recommendations would be implemented in the near future with adequate funding. 

Councilors who had further comments on the funding options or the successor committee were asked to submit them to the chairs of the Finance Committee and GOL by the end of the week.

Spread the love

Leave a Reply

The Amherst Indy welcomes your comment on this article. Comments must be signed with your real, full name & contact information; and must be factual and civil. See the Indy comment policy for more information.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.