Reparations Revisited: Where Are We Now in Amherst?



Amherst Neighbors, a local organization that coordinates volunteers to help senior citizens, sponsored a public virtual program over Zoom on reparations on February 29. The presentation was recorded and can be viewed here

At the start of the program, moderator Carly Tartakov introduced the three presenters: UMass Professor of African American Studies Amilcar Shabazz; former Town Councilor and Co-chair of the African Heritage Reparations Assembly (AHRA) Michele Miller; and Kathleen Anderson, Female Co-chair of the New England chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA). Tartakov then read a quote from artist, author, and lawyer Randall Robinson:

 “No nation can enslave a race of people for hundreds of years, set them free and penniless without assistance in a hostile environment against privileged victimizers, and then reasonably expect the gap between the heirs of the two groups to narrow. Lines begun parallel and left alone can never touch.”

Recent History of Reparations in the U.S.
Shabazz said that the recent period of the reparations movement in the U.S. came after the successful efforts in the late 1980s to compensate Japanese Americans and their descendants for their wrongful detention in internment camps during World War II. The success of this 40-year fight for reparations led U.S. Representative John Conyers of Michigan to introduce HR40 in Congress, which aimed at creating a commission that would study the impact of slavery that continues to harm African American descendants.

Other organizations, such as the NAACP and NCOBRA worked to support this effort, but HR40 did not advance in Congress. The reparations movement moved into high gear with the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent high-profile deaths of other Black Americans, many at the hands of the police. Shabazz said that some people considered the election of Barack Obama as a form of reparations, but Obama never embraced reparations and “he did nothing to help move us at all towards reparations, not a commission, not an apology.”

After the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) took up HR40. It cleared the House Judiciary Committee, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not bring it to the House floor.

Anderson then reported on reparations work in Massachusetts. State Senator Bill Owens introduced a bill for a commission to study reparations in 1988, but that commission was never populated. However, several organizations, including NCOBRA, have been working together to further the idea of reparations. Those groups will hold their third annual virtual meeting on Wednesday, April 10 at 6 p.m. Anderson invited  people interested in attending to email her at and put ‘Reparations’ in the subject heading. She also recommends the PBS film “The Cost of Inheritance,” which is free on YouTube as a source of information about reparations.

Local Efforts for Reparations
Miller said that after the murder of George Floyd, a group of Amherst residents formed Reparations4Amherst and produced a report on the history of Black structural racism in Amherst and the continuing injustices against residents of African descent. They made a case for reparations in Amherst, and in the fall of 2021, the Town Council created a fund for reparations and founded the AHRA to determine how the money should be spent.

After two years of meeting, holding listening sessions, and conducting a survey, the AHRA released its final report. The original Reparations4Amherst report is included in the larger report. The AHRA report prioritizes reparations funds to be used for youth programming, affordable housing, and support for Black-owned businesses.

Shabazz said that some supporters of reparations feel that only the descendants of slaves should be compensated, but the AHRA felt this was too limiting for Amherst’s small Black population. Instead, the group conceived of concentric circles of eligibility, with descendants of people enslaved in Amherst at the center, followed by descendants of those enslaved elsewhere, followed by residents of Amherst of African descent. These eligibility criteria differ from those being considered in federal efforts, he said. National efforts would be directed solely toward descendants of chattel slavery (i.e., slaves that were bought and sold as commercial property, as distinct from military or state-sponsored slavery).

The AHRA report also makes recommendations for naming streets after prominent Black residents, a truth and reconciliation process, a policy of apology for harms, highlighting the work of the Human Rights Commission, and the formation of a museum and a genealogical research center to help Black residents uncover their ancestry.

Where Is Amherst Now?
The AHRA finished its work with the submission of its final report in September, 2023. The reparations process is now on hold until the town can appoint a successor body to direct the use of the funds. The town is also waiting for a legal opinion on how the money can be used. The presenters encouraged residents to let their councilors know that they want the work to proceed. 

In the meantime,  related work continues. Jeff Gold, Rabbi Devorah Jacobson, and other members of the Jewish Community of Amherst developed the Stolen Beam Series, focusing on the legacy of African enslavement and anti-Black racism. They are currently presenting the program at the Sojourner Truth School and will hold other series in the fall.

A program sponsored by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts on February 28 at the White Lion Brewery discussed the role of philanthropy in reparations, which organizers said they hoped would be a first step in creating a private fund to support the efforts.

Shabazz also encouraged Amherst residents to urge the Town Manager and the Town Council to award the remaining ARPA funds (federal funds for COVID relief) to Black-owned Amherst businesses. At the White Lion event, Deborah Snow, founder and former owner of the Blue Heron Restaurant, stated that the ARPA funds that allowed the Blue Heron to survive the pandemic were a form of reparations to compensate the restaurant for harms beyond their control. She noted that white-owned companies have been given rescue plans to permit their survival. Shabazz maintained, “Black owned businesses were affected disproportionately by the pandemic. Given what we’ve been learning about reparations and slavery and anti-Black structural racism, why can’t we grasp that here is a moment to make a reparative step. You’ve taken care of the Blue Herons, you’ve taken care of the Barry Roberts’, you’ve taken care of all these other business owners, and you’ve given little, maybe $200 here, $100 there to some of the few Black businesses. We’ve put our voices out to our respective councilors, to the Town Manager to say, ’Don’t blow this moment’; award that remaining ARPA money to Black businesses in town.” He added that ARPA funds were on the agenda for the February 26 Town Council meeting that was postponed to March 4. He hopes the topic will be discussed at the March 18 meeting.

The presenters noted that, with little being done about reparations on the national level, local efforts must continue. Shabazz said he hoped the council would pass a resolution calling for state and federal commissions to study the harm of slavery and make recommendations for repair.

He noted that the Montgomery bus boycott took 10 years to organize before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and the work for reparations will also be slow in effecting change. He said it will take the support of white citizens to move the efforts forward. He encouraged vigilance to push local, state, and federal governments to persist in fighting for reparations.

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