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New Englanders Bring Targeted Approach To Reparations Movement

Joyce Skowyra
Evan Lewis with a picture of his great-grandfather Lent Shaw.

People have been making the case for reparations for Black Americans for decades, and there are signs of forward movement.

President Joe Biden has expressed support for a federal bill that would study the issue, and the new COVID-19 relief legislation includes several billion dollars to help Black farmers.

In New England, some groups are hoping to build on this momentum — with targeted efforts.

'I wanted to reclaim some of what we lost'

Lent Shaw was a successful Black farmer in Colbert, Georgia, in 1936 when he was accused of assaulting a white woman and put in jail. A lynch mob later dragged him out of jail, and — while his family huddled at home — tied to him a tree and killed him.

Shortly afterward, someone took a photo of Shaw’s bullet-ridden body, surrounded by more than a dozen white men.

"In order for a lynching like this to occur and in order for there to be no steps toward justice in the immediate aftermath, the entire community had to play a part in this," said Evan Lewis, the great-grandson of Shaw.

Lewis had known about the lynching and that now-famous photo his whole life. A few years ago, he decided to visit the town where the killing took place.

"For generations, no one in my family dared to return to Georgia," Lewis said. "And so a big part of what I wanted to do was to remove that barrier and reclaim some of what we lost in that space."

In recent years, Lewis — who lives in Watertown, Massachusetts — has met other descendants of lynching victims.

Together, they decided to seek reparations, Lewis said, "to try to put families back on the footing that they might have been on, if not for these atrocities that forced them off of land, that oftentimes remove primary breadwinners from the home."

Historically, many people have argued that reparations in the form of direct cash payments should go to the millions of descendants of enslaved people who continue to suffer from racism and inequality in America. They also stress the role Black people have played in America's prosperity.

"So much of what we have accumulated as a country is directly tied to the plunder of Black bodies and Black communities," Lewis said. "If we really want to engage in the effort of tying a dollar amount to what has been stripped from Black people, that number will be massive."

That’s why many people are against reparations, Lewis said — they just don't consider it practical. So he wants to start with what he considers a more tangible goal: the economic consequences of specific acts of violence.

"We can identify the land that my great grandfather owned," he said. "We can also quantify the financial impact…when the entire family, my great-grandfather's wife and his 11 children, are forced to relocate from Georgia, abandon their land, set down roots in a place like Chicago, and go from being land owners to living in public housing."

'Building blocks of a larger movement'

Lewis is leading a group of about two dozen descendants of lynching victims in the pursuit of reparations, working with the Center for Civil Rights and Restorative Justice at Northeastern University. He said they're following other smaller-scale actions — like at Georgetown University, which created a fund to give free tuition and other benefits to descendants of enslaved people the school had once sold.

"There is a really long history of organizing for and fighting for reparations. And people have taken different approaches," said Dania Francis, an economist at UMass Boston who specializes in reparations.

Past efforts have included lawsuits, legislation and grassroots campaigns. A federal bill to create a reparations study committee has been introduced every year for three decades. Several faith institutions have created funds to make amends for slavery and racism they participated in. The Jesuits, a Catholic order, recently pledged $100 million to pay descendants of people they once enslaved.

Francis supports a broad federal program of reparations, but she said there's no reason not to try a more targeted approach, such as focusing on lynching victims.

"It helps paint a picture: Who has been harmed and what does it look like? And so, in that way, I think that it's important, and building blocks of a larger movement," Francis said. "It's kind of similar to the civil rights movement, in that there is no one group. There is a lot of different energy going into that space and people with different expertise thinking about it."

'Racism exists everywhere — even in Amherst'

While some advocates are focusing on type of atrocity, others are focusing on place.

In December 2020, the Amherst, Massachusetts, Town Council passed a resolution to start on a "path of remedy" for racism and discrimination, as a first step toward reparations.

"Let's not think about the big, whole picture," said councilor Dorothy Pam before the vote. "Let's look about what's in our own backyard and look at our town."

The Amherst effort — modeled on a similar one in Evanston, Illinois — was launched by Michele Miller and Matthew Andrews, two white residents who started the group Reparations for Amherst.

Andrews said they were inspired by the George Floyd protests last summer.

"We looked at other Black Lives Matter signs on people's lawns and at the library and around town," he said. "And we thought, well, maybe there's enough goodwill and enough willingness to actually do something."

Credit Ben James / NEPM
Protesters lined both sides of Pleasant Street, as well as the center of the street, in Amherst, Massachusetts, on May 31, 2020.

Although Amherst is often considered a tolerant, liberal New England town, Andrews said its racial history is much darker. They found records of slavery; of banishing freed slaves; exclusion from hotels, restaurants and higher education; and a least one property deed from 1950 that forbade selling to Black people. Even today, census numbers show that the median salary for Black residents in Amherst is significantly lower than that of white residents.

"Racism is a system of advantages developed and benefiting white people," said Kathleen Anderson, New England co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA). "And that exists everywhere — even in Amherst."

Anderson is among a group of Black stakeholders in Amherst charged with deciding what reparations would look like there and who would be eligible.

Since so many cities and towns across the country are run by white officials, "it becomes important for areas that are predominantly white, like Amherst, to advocate for reparations," Anderson said. "The expectation is that white people will wake up to the ways that they have benefited from the discrimination against Black people and will demand that justice be served."

Even if there is widespread agreement in Amherst that reparations are warranted, "there's going to be a bit of a messy process" in figuring out the details, according to Miller. "We'll be able to look at what injuries specifically in Amherst happened in relation to anti-Black racism. And from there, there will be a process for deciding who can apply for reparations. It could be people that no longer even live in Amherst."

'It's only right that we stand up and hold ourselves accountable'

Evan Lewis said the group of descendants of lynching victims are forming a nonprofit and reaching out to other families with a similar history. They have not yet settled on who would be asked to fund reparations, though he said they might start with state and federal government or private industries once involved in removing Black families from their land.

None of those options are likely to be easy. Many white people have opposed paying for what they consider the sins of their ancestors.

"I don't think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea," Kentucky U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell said in 2019.

But Lewis said that's the wrong way to think about what’s fair.

"Many people receive inheritances that are tied to the work that previous generations did, and no one rebuffs an inheritance because they didn't earn the money themselves," he said. "If that's going to be the approach that we take to all of the positive aspects that go along with being Americans, then it's only right that we stand up and hold ourselves accountable for many of the atrocities that have also been committed in the name of America."

Moreover, Lewis said, this is not just a historical issue. Repairing past wrongs informs today's racial reckoning, he said, especially around police brutality.

"Not many people would stand up and suggest that George Floyd's family is not entitled to some form of compensation in the aftermath of his very public murder on the streets of Minneapolis," Lewis said. "And so we have an opportunity to reframe the way we think about these historical atrocities, particularly if we can place it within the context of the current moment that we're living in."

Karen is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter since for New England Public Radio since 1998. Her pieces have won a number of national awards, including the National Edward R. Murrow Award, Public Radio News Directors, Inc. (PRNDI) Award, and the Erikson Prize for Mental Health Reporting for her body of work on mental illness.

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