“The contractor, he said, ‘You find a lot anywhere in Evanston, and I’ll build whatever you want,” Gaines Sr. said. “Well, when he said that, he meant in the Black neighborhoods … It was just the way it was.”
Gaines Sr. said he also had “big trouble” financing his home, and that he feels these problems are still present today.
“It’s the old cliché about, ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’”
Younger members of Gaines Sr.’s family say that while modern-day Evanston is outwardly progressive, inequality is still a problem.
“Growing up in Evanston for me was definitely good, despite the racism that I faced,” Gaines Sr.’s grand-nephew, Jared Davis said. The father of three said he will apply for reparations, “because it’s owed.”
Davis’ kids, 25-year-old Nic and 16-year-old Myah, have also been involved in their family’s discussion on reparations, expressing fatigue over having to justify why they’re owed, with the city’s history so well-documented at this point.
“I don’t even think it’s my job to justify to you, like, why we need reparations,” said Nic. “Do you not live here? Do you not know? Did you not see the demographics changing throughout the years? Like, we knew it was racist.”
Alderman Rue Simmons has also noted a shrinking Black population in Evanston as a result of historic redlining, modern gentrification and rising property taxes. Black residents currently make up 16% of Evanston’s population, but, Rue Simmons pointed out, “we’ve had much higher in the past.”
Now, according to Rue Simmons, the $25,000 reparations benefit for housing is meant to combat “a lack of affordability, lack of access to living wage careers here in the city, and a lack of sense of place.”
Evanston proposed a novel idea to fund reparations — a 3% tax on newly legal recreational marijuana sales.
“It’s the most appropriate use for that sales tax,” Simmons said. “In our city, 70% of the marijuana arrests were in the Black community. And we are 16% of the community. All studies show that Blacks and white [people] consume cannabis at the same rate.”
This funding solution has put Evanston ahead of any other city in America, and on the radar of Danny Glover, an actor and long-time reparations activist who has been vocal in his support of House Resolution 40.
The 31-year-old bill was so named to invoke the broken promise of “40 acres and a mule.” The proposal would create a commission to study and develop a national plan for reparations.
The bill was first proposed in 1989 by Rep. John Conyers. He re-introduced it every year he served until he resigned in 2017. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has taken on the mantle. She cites “the idea of reparations is unworkable politically or financially” as the reason opposition has fought the bill for decades.
Glover testified before the House Judiciary subcommittee to support HR-40 in 2019.
“[It] is an opportunity to have a commission to study reparations, but also the further contexts in which we look at slavery and the impact that it had on us,” he told ABC News.
Glover traveled to Evanston in 2019 to speak at a reparations town hall because, in his words, the city “did something that no other city has done in the country.”
“If we’re able to use that as a platform, maybe other cities might adopt the whole idea of this,” he continued.
In Washington, the issue is incredibly divisive.
Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell said in 2019 “it would be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate,” and said “none of us currently living are responsible” for what happened 150 years ago. Lee currently has backing from 173 cosponsors, all Democrats.
It gained renewed attention this winter, but still has yet to advance out of committee.
Simmons says reparations are broadly supported in Evanston, despite some questions from other city leaders over whether the recreational marijuana sales tax revenue can sustain the fund in the longer-term.
For the Gaines-Davis family, and other Black Evanstonians who proudly support reparations, questions remain about how far $25,000 can go — even as a first step — to fulfill long-broken promises.
“It’s a drop in the bucket… But it’s better than nothing. It’s better than what I have now,” Benjamin Gaines Sr. said. “Hopefully, before I die, I’ll see the world change.”
Nic Davis is hesitant to celebrate too soon.
“Uncle Ben [has been] telling all these stories and things and making you understand, like, change is not an easy thing,” he said, expressing wariness over years of support for progressive promises that have taken too long to fulfill throughout history.
“[There were] people who were acting like they’re ready for change, and behind closed doors other things are happening, right?” he said. “We see that all the time in politics right now.”
“What does it say that my 25-year-old has to feel like that?” his father Jared Davis said.
Myah Davis said she’s learned a lot from her elders.
“They constantly talk to me about issues that I would not know anything about if I wasn’t in the family that I’m in,” she said. “[In school] we aren’t really taught about a lot of Black history outside of, ‘Oh, you know, slaves came from Africa.’ I think part of reparations – it can’t just be money. Like, you have to teach us what we need to know.”
Rue Simmons acknowledges the concerns of those community members who feel $25,000 is not enough.
“$25,000 is life-saving for some families right now,” she said. “But relative to the injury, it’s not nearly enough. And I get that.”
That’s why she hopes more relief will come from reparations at the state and federal levels, including HR-40.
But Evanston’s leaders are not waiting for Washington. They plan to begin dispersing funds this spring and hope that is just the first reparative step for Evanston, and for other cities across the country.
“When I introduced reparations in Evanston it was always the first step of many to come,” Simmons said. “There is a lifetime of work ahead of me and my children for us to get to justice for the Black community.”
She said she remains hopeful, and that she must, to do this work.
“I do believe that we’re committed as a city. And I believe that we will advance reparations,” Simmons said. “I can’t wait to celebrate the family that receives their first reparation benefit. I cannot wait for that day.”