Bay Area activist reflects on decades-long fight as CA, SF explore reparations for slavery

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For the first time in the state's history, reparations or some form of repayment for the atrocities of slavery are being seriously discussed for Black Californians.

While committees and task forces formed in recent months at the state and local level are beginning to explore what reparations might look like and who it should be paid to, the fight to have the discussion is decades in the making.

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Inside East Oakland's Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church, Bishop Henry Williams eagerly sifts through a table of scattered documents.

The longtime minister and community activist points out wins and recognition from over the years, like a certificate from Congresswoman Barbara Lee honoring him for his work in the fight for reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans.

"Reparations are so important because you cannot free a person until you pay them," said Williams.

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At 87 years old the fight is personal for Williams.

He was born in the middle of a cotton field in Alabama in 1934 on a sharecropper's farm.

"My dad had told me so much because he was raised by his grandfather. His grandfather was a slave," he said.

Williams moved to the Bay Area in the 1950s fleeing from the rural south where he faced violence and oppression.

Millions of African Americans moved to the Northeast, Midwest, and West as a part of the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century.

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After decades of advocacy Williams is glad discussions on reparations are making it mainstream, just ask his son.

"It amazes me. It's remarkable," said Paul Williams Sr., "He worked with a lot of people. He shared information."

Once Williams relocated to the Bay Area he got to work advocating for jobs for Black residents in Oakland and passing out his pamphlets on why reparations are owed to African Americans, to anyone who would listen.

His message was often heard, but not listened to.

In June, California became the first station in the country to launch a nine-member Task Force to Study Reparations for African Americans grabbing national headlines.

"What are reparations? What does it mean to feel repair?" asked Jovan Scott Lewis, PhD, associate professor at U.C. Berkeley and chair of the university's geography department.

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Lewis was appointed to the task force by Governor Gavin Newson who signed AB 3121 into law creating the group.

Former Assemblymember Shirley Weber authored the bill along with AB 3070 which would strengthen jury selection procedures and increase transparency.

Weber now serves as California Secretary of State.

"What we're trying to do with reparations is to account for the various injuries," said Lewis.

Accounting for the injuries of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, mass incarceration and beyond is the first order of the business for the task force.

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The task force is commissioned for ten meetings over the next two years and met for the first time in June.

The group was slated to have its next meeting in August, but has moved the meeting up to July to get to work sooner, according to Lewis.

Direct payments, free college tuition, and first-time homebuyer assistance are among the ideas being floated as potential forms of reparations.

Lewis believes all the options should be on the table, but how such programs would be administered has to be considered in great detail and should not be a one solution approach.

Earlier this year Evanston, Illinois became one of the first cities in the country to announce it will begin paying reparations to some of the city's Black residents.

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As part of Evanston's Restorative Housing Program, the city will award $25,000 this summer to a small number of eligible Black residents for home down payments, mortgage payments or home repairs. The program is backed by the city's reparations fund.

Lewis said even programs seemingly as simple as a down payment assistance have to be carefully considered.

"What does it mean to have a down payment assistance when that down payment doesn't actually make you competitive?" said Lewis.

Earlier this year San Francisco joined the short list of cities across the country to explore reparations at the local level, like Evanston.

The city created its reparations advisory committee making it the first major city to do so.

The move was made possible by legislation authored by Shamann Walton, President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

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"What's the scope of this? How are we having this conversation in a town where we had a nearly 20% Black population and right now it's less than 6%. What are we doing to close that gap?," said Sherly Davis, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.

The city's reparations committee was formed through the HRC.

Davis credits the renewed focus on social justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd for the momentum to launch the committee.

"I think that we're in a different state in time, we have more allies," she added.

The 15-member committee plans to bring Black people from all walks of life to the table: including a member that's been incarcerated, another who has experienced homelessness, and at least one member who has pushed out of the city through gentrification to determine the scope and eligibility of a citywide reparations program.

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For Williams, decades into the fight, now is better than never.

"The truth needs to be told," he said.

For the bishop that starts with America righting its sin of slavery through repair-through reparations.

Both the San Francisco reparations committee and California's task force will meet over the next two years to form recommendations.

While critics may point out California entered the union as a "free state" and shouldn't have to consider reparations, scholars like Lewis point to the state's dwindling Black population, low rates of Black homeownership, education achievement gaps, and over-index of Black people experiencing homelessness as evidence of lingering effects of inequality-explicitly and implicitly upheld by the state.

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