Northa Johnson was paying close attention when the city of Evanston began pursuing local reparations for its Black residents in 2019.
Johnson, who is Black, grew up in Evanston in the 1950s with her four siblings. They were renting at the time, but her father, Henry Johnson, wanted them to have more room, including their own front yard.
“When our landlord complained about us kids and how we played, Daddy decided it was time to buy a house for his family,” Johnson said. “I actually heard him say, ‘Nobody will ever tell my kids they can’t play.’ ”
When Johnson’s father applied for a loan, he was turned down.
“He had a good job, great credit, he had the G.I. Bill behind him,” Johnson said. “But the banks said no.”
In 1956, the Johnsons left Evanston and bought a new home in Gary, Indiana.
Decades later, Johnson, 72, said she still thinks about the harm Evanston’s banking institutions caused to her family.
“I think about what they deprived us of,” said Johnson. “I had grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins. And when we moved to Gary, they kept us from going around the corner to visit family.”
Talk of reparations brought back distressing moments from Johnson’s childhood, but it offered a glimpse of hope. Then, as more details about the program were announced, she was let down once again.
Evanston’s historic reparations program was created to offer compensation for discriminatory housing and zoning policies, mostly felt by the Black community. Residents could win $25,000 to repair their homes or pay down mortgages. But the groundbreaking, headline-making program seemed to fall short from the beginning.
When the Local Reparations Housing program passed in 2021, it prioritized residents who could qualify as “ancestors,” defined as African Americans currently living in Evanston that could prove they were residents between 1919 and 1969.
People whose families were hindered by Evanston’s housing discrimination, causing them to move and not return — like the Johnsons — would not qualify.
Alderman Peter Braithwaite represents Evanston’s 2nd Ward and chairs the Reparations Committee.
Braithewaite said restricting reparations to current residents was necessary because the city was limited with staff time and resources. They had to verify hundreds of applicants without considering those whose families had moved.
“Because of the age of our ancestors, we did prioritize that group,” said Braithwaite. “After we get a good grasp of what we’re doing, we will start with the direct descendants as well.”
Braithewaite said the $25,000 reparations payment — funded through taxes on marijuana sales in the city — doesn’t begin to scratch the surface, but he’s proud of Evanston for being the first city to pass a local reparations initiative.
As is Robin Sue Simmons, who sparked the conversation of local reparations and now serves on the National African American Reparations Commission. Simmons is the founder and executive director of First Repair.
“We’ve had the audacity to advance reparations in Evanston. The implementation of the program is even more detailed in the broad work of understanding the harm, educating our community and identifying the remedy,” said Simmons. “We can’t go wrong with remedies.”
And the program has made a positive impact for a handful of residents. On Jan. 13, Evanston picked the initial 16 grant recipients from a pool of 600 approved applicants using a Bingo wheel.
Lifelong resident Ramona Burton, 73, was one of them.
Burton admitted that like many Black residents, she had mixed feelings when she first learned about the reparations program. On one hand, she thought it was restrictive because the money had to be used on housing. But her home – which she’s lived in for 47 years – was in need of upgrades.
“It didn’t bother me so much because I can use it to repair, do things that I wouldn’t have been able to afford to do otherwise,” said Burton.
Burton knows exactly what she is going to do with her reparations.
“I’m going to add a new roof and windows all around the house. And also a back fence,” said Burton. “If I have any money left, I want to get central air conditioning, that would just make the value of my house go up.”
Braithwaite believes increasing the home values of those chosen can create intergenerational wealth for the city’s Black residents. It’s a goal that keeps him motivated.
“We want to enhance the lives of those seniors who were wronged or who were harmed. At the end of the day, our goal is to return wealth,” Braithwaite said.
But Johnson, who lives in Chicago now, still feels her family was wronged by government and banking institutions in Evanston. She wished the reparations program extended beyond current residents and was more robust, including a greater dialogue between the city and families that were hurt by discrimination
Still, she refused to be angry or bitter.
“It is what it is,” said Johnson.
Johnson said leaving Evanston deprived her family of small things, like access to Evanston’s beaches. Her father loved swimming and she has fond memories of hopping in the car with him after work to go to the beach.
“I did not realize until after he had passed, but once we left Evanston my father never swam again,” Johnson said. “That was something that he loved, and you know, it’s just the little things that are a part of your quality of life.”
Araceli Gómez-Aldana is a reporter and host at WBEZ. Follow her @Araceli1010.