For the first time, Juneteenth is officially a federal holiday. In signing the law on Thursday, President Joe Biden added to the growing momentum that many have felt around issues of racial justice since a police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis last year. However, even with Biden’s historic move this week — which followed similar declarations by leaders in the City of Chicago, Cook County and the State of Illinois — advocates for racial equity say a potent backlash has also arisen during this time to frustrate their efforts.
Robin Rue Simmons, a former Evanston alderman, is perhaps at the vanguard of one fight for racial justice. Rue Simmons, whose term ended in May, led Evanston’s effort to implement reparations. So far, the north suburb has allocated $400,000 for certain Black residents who have experienced housing discrimination. It’s part of the city’s plan to spend a total of $10 million over the next decade. Several cities across the country are exploring reparations, as well.
Rue Simmons is currently a member of Evanston’s Reparations Committee, and spoke with WBEZ’s Odette Yousef about how, on this Juneteenth holiday, she is thinking about the groundbreaking work she has embarked on. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Rue Simmons: We have a president and vice president both acknowledging their support for the study of reparations, and so we are in a season or an era of repair. We have local action, starting with Evanston. And we’ve seen in history that local initiatives really hold accountable and direct our national leaders. And so it is a special honor to be doing this work in this time in history and to see that there’s now been a passing of a federal holiday recognizing Juneteenth. This recognition is overdue. But I’ll take it as encouragement, and a step towards reparations and reparative justice for the Black community in America.
Odette Yousef: You talk about this era of repair and the growing momentum, but at the same time in states all over this country, we’re also seeing an enormous push to restrict voting rights. How do you assess where we are as a nation?
Simmons: We’re at a reckoning, and I believe that we’re always going to have this resistance. So I am in full acknowledgement of the racial oppression, the sustained racial terror that we deal with. I am fully aware that we are only nominally free by some standards. I have seen the impact of COVID, how it has devastated our Black communities. I am fully aware of the over-policing and the mass incarceration, the continued financial predatory practices. But we believe that the Black community, our allies, legislators, partners, influencers, stakeholders, have the heart and the will to advance reparations.
Yousef: I understand you recently returned from a trip to Guinea Bissau on Africa’s West Coast. Can you share a little bit about why you took that trip and what you came away from it with?
Simmons: I received my DNA results that identified my ancestral home as being Guinea Bissau and, more specifically, people of Balanta heritage. And for me, it was important to first know exactly where I have come from and to be able to travel back to Guinea Bissau and go to the Balanta people and be welcomed home. For the Balanta people, who’ve never seen or heard of me before, to be so excited [about] my return. Hearing from them, their stories of their ancestors being kidnapped, and stripped away from their villages, and understanding the trauma. And so that trip for me really has put a lot in perspective, it has better equipped me to understand the plunder in the Black community, and thinking about ways that we can bring solidarity and opportunity so that we can restore people of African descent.
Yousef: How will you be marking Juneteenth?
Simmons: In Evanston, we’ll have our second annual Juneteenth parade. So I’ll participate with my city, with my family. And I’ll do it with the satisfaction of seeing that we are advancing reparations. And I look forward to doing that.
Odette Yousef is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.