Amherst pursues reparations to Black residents

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 12/8/2020 7:56:14 PM

AMHERST — Amherst is on a path toward providing reparations to Black residents for past injustices following the Town Council’s unanimous adoption of a resolution calling for the community to become an anti-racist town.

On Monday, the council voted 13-0 for the resolution stating that Amherst “is committed to engaging in a path of remedy for Black Amherst residents who have been injured or harmed by discrimination and racial injustice.”

The resolution came after a group known as Reparations for Amherst, formed following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring, began conversations with three town councilors, District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Mile, District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis and At-Large Councilor Alisa Brewer.

“Ultimately, this is the first step,” said Michele Miller, co-chairwoman of Reparations for Amherst. “This lays the foundation for us to continue the process.”

“Healing starts with an acknowledgment,” Matthew Andrews, co-chairman of the group, told the council.

Bahl-Milne said the resolution, which includes historical information about how the town has treated Black residents, makes the case for reparations but doesn’t immediately establish a plan for how to do so.

Councilors also considered adding language to the proclamation that the U.N. General Assembly proclaimed 2015 to 2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent. But this addition was rejected in favor of keeping the focus of the resolution on Amherst.

The historical timeline, which Miller said is a dynamic document that can be regularly updated, covers the 261 years Amherst has existed as its own town and includes items about residents who “owned African slaves or supported the slave trade” and town officials who ordered free Blacks to leave the community in the 18th century.

Other forms of anti-Black racism are also on this timeline, such as the African American faculty member hired at the University of Massachusetts who, in 1948, was prevented from getting housing for his family due to his race, and the 2015 protest on the Town Common in support of a Black Amherst Regional High School teacher who was “subjected to harassing and hurtful events and notes.”

Also included in the resolution is the observation that the median family income for white families in Amherst is currently nearly 2½ times greater than the median family income for Black families, and more than half of the Black population in Amherst is below the poverty line.

The council’s vote came a week after Reparations for Amherst held a symposium that included Robin Rue Simmons, an alderman in Evanston, Illinois, a city that has passed a reparations ordinance to make down payments on housing and encourage Black entrepreneurship through the use of $10 million collected in cannabis sales taxes over the next decade, and Kamm Howard, national male co-chairman of N’COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America.

Miller said that event drew more than 300 people from the community and likely helped people contextualize what might be possible for reparations, even with limited financial resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the resolution, Miller and Andrews, who are both white, said the hope is to get growing involvement from a diverse group of residents.

“The goal is to work collaboratively with the town to find the best way to get full reparations for the Black residents of Amherst,” Miller said.

There also will be a community coalition to participate in group dialogue, going beyond the monetary piece and examining ways to do memorials or have other honors for current and former Black residents, and the establishment of a cultural center.

“The next steps are for the Black community coming together to discuss what repairs, what remedies and what process needs to happen,” Miller said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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