Northampton lays reparations groundwork

  • The Northampton City Council is close to approving a resolution that would create a commission to investigate historical and ongoing injustices against Black residents and workers in the city. gazette file photo

  • Northampton City Councilor Garrick Perry, of Ward 4, is one of three councilors sponsoring a resolution that would create a commission to investigate historical and ongoing injustices against Black residents and workers in the city. gazette file photo

Published: 2/3/2023 3:35:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — When Garrick Perry told his grandmother 25 years ago that he was moving to Northampton from Washington, D.C., she reacted with skepticism.

“I remember my grandmother when I was deciding to move here, she had a fear that I was going to the whitest place she could ever imagine,” Perry recalled.

One of only three Black residents to serve on the City Council in the city’s history, Perry, from Ward 4, helped introduce a resolution at Thursday’s meeting that would create a commission to investigate historical and ongoing injustices against Black residents and workers in the city, and study whether to join many other cities in supporting a case for reparations.

“As a father of two biracial children, I’m proud to present this because I’m excited about what it means for the future of Northampton,” said Perry, who is sponsoring the resolution with at-large councilors Jamila Gore and Marissa Elkins. Gore is the second Black person to serve on the council. The first was John Thorpe, who was elected in 2019 and served one term on the council.

Should Northampton move ahead with a commission, the city would join Amherst and a handful of other municipalities nationwide that are working to explore reparations to address past and present racial injustices against Black people.

Last July, the Amherst Town Council set a goal of committing $2 million over the next 10 years to a dedicated reparations fund. The town’s African Heritage Reparation Assembly is developing a reparative justice plan that will be recommended to the Town Council in June.

The text of the Northampton resolution, which was read in its entirety during the council’s meeting on Thursday, cited the nearly centurylong history of slavery in the city, followed by a diminishing of the city’s African American population, past discriminatory zoning policies and a present-day lack of diversity as the reasons to pursue reparations.

According to U.S. census data, 2.1% of the city’s present population is Black. Of that population, 21.9% live below the poverty line, compared to 10.1% of the city’s white population. Only 21.6% of Black people in Northampton have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 62.9% of whites, according to census data.

Though the city is currently a stronghold for social progressivism, and was a center for the abolitionist movement before the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the country, the resolution notes that Northampton has never had a Black mayor, and that only one Black person, Anthony Patillo, has served as head of a municipal department. It also notes that only three Black people have served on the City Council.

The resolution calls on the city to acknowledge and apologize for past actions and legislation that entrenched systems of racial discrimination and segregation in the city. It seeks creation of a joint commission between the council and the mayor’s office to study the effects of harms perpetrated against Black people. At least half of the proposed commission members would be Black.

”We have an opportunity to be at the forefront of things when it comes to redressing these harms done,” Gore said. “I think that we’re the kind of city that can do that.” 

Elkins said reparations should not be thought of as a zero-sum game, and that all residents of the city would have a chance to benefit from confronting and compensating for past racial harms.

“White people are hurt too when we diminish our communities in this way,” she said. “We are all enriched when we work to reverse these historic patterns and injustices.”

The council members supporting the resolution worked with members of the seven-member Northampton Reparations Committee, a grassroots citizens group, to draft the resolution. Sarah Patterson, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a member of the committee, spoke during the council’s public comments hearing.

“Northampton community members are increasingly raising questions about Black residences and quality of life, including the extent to which his group has experienced racially motivated harm,” she said. “I think that a commission and a funded form of redress would help answer these questions and promote economic and educational successes, for not only existing but also future Black community members.”

Patterson gave a historical example in the case of Bathsheba Hull, a free Black woman who lived in Northampton during the mid-1700s, when slavery was still legal in Northampton. Hull was evicted from her property by the city, which claimed the man who sold her the property, John McLane, did not legally own it, despite it having been in his family’s possession for two generations, according to research done at Historic Northampton.

“These are early examples of the systemic breakdown of a black family that we can only imagine was extended to others who tried to start a family here and own property here,” Patterson said.

The resolution drew praise from other council members. President Jim Nash said it was the best resolution he had seen in his seven years as a councilor.

“It strikes the tone that we need in order to have this discussion,” he said. “There were harms, but it also recognizes what is good about our community and it shows us a way forward.”

Following the first reading on Thursday, the sponsors of the resolution in the mayor’s office will meet to further discuss and refine the resolution. A second reading is scheduled for the next council meeting on Feb. 16, where it will have the chance to be approved by the council.

The idea of reparations has also been discussed at the federal level, but proposals are not advancing as quickly as in local communities. U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester, told Amherst’s African Heritage Reparation Assembly that the work being done in Amherst could be a spur for the federal bill he is cosponsoring, H.R. 40, that would form a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.

The structural and systemic impacts of slavery in this country are undeniable,” McGovern said at a listening session the assembly held last month. “The disproportionate number of Black people who have experienced housing discrimination, school segregation, health disparities and mass incarceration is a symptom of this legacy.”

McGovern said he hopes the rest of the Massachusetts congressional delegation and its U.S. senators will fully endorse federal efforts to address the continued legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and racism, by actions, and not just through symbolic acts.


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