Sara Weinberger and Sarah Lynn Patterson: A case for reparations in Northampton 

  • Sara Weinberger FILE PHOTO

  • Sarah Lynn Patterson FILE PHOTO

Published: 11/20/2022 5:49:50 PM

I secretly hoped that when my daughter finished graduate school, she would settle in the Northampton area, where she grew up. Believing I had raised my daughter in the hub of progressive thinking, I was surprised when she told me recently, “I hope you won’t be offended mom, but I don’t want to live in white Northampton.” Reflecting on her comment, I realized that although I had longed to raise Rachel in a more diverse community, I acquiesced, telling myself that the opportunities for activism in Northampton outweighed its shortcomings with respect to racial diversity. After all, hadn’t I been a member of the Northampton Human Rights Commission, helping to make Northampton a community that abided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Don’t I use my monthly column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette as a tool to educate our community about injustice? However, I failed to ask myself some important questions that now plague me. Why is Northampton so white? The most common answer to this question is property prices that are out of reach for Black people. Unfortunately, we stop there, failing to ask ourselves, how did Northampton end up so white? Why do Black people have unequal access to the wealth that makes homeownership possible? What are some strategies the city could take to increase its Black population? What have we missed by living in a white community?

The murder of George Floyd was an awakening for many to the existence and consequences of systemic racism that reached far beyond the Civil War. Historian Matthew Delmont states, “The stories we tell about the past matter.” The notion of systemic racism counters the traditional narrative about the Civil War and its aftermath. It dispels the myth of Black inferiority, exposing Jim Crow laws, racialized terror, mass incarceration, and police brutality, as strategies for maintaining white supremacy and Black subordination. The more I learned, the more my thoughts turned to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ question, “What is owed?” What is owed to Black people who have been treated for generations as sub-human?

My Aunt Klara’s reparation payments, compensation for her suffering during the Holocaust, paid for my daughter’s university tuition. Nothing will ever heal the trauma my family endured as Polish Jews. Reparations, however, was an acknowledgment of Germany’s wrongs, an action that went beyond apology. Reparations are crucial to righting the historical wrongs committed against Black people in the U.S. In February 2021, I joined six Northamptonians with the goal of seeking reparative justice for Black residents of Northampton. We created a petition, signed by more than 500 people, asking the City Council to appoint a commission to research racialized harms, from enslavement to the present, and develop a plan for reparations. Reconciling past wrongs and forging a new and just path is the work of white people, like me, who have benefited from an inequitable system based on skin color. Acknowledging past wrongs and creating a more diverse and welcoming Northampton benefits us all.

From Sarah Lynn Patterson:

The Rail Trail footbridge hangs suspended over Main Street Northampton. Artistic impressions are enshrined upon its walkway: a pair walking, a parent pushing a stroller, a person on a road bike, an Amtrak train. Today, “Black Lives Matter” signs have become a feature of the city’s self-portrait.

I joined the Northampton Reparations Committee (NRC) to help make racial justice a reality in our community. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term “reparation” refers to the restoration of an object to its proper condition in ways that compensate for deterioration. In context of this local effort, the term “reparations” refers to concerted acts of redress with attention to education, policy, and the pecuniary support necessary to advance equality. These efforts will spark soul/society repair and lead to cross-racial allyship.

Reparations is a tangible form of action on behalf of Black residents and workers. Historic Northampton’s newly released “History of Slavery” unveils early enslaved and free Black people’s experiences alongside those of white profiteers since Northampton was founded in 1654. This work documents approximately 50 enslaved people living in our community into the 18th century. By the mid-19th century, Black people continued to struggle, often with social encumbrances such as illiteracy and pauperism. What happened to the generations of their descendents? Today, we are tasked with meeting the resonances of these struggles head on.

The case for reparations in Northampton is a natural extension of on-going anti-racism efforts. Advocacy for an apology and a commission to study and make recommendations for redress at the municipal level follows years of study and civic participation among our city’s residents.

As a young Black girl growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, my parents’ local organizing and ministry taught me the value of community service and interacting with people across walks of life. Studying Tennessee state history presented a sense of the magnitude civic engagement has on social change. I learned about the Ku Klux Klan’s rampant terror and devastation campaigns that began in 1865 and the harrowing feats of the Black editor and teacher Ida B. Wells. In 1892, the launch of her anti-lynching campaign resulted in exile from Memphis upon threats of death. Wells cited the nation’s reparation payments to other nations for harms against their citizens to justify the need to address racism towards Black Americans.

As an undergraduate student journalist, I studied and wrote about the work of Black civil rights lawyer Rita Geier, who launched the successful Geier v. Tennessee case(s) that confirmed the negative impact upon Black students, faculty, and Tennessee State University (an HBCU) resulting from racial segregation and racialized funding practices in state higher education. This work led to more than $170 million in funding to address the many issues stemming from this systematic harm. I’m grateful to be a recipient of a merit scholarship derived from Geier’s and her co-sponsors’ work.

It is a common-sense approach to draw upon the realities of the past and present to help set a more equitable course for the future. We hope you’ll become involved by signing the petition:

Sarah Lynn Patterson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is the founder of

Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is a professor emerita of social work and writes a monthly column. She can be reached at

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