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Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ’07 announced the 10 members of the newly-formed Reparations Task Force to “study the lasting impacts of slavery in Boston,” according to a Feb. 7 press release.
In February 2022, Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia proposed the establishment of a commission to study reparations for Boston’s Black residents, which was unanimously approved by the Boston City Council ten months later. The ordinance cites the city’s role in the African slave trade and its discriminatory policies following abolition, which range from segregated public housing to racist “red-lining” zoning practices.
The task force will be chaired by Joseph D. Feaster Jr., former president of the Boston branch of the NAACP.
“I’m glad to see that the Boston City Council took the initiative to address the issue,” Feaster said in an interview. “I’m honored and humbled to have been asked to serve on a reparation task force and in fact chair it, and so I understand my mission, and I plan to execute.”
The task force is preparing to begin the first phase of its work, which will focus on researching the city’s role in the African slave trade and ties to the institution of slavery, per the ordinance.
Feaster said the task force’s research would need to decide the scope and time frame at which it will examine reparations in Boston.
“Do you look at slavery as it was applied from the moment that folks were taken from the shores of Africa and arrived here in Virginia?” Feaster asked. “Do you look at it from the standpoint of persons who came to Massachusetts, and more specifically to Boston as slaves or freedmen, and were still enslaved in some way?”
In the second phase of the task force’s work, set to begin this summer, members plan to review the city’s previous efforts to address the “continued impacts of enslavement,” according to the ordinance.
Linda J. Bilmes ’80, a senior lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, said in an interview that the concept of reparations has ample precedent in the United States.
“Reparations are very commonplace for many, many different types of harms, and the U.S. government pays what we call the reparatory compensation every day,” Bilmes said.
Bilmes added, however, that the U.S. “rarely has done more than providing financial compensation,” referencing payments of up to $100,000 to the victims of mid-20th century nuclear weapons tests, which exposed tens of thousands of people to dangerous radiation.
Feaster said one difficulty for the task force will be deciding the most appropriate method of reparations for slavery, given the wide variety of perspectives among advocates for reparations.
“If you speak to 10 people, you’re gonna get 10 different answers,” Feaster said. “Some people want, ‘Give me the money, I should be paid,’ and there are others that say, ‘Put it into housing. Put it into health issues.’”
The task force will provide their answer to that question in a final report proposing recommendations for “truth, reconciliation, and reparations” for Boston in June 2024, concluding the final phase of the initiative.
The move brings Boston into a wider national movement for local reparations, following the 2021 approval for compensations to Black residents of Evanston, Illinois, harmed by the city’s discriminatory housing policies.
Two years ago, Cambridge began looking into reparations through a proposed pilot program that would directly provide money to residents from cannabis sales revenue.
Despite longstanding efforts from advocates, Congress has yet to pass H.R. 40, a 30-year-old bill to establish a federal commission which would “study the legacy of slavery in the United States and its ongoing harm and develop proposals for redress and repair, including reparations.”
Bilmes said she believes any reparations for the harms of slavery and its effects would be incomplete without federal action.
“The scale of the problem far exceeds the ability of local governments, in my view, to address the fundamental wealth equality gap,” Bilmes said. “I don’t think that there will be a fundamental improvement in people’s lives without a federal reparations program.”
In the press release, Wu said she sees the task as part of a broader movement to promote racial justice.
“Our administration remains committed to tackling long standing racial inequities and this task force is the next step in our commitment as a city to advance racial justice and build a Boston for everyone,” Wu said.
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