How St. Louis is approaching the question of reparations for Black citizens

ST. LOUIS – While some states are just now, more than 150 years after it was abolished, removing slavery from their state constitutions, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones is creating a commission focused on reversing some of the historic damage slavery inflicted on people in the region. Jones will soon appoint a counsel to look at the race-based harms Black St. Louisians have faced and continue to face as a legacy of the institution of slavery and racism.

“We cannot succeed as a city if one half is allowed to fail,” Jones, who is also a member of the Mayors Organizing for Reparations and Equity (MORE) Coalition, said in a statement.

The new commission will consist of nine St. Louis residents. Per the executive order, the group must include an attorney, clergy member, academic, public health professional, civil rights advocate and youth. Their task: to “recommend a proposal to begin repairing the harms that have been inflicted.”

The commission, which is subject to Missouri’s open meetings law and will meet accordingly, is seeking new members through an open-application process.

St. Louis is part of a growing number of U.S. communities studying reparations for their Black residents – and in some cases actually granting them.

In March of 2021, the Illinois town of Evanston became the first U.S. city to provide reparations to Black residents in an effort to address the harms of slavery, racial injustice and inequity. In 2019 the city council adopted a resolution which set aside $10 million of the city’s cannabis tax revenues over ten years for the project. The first funds are planned to support “housing and economic development programs for Black Evanston residents.”

Later in 2022, the city council in Asheville, N.C. moved to appoint its own reparations commission, which will consist of five people who will delve into criminal justice, economic development, education, health care and housing. Detroit and Boston also launched similar task forces last year.

St. Louis, like many American cities, has been home to a long history of racist practices from hosting the trade of enslaved peoples along the riverfront to the bulldozing of entire Black communities in the 1950’s in the name of Urban Renewal, a process that displaced thousands of Black residents.

Unjust housing practices persist here. So much so that last September, St. Louis REALTORS, one of the largest real estate groups in the nation, issued a formal apology for the role it played in making it harder for Black Americans to own homes. In St. Louis, white residents are almost twice as likely to be homeowners as Black residents.

An independent commission formed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon after Michael Brown’s death in 2014 tracks indicators of equity in St. Louis. The commission currently scores St. Louis 47 out of 100 for equity in homeownership.

READ MORE: At least 70 people were enslaved by the Jesuits in St. Louis. Descendants are now telling their stories

These are the histories and current realities the new commission will be tasked with addressing, but they will have free rein in how they approach the issues.

“What their work will look like is pretty much up to them,” Vernon C. Mitchell Jr., Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer for the City of St. Louis, told the NewsHour. “We aren’t controlling how they study this or when they’re going to study this. We’re really kind of a convening force.”

Though he said the city did consult efforts in other cities, St. Louis is looking to pave its own way forward.

“It’s been great to have support from other cities and to see how they’re going about addressing this very important issue, but also doing something that makes sense for our city,” Mitchell said.

Forming this community-focused body follows a series of moves city leaders are taking to address St. Louis’ tumultuous racist history. In June , the city unveiled the Freedom Suits Memorial, a homage to hundreds of enslaved people who courageously sued for their freedom in the years before the Civil War. The nearly 14 feet tall structure stands outside the city’s Civil Courts building. Carved into the bronze are scenes of enslaved people going to court making a bid for their fundamental human right to be free.

READ MORE: Stories of enslaved Missourians were forgotten for decades – until now


The imagery displayed on the memorial show courtroom scenes with both the plaintiffs and their lawyers making their case. Photo by: Gabrielle Hays/PBS NewsHour

Mitchell said the memorial and other ongoing efforts are a part of a broader effort to avoid sweeping these histories – and their residual effects – under the rug.

“There should be no one side of the city allowed to fail and one side allowed to thrive. We should all be able to thrive together with equity,” he told the NewsHour.

Once the new commission is created, it will hold its first public meeting no later than 45 days after its appointment. All meetings will be open to the public and include public input. The commission is required to release a draft report before a final one is released. The final recommendations will go to the mayor and board of aldermen.

Repair already at work in St. Louis

Unearthing painful history is not new for Robin Proudie, whose ancestors were enslaved by the Society of Jesus in St. Louis, which would later found St. Louis University. Since learning the details of her lineage, she has spent the last several years researching, educating and putting together pieces the institution of slavery sought to sever.

“It’s given me a new purpose to rectify and acknowledge our ancestors’ contribution and not only that, to talk about the effects of that bondage, that it had on our bloodline,” Proudie, a veteran who has since applied to be on the commission, said.

Over the last year, much of her work has revolved around understanding how other communities and cities have sought reparative justice. When she moved back to her hometown of St. Louis after living in Maryland for years, she was “happy to hear” that the city was launching the commission.

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Descendants Robin Proudie, executive director of DSLUE, and Bishop Greg Holley discuss their family’s history. Photo courtesy of Robin Proudie.

“It was city, state and federal policy that legislated for enslavement. [Some governments] legislated for the slave owners to get reparations, so it’s important that we look at that now, because that is the way to remedy what has been done for centuries. ” Proudie told the NewsHour.

Reparations were in fact paid to slave owners in the U.S. and around the world. In 1825, nearly two decades after Haiti declared its independence from France, King Charles X decided he would recognize the new nation, but only if Haiti compensated France’s former slave owners. Haiti would go to pay millions to France for more than 120 years. In 1833, the British parliament approved a payment of 20 million pounds – about 300 million pounds in today’s money – to slave owners. The United Kingdom only recently paid off the loan it took out to cover the payment – in 2015.

READ MORE: What to know about calls for reparations for Britain’s legacy of slavery in the Caribbean

In the United States, enslavers in Washington D.C. were compensated when President Lincoln signed a bill in 1862 that paid “former owners who were loyal to the Union of up to $300 for each freed slave.” Not a penny went to the human beings they held in bondage.

Proudie acknowledges that critics of plans to study reparations often argue that the injustices of slavery happened more than “150 years ago” or that any monetary compensation would be “too expensive.”

“We also have questions about who’s going to determine who is going to get these funds? Do you have to be a direct descendant of those who were enslaved or [do we include] others who have come here?” she explained.

Finding a path to provide reparations will face many obstacles. Yet, Proudie is hopeful that St. Louis is taking a first, important step through the creation of the commission, “to go in and have the community, the professionals, the leaders in this arena … come together to determine and answer those questions.”

But the idea of reparations as a way to heal some of the damage slavery wrought, is “nothing new,” Proudie says, and reparations can be “multidimensional.”

“I just want people to understand that, yes, compensation is a part of reparations or repair, but there are also other memorializations….. there are universities all over the country who are starting up memorials for those who helped to build their institutions,” she said.

Another proposed form of reparations, Proudie adds, can be establishing academic scholarships, something she says would be “wonderful” but doesn’t go far enough.

“The scholarship does not change the economic situation of Black people, because most people who go to college when we come back, we have to take care of our whole family,” she told the NewsHour.

Researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that white college graduates in the U.S. “are more likely to provide and receive financial support for education while Black graduates are more likely to financially support their parents.”

Nationally, data from the Brookings Institution shows that four years after receiving their diplomas, Black graduates have nearly $25,000 more student loan debt than their white counterparts.

Proudie, who is also the executive director of Descendants of the St. Louis University Enslaved, keeps all of these things in mind as she waits to see what comes next from St. Louis University along with a formal apology.

The city’s reparation commission, will look not just at the region’s history of slavery but also take into account “segregation, and other race-based harms that stemmed from it in the City of St. Louis.”

For Proudie, who’s been uncovering the effects of racism on her family, it’s a move that only makes sense. Nearly 100 years after the end of slavery, she notes that her grandfather who “fought in World War II, was not able to get his G.I. Bill [benefits], and get what his white counterparts got.”

Stories like those, she said, make it clear that “these disparities didn’t come through osmosis, it’s a historical timeline and you can see it.”

“It’s time,” Proudie said. “It’s time that it takes place.”

Reparation movements nationwide

St. Louis’ announcement follows work done in many other cities and states including California which launched a task force in 2020 to conduct research and develop reparation proposals for the state legislature. For California Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, the work is essential.

“We’re hoping that we lead by example…but more important, [that] this becomes the blueprint that other states, cities, communities and hopefully the federal government will use to create their own reparations task force.” Jones-Sawyer said.

California’s taskforce, according to the assemblymember, consists of three phases. It began with making a case for reparations in the first place. Last June, the group released a more than 400-page interim report.

“It started with chattel slavery,” Jones-Sawyer said, “and if you go back to slavery, Jim Crow laws, and all the other things that have come after that, you all understand why African-Americans have been kept down over 400 years,” he explained.

The group says it is now in its second phase, where it is developing recommendations to help “level the playing field….and make things better for African Americans” in California.

In the final phase, the group will bring those recommendations together as a plan and present it to the legislature, “ to get it approved, get it budgeted, [and] get legislation to reverse all this discrimination so that we can begin the part of healing.”

For Jones-Sawyer, who is the nephew of one of the Little Rock Nine – nine Black high school students who were at the center of the battle to desegregate schools in Arkansas in 1957 – and now sits on a task force of nine himself, the goal is to create a roadmap that can be used for generations to come.

“Those nine kids went through hell and they changed the world. If it wasn’t for them. I wouldn’t have been able to go to USC, get my degree. I’m now in a doctoral program at USC and went to Harvard. When I was born those were not easy paths,” he told the NewsHour. “So I’m hoping that when they start to trace back to why their lives are better and they’re talking to my grandson, hopefully you can say my grandfather started that– it was his work.”

While the California assemblymember has his grandson in his mind as he works, St. Louis Chief Equity Officer Vernon C. Mitchell Jr. said it was important for the city to have young people in mind in its forthcoming work too.

“This is not an effort by older folks to tell younger people what to do. This is a cross generational effort at trying to begin to take the steps toward some semblance of restorative justice, and I think the first part of that is acknowledgement. And that’s where we are right now, … acknowledging that there have been long standing historical ills in this city,” Mitchell told the NewsHour.