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Northampton Poised to Create Reparations Panel

On Thursday, the City Council and mayor showed strong support for the creation of a city commission  “to investigate racialized harms perpetrated against Black residents and workers in Northampton” and to discuss reparations.

By Dusty Christensen

NORTHAMPTON — The city of Northampton moving closer to becoming the latest municipality to create a commission to investigate past and present racial injustices against Black people and to explore reparations.

On Thursday, the City Council discussed a resolution to create a commission “to investigate racialized harms perpetrated against Black residents and workers in Northampton.” Brought forward by Councilors Jamila Gore, Garrick Perry and Marissa Elkins, the resolution was the result of advocacy work across the city, including by the Northampton Reparations Committee. 

As reparations efforts have stalled on the federal level, municipalities nationwide have begun their own work to address the legacy of slavery and continuing institutional racism. In July 2022, Amherst’s Town Council passed a motion to transfer $2 million into a reparations fund over the period of 10 years. Other cities like St. Paul, Minnesota, and Detroit, Michigan, have begun exploring what their own reparations programs would look like.

“It starts at the local level,” said Gore, who is one of the two Black members of the City Council together with Perry. “I’m looking forward to seeing what Northampton can do.”

Activists and scholars have long highlighted the central role that slavery played in creating America’s wealth, and how the United State’s white power structures denied that prosperity to Black people through segregation, discriminatory practices like redlining and other instances of structural racism. 

As leading reparations scholars A. Kirsten Mullen and William A. Darity explained, “Black Americans have already waited 155 years for restitution,” arguing in a recent op-ed that Black Americans are “owed a debt — today’s equivalent for the unmet claim for 40-acre land grants promised to the formerly enslaved.”  

In recent years, there has been some movement toward studying and developing reparations proposals. In 2019, for example, the U.S. House held its first-ever hearing on H.R. 40 — a bill that would establish a federal reparations commission. The hearing was held on June 19, or Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans that the federal government only recognized last year. But many in the reparations movement have said that creating committees or engaging in symbolic acts isn’t enough.

The Northampton Reparations Committee has called on the city to investigate the racist harms, past and present, against Black people in Northampton and to make recommendations for reparative actions “as a response to issues apparent in housing, employment, policing, schools, healthcare, and transportation.” The commision has also urged the mayor and City Council to apologize to past and present Black residents of the city, to fund the body’s future research and publish its findings.

Although there was no vote on the resolution Thursday, all of the City Council members spoke in favor of the resolution, as did Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra. The City Council will likely vote on the resolution at its next meeting.

Perry noted that he comes from the Washington D.C. area, which he said is affectionately referred to as Chocolate City. He said that when he moved to western Massachusetts more than two decades ago, his grandma was worried about him living in “the whitest place she could ever imagine.” So he said it “warms my heart” to be in the position he is in now, as one of only three Black city councilors ever to serve in Northampton, introducing this resolution.

The resolution details the history of slavery, segregation and discrimination in the city, as well as the present lack of diversity and “diminution of Black community and culture” in Northampton. The document includes an apology from the City Council for its own role in past harms and commits to reforming city ordinances and policies that perpetuate racial injustices. 

The resolution also includes a call for a joint mayoral-City Council commission — with at least 50% Black membership —to consider what initiatives should be funded to “to support redress and fair treatment for Black people who live, work, and learn in this community.”

Most of the audience members who spoke during the evening’s public-comment section voiced their support of the reparations resolution.

Mahajoy Laufer, a Black resident of Northampton, said that creating a commission to investigate the issue of reparations is a good first step.

“To me it’s part of being truthful to our history and about recognizing harms that have been done,” Laufer said.

Michael McSherry, the senior minister at Edwards Church of Northampton, noted that his church is named after the famed revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards. According to research by Historic Northampton, Edwards enslaved several people during his time in Northampton in the 1700s.

“We can’t be in right relationship with the holy one if we’re not in right relationship with our fellow humans,” he said.

Gwendolyn Greene, a city resident who is Black, said that she too is in support of the creation of a city reparations committee. She said she was happy to see the lack of affordable housing in Northampton included in the resolution.

“I’m often asked to participate in meetings so they will have diversity,” Green said. She said her message is: “Have more affordable housing and you will have more diversity.” 

Several members of the public noted that they live on streets that are named after enslavers from Northampton’s past.

Historic Northampton has spent the last three years conducting a slavery research project, revealing in deep detail the history of slavery in the city. In the project’s description, Historic Northampton’s researchers say that they began with a list of surnames that were believed to have enslaved people in the city, including many of the most famous names of Northampton.

“This core group of enslavers were families who controlled town wealth and politics,” the project says. “They were selectmen and General Court representatives, from the seventeenth to at least the mid-eighteenth century. The family names were: Clapp, Clark, Dwight, Hawley, Hunt, Lyman, Mather, Parsons, Pomeroy, Stoddard, Strong, and Wright.”

Elkins said that she hopes the City Council will vote on the resolution in February during Black History Month. 

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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