Featured photo: Downtown High Point (photo by Exwhysee, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons)
Forty acres and a mule.
That’s what people initially think of when they hear the word “reparations.” That, or a one-time cash payment. But in the city of High Point, where the population is more than a third Black, city leaders and subject matter experts are reimagining what reparations could look like on a grander scale.
On Aug. 15, members of the One High Point Commission — a group made up of city leaders, researchers and citizens — gathered at the High Point Theater to present their report that has been 18 months in the making to a crowd of more than 100 attendees. At 245-pages long, the document is more than just a cursory look at the issues plaguing High Point’s Black community. It’s a strategic outline that delves into the city’s deep and complicated past and present while offering detailed suggestions for how to uplift the community as a whole into the future.
“The first thing that I’m proud of is that we took on this challenge,” said High Point City Council Member Michael Holmes, who is on the commission. “Obviously, with a word like ‘reparations,’ it can be charged; it can be misunderstood. And we’ve faced it…. And ultimately, what we got to was a consensus that this was a necessary endeavor for the city to take on. And I think what we did was we found commonsense solutions that we will be able to take forward and implement that will be a great help to our citizens and ultimately to the city.”
Rather than reaching for a quick fix of cash payments, the commission, made up of 13 individuals, worked to come up with a number of what they call ‘restorative policy’ recommendations that will address six main areas: housing disparities, health inequities, education gaps, economic opportunity, transportation access and municipal operations. Other recommendations by the commission include apologizing for the historical treatment of Black people in High Point as well as creating a truth and reconciliation process.
According to the report, “One of the primary arguments in favor of racial reparations is the need to rectify the historical injustices that have contributed to the persistent racial wealth gap.”
The analysis of historical injustices, particularly along racial lines, has been an increasingly popular topic among communities across the country since the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Similar ideas have been popularized by academics like Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose 1619 Project, “reframe[s] the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” as per the project’s website. This heightened attention to racial injustice and how the country can work to acknowledge and alleviate some of that harm has been met with loud resistance from some members of the GOP, including many who are running for president next year.
Former President Donald Trump has made the issue of critical race theory one of the scapegoats of his campaign while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made the idea of thinking critically about race a nonstarter in his state. Despite this kind of contentious political landscape, the city of High Point managed to form a commission focused solely on reparations. Additionally, the recommendations, which were compiled by four subject-matter experts, were unanimously approved by the commission on Aug. 10. On Sept. 18, the report will be presented to High Point City Council which will then vote on whether or not to implement the recommendations into action.
“I love my state, I love my country and I wanted to participate in this commission because I want to see my community prosper, all segments of the community, and I wanted to lend my voice to that,” said Brenda Deets, a High Point resident and a commission member during the Aug. 15 public hearing. “The goal is not to divide our community but to improve it and improve it for all of our citizens in High Point.”
How did the idea of reparations get started in High Point?
The One High Point Commission was created by High Point City Council on Feb. 7, 2022 after members of the High Point NAACP pushed for the idea. The commission is composed of two city council members, nine High Point residents and two NAACP representatives.
According to the report, High Point is one of a handful of cities exploring the idea of reparations on the municipal level. Other cities including Asheville, St. Louis, Boston, Tallahassee, Fla. and Berkley, Calif.
“One key focus of these reparations programs has been to address economic mobility and wealth-building of Black people and communities,” the report states.
To that end, the commission worked for the past 18 months, meeting once a month to come up with their findings and recommendations. The city of High Point is the first city in the Triad to create a commission focused solely on exploring the idea of reparations.
What do the recommendations suggest?
Part of the guiding motto of the work of the commission has been a philosophy of “restorative justice,” which the panelists talked about at length during the public meeting.
Dr. Stephen Sills, the chief impact officer for United Way Forsyth County and former director of the Center for Housing and Community Studies at UNCG noted at the public hearing how in the period after the Civil War, from the 1870s to the 1920s, there were thriving Black communities in this area. Freed slaves came together and purchased land, built homes and started successful businesses. But in the years following, racist policies in education, economics and housing all but demolished those communities.
“What restorative economic policies do is bring us back to that point where we have thriving Black communities,” Sills said. “Reparations on a cash basis on an individual basis might produce economic stability, but restorative economic policies create economic mobility into the middle class and into the upper class.”
As mentioned before, the six main areas of focus in the report include addressing housing disparities, health inequities, the education gap, economic opportunity, transportation access and reviewing and revising municipal operations. Every recommendation comes with an example from another municipality which could serve as a model.
On housing, the report recommends focusing on Black neighborhoods in the city that were demolished and “redeveloped” under Urban Renewal Programs. Urban renewal, which was authorized under the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, aimed to “clear slums, improve neighborhoods and provide cheap land to private developers,” according to the report. But in actuality, Black homes and businesses were demolished to create new parks, expand hospitals and extend highway systems. The end result meant the destruction of more than 425,000 housing units across the country, 80 percent of which were occupied by Black people. To mitigate the generational impact of urban renewal, the recommends the following:
- Creating a loan pool to support homeownership and affordable-housing construction
- Creating a program to assist existing homeowners in predominantly Black neighborhoods
- Providing financial support to nonprofits that assist low-to moderate-income property owners in resolving heirs’ property issues
- Creating a downpayment-assistance program for people with family connections to specific neighborhoods
- Incentivizing the development of infill units and renovation of existing vacant units
- Creating incentives for contractors or developers who develop in areas impacted by urban renewal
- Creating a robust Fair Housing Assistance Program
On health inequities, the report puts the issues in plain wording: “High Point’s predominantly African American neighborhoods highly correlate with the neighborhoods that have lower-than-average life expectancy.” To alleviate these effects, the report recommends the following:
- Partnering with public and private healthcare stakeholders to support sustained health interventions in neighborhoods that lack healthcare facilities
- Investing in lead abatement and indoor air-quality improvement in concentrated areas of poverty and specific neighborhoods
- Promote community gardens
On education gaps, the report acknowledges that most actions are decided by the Guilford County School Board and Guilford County Commission but notes that the city itself can play an important role as well. To that end, the report recommends the following:
- Creating policies that incentivize new construction and rehabilitation of schools in Black neighborhoods
- Creating policies that incentivize comprehensive community development
- Facilitate the availability of convenient, affordable high-speed internet access
On addressing economic mobility, the report recommends the following:
- Creating and expanding youth programs, with an emphasis on youth from target areas
- Creating a business microloan program to assist inexperience or low-wealth business owners to succeed
- Support social enterprises and social entrepreneurs through seed funding
On transportation access, the report recommends affordable, convenient and readily available access. To that end, the recommendations are as follows:
- Identifying and implementing improvements in public transportation
- Expanding routes and hours for public transportation
Lastly, the report recommends the city review and revise its own municipal operations. “The City of High Point’s own official records confirm that discrimination against African Americans by the city government was common practice,” the report states. Along those lines, the recommendations are as follows:
- Engaging an experienced and qualified firm to analyze current municipal policies and practices
- Instituting an organizational program to correct systemic bias
As evidenced by the lengthy report, the panelists reiterated the fact that the recommendations aren’t things that can take place in the short-term.
Rather, to make lasting, sustainable changes in the city, buy-in from all aspects of the community, from city leaders, to business owners, to the citizens themselves, will be key.
“This is the genesis of the work,” Holmes said. “What we’ll have to do is look at how this will be phased in over the next three, five, 10 years. This is not something that you can reverse, historical, racially concentrated areas of poverty can’t be reversed in a single term or a four-year span. So the plan is for us to marshal all the resources that exist in our society… and bring all those folks to the table to be able to execute this plan.”
What’s the response been like?
Members of the public who attended the session seemed excited about the commission’s work and the final report.
“I wasn’t sure where they were coming from or what the idea was going to be,” said Black resident Khristin Brooks. “Generally, when people think about reparations, it is all about money. But it seems that this is definitely more well thought out. It’s not just let me put a check in your hand. It’s, ‘Let me actually give you things that will continue to build.’ So, I really love the idea that I heard of restorative reparations.”
Father Rob Davis of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, a white attendee, said that he found the panel and the idea of the commission “bold and courageous.”
“I was surprised at the boldness of a city in North Carolina taking this on in this way,” said Davis, who has lived in High Point since last fall. “I came from Rhode Island which is a very progressive state and yet nobody was talking about this on an actual municipal level up there.”
As the pastor for a predominantly white congregation, Davis said that hearing the work of the commission has been helpful and aligns well with the mission of his church.
“I hope that people actually take time to read it and then in reading it, people will be inspired to take action in supporting the community,” he said.
Guilford County Commissioner Carlvena Foster, a Democrat who has served on the board since 2014, told TCB that she never expected to see a reparations commission in her hometown during her lifetime.
“I grew up during segregation where whatever came your way is what you expected, you know?” Foster said. “I’m used to the Black water fountain and the white water fountain and the differences and it was typically a way of life for us.”
As a county commissioner, Foster noted that other cities like Greensboro, could also implement a commission like High Point did.
“It can be replicated in other cities in the Triad and outside of the Triad,” she said. “When people think of reparations they don’t always understand. The first thing that comes to mind is 40 acres and a mule but we know that’s not what we’re talking about this day and time…. It is how we change systems to perpetuate success among people. It’s all systematic at this point.”
Seeing the strong turnout and the diversity of the crowd in terms of age and race has Foster, a lifelong resident of High Point, excited and hopeful.
“I think High Point is trying very hard to change the thinking and change the culture of the city to be inclusive and diverse,” she said.
In the conclusion section of the report, the authors outline a set of beliefs that commission members coalesced around during their work.
“1. The impacts of racially codified slavery, Jim Crow, and government-sanctioned racial discrimination are real, pervasive, and long-lasting.
2. The present-day racially identifiable disparities between Black and White Americans in wealth, health, and education can be directly tied and attributed to systemic racism.
3. It is appropriate and necessary for the progress of the City of High Point that past and present racial divisions and discrimination be researched, documented, widely shared, and addressed.
4. Citizen participation and transparency are essential to a successful and sustainable process.”
The last point is the one that panel members emphasized at the end of their discussion on Aug. 15.
“This can be seen as sort of an inflection point, a turning point,” said Dr. Omar Ali, dean of the Lloyd International Honors College and Professor of Global African Diaspora at UNCG. “That can go in one direction or might go in a different direction. There was enough political will to get us to this point and the commissioner’s work, the council, the members of the community that were doing the work, and the NAACP leaders, there were a lot of people that made this possible. But there’s no guarantee that it will come to anything in particular. I think it’s really worth us to put on the pressure and carry out what the vision is here.
“It’s not like things are just going to happen by themselves…,” Ali continued. “[Y]ou all play a critical role in operationalizing this. It can’t just be the commission and city council doing this. I delegate you all, I deputize you all….”
To make the report a reality, Dr. Sills implored the community to stay involved.
“It really requires a bottom-up approach,” Sills said. “It requires citizens and residents to be engaged.”
He mentioned participating in community meetings and future surveys, sharing the information with neighbors and family and posting on social media. He also encouraged residents to hold stakeholders like politicians, nonprofits and other community organizations accountable throughout the process.
“Holding them… to the fire,” he said. to make sure that this isn’t just a plan that stays on a shelf, but an action plan that gets engaged across the board.”
On Sept. 18, the report will be presented to High Point City Council which will then vote on whether or not to implement the recommendations into action. Make your voice heard here. Learn more about One High Point Commission here.
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