Report sets reparations framework for Amherst: BIPOC youth center, housing help, entrepreneurship program 

  • Past Amherst area residents Henry Jackson, center, Lt. Frazar Stearns, left, and Anna Reed Goodwin, right, are featured on the Amherst Community History Mural, as seen through the adjacent West Cemetery fence in 2021. The town’s African Heritage Reparation Assembly on Tuesday unveiled its final local reparative justice plan. AP

Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 27, 2023

AMHERST — Creating a Black, Indigenous and people of color-led youth center with programming that addresses the needs of young people of African descent is one of several top priorities for Amherst’s reparations program.

Other key recommendations for the fledgling program included in a new report released Tuesday include providing more affordable housing and homeownership opportunities, and establishing a municipal program to teach entrepreneurship skills.

As the town sets out to address both historic and contemporary harms caused by racism, the final report from the African Heritage Reparation Assembly unveils a local reparative justice plan that could be adopted by the Town Council and enacted with the support of Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

The robust plan is based on extensive research and input from the community over the past two years after the Town Council committed to creating a $2 million account using certified free cash obtained through cannabis tax revenue in 2022.

Assembly member Amilcar Shabazz said in a statement that Amherst is taking a lead role in repairing hundreds of years of harm.

“The idea of reparations is as old as human conflict itself,” Shabazz said. “When we experience harm, the necessary way to end the conflict is to assess, acknowledge, and apologize, and to repair the damage consistent with the needs identified by the harmed community. This involves a process that requires time, effort and resources.”

During its work, the Reparation Assembly studied the history of structural racism in Amherst, solicited input through listening sessions and a community survey with the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, and examined current racial disparities and the ongoing effects of racism on Black residents.

“The AHRA report responds to these needs with a structured approach that commits us to do all that we can on the state and federal levels,” Shabazz said. “We are acting locally in advance of global change.”

The report also calls on the elected and appointed officials to speed up the timeline to get to fully funded $2 million within four years, rather than 10 years or more, and to ensure a commitment of at least $100,000 a year to its recommendations.

The 37-page report, dedicated to the memory of Demetria Shabazz, a former assistant professor of communication and affiliated faculty member of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at UMass, recommends an array of remedies, and also specifies who should qualify for them, with appendices that include a survey and feedback and additional documentation of racism in education, health care and transportation.

Throughout, it presents historical findings linking Amherst to slavery and racism, such as that Boltwood Avenue, which runs in front of Town Hall, is named for Lucius Manlius Boltwood, whose fifth great-grandfather, Robert Boltwood, was an enslaver in Amherst. In the 20th century, deed restrictions were used to exclude African American people from owning property, with a 1950 deed mandating that a property on Blue Hills Road “shall not be sold or rented to any colored person or persons.”

Modern racial bias, the report notes, often takes the form of protest against affordable housing by “not in my back yard” NIMBYs.

The report catalogs current disparities between Black and white residents, including that median income in 2019 for white families was 2.4 times greater than that of Black families, $108,500 to $45,464; and that Black drivers in Amherst speed less and are involved in fewer car accidents than their white peers, but are stopped and searched disproportionately.

The reparations idea was led by District 1 Councilor Michele Miller, who launched the Reparations 4 Amherst project and has chaired the Reparation Assembly since its formation.

“The path of local reparations invites a community to genuinely acknowledge and confront the present-day manifestations of its past. It asks us to look closely at our individual beliefs and collective structures that allow harm to persist, so that we may transform and heal,” Miller said. “This is hard, necessary work, in which we can all play a role and from which we can all benefit.”

Specific recommendations

The report provides greater detail of its primary recommendations. The BIPOC-led youth center would offer theater, arts, fitness classes, job readiness and academic support, with staffing by three individuals and running Monday to Saturday until 6 p.m. Miller said the concept of the youth center is drawn directly from the Community Safety Working Group’s final report.

More affordable housing should look like the homeownership development on Ball Lane, the report says, where applicants will apply through a lottery system, and those selected will be required to make a down payment and then go through the banking process to secure a home loan. This project will prioritize applicants who identify as BIPOC. And business grants should target African heritage entrepreneurs who seek to start or expand their enterprise in Amherst, with the vision that Amherst be a place where Black business owners thrive.

While the report suggests prioritizing those descended from enslaved people, all Black residents will be eligible for reparations.

“Our qualitative and quantitative research indicates that this group has experienced profound and widespread discrimination and economic inclusion in contemporary Amherst, and should be eligible for reparations,” the report states.

The report does caution that an estimated $600 million would be needed to erase the racial wealth gap, noting that Amherst’s eligible Black population is around 2,000 people. With a current town budget of just $85 million, the report makes a call for action on the state and national level.

“Anti-Black racism has been sanctioned and perpetuated at all levels of government in the U.S. and has waged varied and expansive harms against generations of African Heritage people. This means that reparations are warranted on the municipal, state, and federal levels,” the report reads.

This is something that U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern has sought, calling on President Joe Biden to create a presidential commission to study reparations for slavery.

“It’s incredible to see our community leading such an important effort,” McGovern said. “The African Heritage Reparation Assembly of Amherst is a model for the courage, care, and commitment we need to dedicate to address the legacies of slavery all around the country.”

The final report recommends a variety of other measures, such as ongoing “truth and reconciliation” initiatives, publicizing the Human Rights Commission’s complaint process and uplifting the work of the Ancestral Bridges Foundation, as well as renaming streets and spaces. A marker for the Westside District, with historically Black neighborhoods on Northampton Road, Hazel Avenue, Snell Street and Baker Street, was unveiled June 17.

“The streets of Amherst, like the town’s name, memorialize white settler colonialism — a history of invasion, displacement, and enslavement,” the report says.

Other considerations

Though beyond its purview, the report makes recommendations to the Amherst public schools superintendent, the University of Massachusetts and Amherst College.

“We have elected to do so because the harms that we unearthed in the course of our research cannot wholly be addressed by a municipal government, and because we felt a responsibility to address specific harms that came to our attention and affect current residents,” the report states.

For the public schools, those include revising the history curriculum so there is greater truth-telling. For UMass, it is to provide just compensation to Edwin D. Driver, its first African American faculty member in 1948, who was refused housing in Amherst and settled in Northampton and was denied pay raises. That may include selecting and naming a campus building in Driver’s name.

For Amherst College, the report states trustee Israel Trask enslaved more than 250 people during his lifetime and used his political connections in Boston to help secure the college’s founding charter. It recommends the college should specifically repair and reconcile with descendants of Frances Brown, whose home was acquired in 1969.

“This transaction between Amherst College and Mrs. Brown was characterized by a grave power differential, in which a wealthy college approached a layperson who had little experience in real estate and proposed an exchange that gravely shortchanged not only Mrs. Brown but also her descendants,” the report reads.

The full report is at: amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/68980/AHRA-FINAL-REPORT.