Published June 15th, 2023 at 6:00 AM10 minute read
In one of his seminal works on race and class, W.E.B. DuBois argued that the Civil War germinated at the Kansas-Missouri border.
It didn’t start at Fort Sumter, where historians typically note that Confederate forces fired the first shots in 1861.
Rather, it was here in the heartland where poor whites came, fleeing Eastern states where more privileged whites reaped wealth from the labor of enslaved Black people.
The Midwest promised work, more opportunities to these pioneers, argued DuBois in “Black Reconstruction in America,” which was published in 1935.
Those early white settlers, particularly in Kansas, weren’t going to allow slavery to gain a foothold in this region and with it, take their newfound claims on prosperity.
More familiar terms — Jayhawkers, the abolitionist John Brown and the Battle of Westport — came next, followed by the era of reconstruction and in later decades, civic, governmental and economic development that often continued to revolve around racial divides.
“The Kansas-Missouri border was an important place,” said Linwood Tauheed, in recounting DuBois’ writings. “And it seems to me, that there’s a lot of that history that is not reconciled with people who are from here.”
Kansas City is embarking on that quest.
As a municipality, the city is among an increasing number nationwide studying how anti-Blackness, codified in law, or woven into policy through implicit bias, has disadvantaged Black residents throughout Kansas City’s history — from the Civil War until today.
Tauheed, an economist, is one of 13 people sworn in last month as members of the Mayor’s Commission on Reparations.
He leads the subcommittee studying economics, gaps in the accumulation of wealth and how the median household income for Blacks in Kansas City came to be only 62.9% compared to white families in 2020.
The data is from a study Tauheed helped produce and was published by the Urban League of Greater Kansas City in its report, “Is Equity Enough, 2021 State of Black Kansas City.”
Others on the mayor’s commission will be focused on health, homeownership, criminal justice and educational outcomes, understanding that many areas are inter-connected.
Tauheed, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is among local Black leadership that has worked for decades laying the groundwork allowing Kansas City to reach this turning point in the discussion of whether Kansas City will offer reparations, also known as repair.
The National Black United Front-Kansas City (NBUF-KC), a more than 40-year-old chapter of an organization focused on the self-determination of Black people, has been instrumental in the movement.
Discussion of reparations was always a part of the local NBUF chapter, said Mickey Dean, a co-founder.
The organization has long had ties to the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), headquartered in Washington, D.C.
“There was an attempt back in the early ‘90s to establish an N’COBRA chapter here in Kansas City,” Dean said. “But it wasn’t the issue of the day back then — like it is now.”
The murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and growing public understanding of systemic racism, have all raised interest in discussing reparations.
It was the NBUF-KC that issued an invitation nearly three years ago to other Black-led civil rights and community organizations in Kansas City, seeking interest in pursuing reparations locally.
Committees were formed, with teams of people documenting the historical impacts of laws and policies, past and present. And some possible solutions were defined, such as gaining local control of the Kansas City Police Department and establishing independent health clinics in the Black community.
“We just finally took a deep dive and formed the coalition,” Dean said. “And there are just a lot of excellent resources out there.”
For one, N’COBRA’s Harm Report is a 45-page examination of how racism begets the trauma that follows Black people disproportionately.
Eventually, NBUF-KC’s efforts led to recruiting Mayor Quinton Lucas and getting an ordinance passed in February to form the mayor’s commission, which has a far more specific goal of determining what the city could be held accountable for in terms of harm caused to Black residents.
The language of the ordinance is laced with historical references, and snippets of local history, much of it pulled from the earlier work of the teams organized by NBUF-KC.
Lucas insisted on it, a nod to the need to educate residents on local history to build understanding around why reparations are even an issue, Dean said.
But the city ordinance did not include funding, much to the disappointment of the early advocates, known as the Kansas City Reparations Coalition.
There was a desire to pay the commissioners for their time and to ensure that funding would be available for public education and research.
The mayor’s commission has held just one meeting so far. But it will gather monthly.
Within a year, they are expected to produce a report detailing the city’s role in perpetuating disadvantages within the Black community. And within another six months, they are expected to deliver a final report, which will likely include recommendations for how the city might make amends or offer repairs for that damage.
The effort envisions town halls, listening sessions, possibly contracting with researchers, and a heavy focus on educating the public on the findings and processes.
Polling shows deep divides along racial lines when the issue is reparations.
And those closest to efforts here acknowledge that even many Black citizens do not support reparations.
Robin Rue Simmons, who helped lead Evanston, Illinois, to becoming the first U.S. city to pay reparations to Black residents, has some advice for Kansas City — conduct continuous public education.
Simmons participated in a panel last week in Kansas City on reparations, sponsored by American Public Square and Kansas City PBS and moderated by “Week in Review” host Nick Haines. The townhall will air on KCPBS Friday, June 16, at 7:30 p.m.
Simmons, who leads an organization called FirstRepair, noted that people opposed to reparations tend to argue about their ancestors not owning slaves, or the belief that passage of civil rights laws such as the voting act and non-discrimination clauses should be sufficient to allow equal opportunities between the races.
Allowing Kansas Citians to have those tough conversations will be key, Simmons said, rooting conversations in data and established history.
“From my point of view, the commission is to create data that gives an idea of the case for reparations in Kansas City,” Tauheed said. “So, it is necessary to bring out the facts of history.”
That said, those involved say that legal issues also will be important. The commission will be challenged to decipher what can be done in the form of repair, especially if taxpayers will need to approve any remedies.
Reparations can take many forms. They can include community development funds, direct payments, land, tax relief, funds to buy or build a home, or scholarships, to name a few examples.
And individuals can be held responsible, or corporations, segments of society, like health care systems or governments.
Ideally, the federal government would make these amends, Dean and others said.
Advocates for reparation say they would start calculating the debt from the value of the 40 acres and a mule originally promised freed enslaved people. They never received either.
(Belinda Sutton is credited with gaining the first recorded reparations in 1783. She requested and was given 15 pounds and 12 shillings from her former enslaver’s estate.)
Without a radical intervention, wealth, health and other gaps between Black and white Americans are expected to persist for more than 200 years.
Essential to deciding remedies, Tauheed said, is the idea of “harm reduction.”
“How do we prevent that harm from being reproduced as we go into the future?”
“Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
“The Case for Reparations,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
To understand reparations, a person must grasp what it is not.
It is not existing efforts to close economic or educational gaps between Black and white residents.
The city’s commission has only just begun its work. There literally are no proposals to debate.
But what’s often assumed to be forms of repair does not qualify as reparations.
Affirmative action policy, diversity and inclusion efforts, or even programs that ensure minority-owned firms receive a certain percentage of city projects, are not considered reparations.
“The reason why is because those kinds of things should just be done anyway,” said Janay Reliford, a social worker who is now chairperson of the original Kansas City Reparations Coalition.
Additionally, none of those efforts are specifically tailored to help only Black people, she said.
Nor are they controlled by Black people, both elements are considered necessary for reparations.
“Reparations are specific to Black people to bring justice to a harm that was specifically caused upon Black people,” she added. “So, you can’t call something reparations that are not, you know, specifically for the victim.”
Here is one definition of reparations given by the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA): “The process of repairing, healing and restoring a people harmed because of their group identity, in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments, corporations, institutions or families.”
Getting to actual repair is another step. Repair involves deciding who is responsible for a harm, who qualifies for a remedy, and how it will be funded or dispersed.
The national reparations movement also is debating whether to base remedies on lineage — who can prove a direct ancestral relationship to an enslaved person — or if the beneficiary should be judged by a harm that affected them or their ancestors.
But the entire process must start with an open heart, a sorrowful heart, Reliford emphasized.
“Like if somebody’s really sorry about a hurt or harm, first of all, you’re not going to have to come to them,” she said. “And we always have to come … to be the ones to raise the fist or raise the issue, to say, ‘Stop stepping on our foot, get your knee off our neck.’ “
That’s also why work started by the local arm of the National Black United Front continues, through individual efforts and targeted approaches.
The WeDevelopment Federal Credit Union opened in January at 3123 Prospect Ave. with the goal of helping people living in neighborhoods on the East Side build wealth and invest in their communities.
Also, Justice Gatson, a former co-chair of the original reparations coalition, attended an invitation-only event in Atlanta in early June.
Gatson is developing a new reparations effort that will focus on youth and reproductive justice. She’s also the founder and director of the Reale Justice Network.
The Alight Align Arise: Advancing the Movement for Repair conference brought together policymakers, civic leaders, researchers and community leaders like Gatson, “to strategize how we accelerate racial healing in America through truth, reconciliation and repair.”
The Atlanta gathering also held a showing of the PBS Independent Lens documentary “The Big Payback.”
At 84, the Rev. Ester L. Holzendorf carries the wisdom and pain of her Black ancestors, literally and figuratively, to every recent event concerning reparations in Kansas City.
She carries a framed photograph of her great-grandmother Matilda Poe, who was born into chattel slavery.
Along with Dean, Holzendorf is an advisor to the mayor’s commission.
She originally came to Kansas City to train as a nurse, leaving her home state because she couldn’t attend the schools that she wanted due to segregation.
She works in the community now, often with a focus on trauma and grief. She is exasperated at the levels of gun violence in the Black community.
“Are we so psychologically and mentally damaged that we’ve been through so much trauma that genetically we are so just so callous?” she asks.
Holzendorf, in her Oklahoma childhood, lived with “Granny Tilly.”
As a woman in her late 80s or early 90s, her great-grandmother would tell a story from her own childhood, during slavery. It was about babies crying because they had been taken from their mothers.
“They brought them babies in a wagon to the plantation where Granny lived, and she said that her mom and her grandma had to take care of them overnight,” Holzendorf said.
The next day, the infants were put into the back of a wagon and as a little girl of about 8 or 9, Granny followed the wagon to the end of the lane as it pulled away, hauling the crying babies.
“Now that’s trauma,” Holzendorf said. “All of those years later, 70- 80 years later, Granny was still crying about the babies because she didn’t know what happened to them.”
They were likely sold.
Kansas City’s foray into such painful history won’t come easily.
Expect raw emotion, exposed trauma and the exasperation of having to explain repeatedly what being Black in America involves.
Reparations are not all academic, Holzendorf said.
“Discrimination and hatred destroyed my family,” she said. “You’re dealing with the residual effects of what your laws did to us.”
Gwendolyn Grant, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Kansas City, has adopted a practice of saying “advantage” rather than “privilege” when explaining to people that being white has allowed them opportunities and lessened hurdles in life, compared to what Black people face.
It was Grant who gave many local civic leaders of differing races and ethnicities their first deep dives into reparations through the League’s annual Difference Maker Awards luncheon.
In 2022, the League brought in Simmons and Kamm Howard, co-chair of N’COBRA.
Both events included a fireside chat and are available online.
The discussions spawned some of the first community discussions of reparations with mixed audiences.
While hopeful, Grant said that she realizes the easy step for the City Council was to agree to form a commission to study reparations.
“When it comes to actually taking action and allocating resources to repair the damage, then I’m very skeptical,” Grant said.
Advocates like her expect what-about-isms to abound.
A perpetual hopscotching around facts, citing statistics like Black America’s higher rates of homicide victims, while dismissing the idea that so much of what troubles Black families today is tied to anti-Blackness.
The mayor’s commission is tasked with showing how racism enslaved Africans, denied them any means after the end of slavery, and rolled into Jim Crow laws, redlining, shifting school boundaries and other abuses more commonly associated with modern eras.
Most recently, efforts to conflate diversity, equity and inclusion with critical race theory, to ban even best-selling books by Black authors, like Toni Morrison, are seen as the latest installments of racism in public policy.
Reliford, for one, welcomes the conversations, the inevitable heated debates that will occur among Kansas Citians.
They’re as necessary to the process as they are predictable, she said.
“Nothing that we have accomplished so far, did we accomplish simply because people just did the right thing,” Reliford said. “We have to continue to explain. We have to continue to advocate. We just have to continue to tell the stories over and over and over again to get any justice.”
Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS. Cody Boston is a multimedia producer for Kansas City PBS and the producer of the “Flatland in Focus.” Additional timeline research provided by KCPBS interns Julie Freijat, Grace Hills and Teagan King.