Atlanta, in the very near future, will join the growing ranks of state and local governments forming their own reparations study task forces, if Sheila Flemming and her allies get their way.
Flemming is a historian and veteran reparations researcher who serves as social action chair of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc.’s Atlanta alumnae chapter.
She co-authored a position paper released in May — and recently provided to Capital B Atlanta — that makes the case for the city to create its own reparations research task force, following in the footsteps of state and local governments in Fulton County, New York, California, and Evanston, Illinois.
Flemming said the goal of Atlanta’s reparations task force would be to compensate Black people negatively affected by the actions of city government.
“The task force will have the responsibility of determining if, first, there is any injury in any area that the city of Atlanta has perpetrated upon Black people,” she told Capital B Atlanta during a pair of recent interviews. “And if there is evidence, to recommend some kind of compensation and recompense, so to speak.”
Post 1 At-Large Atlanta City Council member Michael Julian Bond is making final preparations to sponsor legislation — based on the preliminary work of Flemming and her colleagues — that would authorize the city to launch its own reparations task force.
Bond said he plans to introduce the measure at a City Council meeting in mid- to late August, and that the city’s task force would be different from the one Fulton County commissioners set aside $250,000 for in January.
“As a municipality, we’re restricted in the things that we could possibly do,” Bond said. “We were kind of doing this research prior to the establishment so that no one from the public … would be mistaken about the range of what this might mean.”
Atlanta’s legacy of systemic anti-Black oppression
Flemming’s position paper says the work of enslaved Africans helped turn Atlanta into the “world transportation hub” that exists today.
Proposed areas of research include the city’s role in the institution of slavery and oppressive, unjust uses of convict labor and eminent domain. Other areas include educational discrimination, environmental injustice, and voting rights violations.
The paper outlines Black Atlantans’ experiences with racial harm, both past and present. It points out Atlanta is often called a Black mecca despite the fact that 69% of Black families here are liquid asset poor and only 22% of white families in the city can say the same.
Nearly 30% of Black residents lived below the poverty line in 2020. That’s no accident, according to Flemming, as Atlanta has a well-documented history of segregation and unequal treatment in the past that continues to hinder Black folks today.
“Centuries of housing and land use policies denied Black households access to the same level of homeownership, education, credit, and neighborhood opportunities offered to White households,” the paper’s co-authors wrote. “The consequences of this have directly resulted in disproportionate poverty and unemployment rates for Black people in Atlanta.”
Years after Union Gen. William T. Sherman ordered the burning of Atlanta toward the end of the Civil War, some unjustly convicted Black Atlantans were forced to help rebuild the city as leased-out convicts working for the Chattahoochee Brick Co., Flemming noted during an interview.
City officials and white Atlanta citizens also have used eminent domain and extrajudicial means to force Black Atlanta residents to sell or flee land they rightfully owned without just compensation.
“The White visceral opposition to Black progress that undergirded the Atlanta Massacre of 1906 evolved such that systemic racism has permeated every aspect of Atlanta’s ways of life, even until today,” the paper reads. “Black inequality and oppression were passed down from generation to generation through unequal financial inheritances which affect access to generational wealth.”
City Council members voted to establish Atlanta Public Schools in 1872. The government required Black Atlantans to pay taxes for public schools during the 1890s even though only white children were allowed to attend, according to Flemming’s preliminary research.
These are just a few examples of the systemic oppression Flemming and Bond want a team of researchers to examine.
How would an Atlanta reparations program work?
Flemming and Bond said they’re still figuring this out.
Bond said the law prohibits city government from making direct payments to individuals unless they’re receiving a lawsuit settlement. Reparations to eligible recipients could come in a variety of forms through a nonprofit that the city could establish.
Funding for such a venture could come from city taxpayers, private donors, or a combination of the two. More than 48% of Atlanta residents are Black. Flemming acknowledged it’s possible residents could pay into their own reparations program.
“If funding is taken from current taxes to pay for reparations [for] the past, Black people will be participating in paying for that,” she said.
Who would be eligible?
Flemming said this is something that she and her colleagues have discussed.
She said it’s possible that current or former Atlanta residents who can prove ancestors and their families suffered direct harm due to city government policies or negligence would be eligible for this program.
That would mean the descendants of Black Atlanta residents who left the city and now live elsewhere would receive reparations. And current Black residents who don’t have historical Atlanta lineage would not.
“We aren’t talking about reparations for [everybody],” she said. “There has to be some support and evidence that you experienced harm that was perpetrated and supported by the city of Atlanta or private industry.”
Will the City Council support this?
Though legislation hasn’t been introduced yet, Bond said he doesn’t expect any pushback from his fellow City Council members.
“The devil is really in the details about what type of reparations we are talking about,” he said. “Even though we have a diverse city here, I think generally people support the concept of reparations.”
Flemming and Bond said an Atlanta reparations task force would likely collaborate with Fulton County’s reparations task force so the two bodies could help establish which aspects of their research fall in the other’s purview.
If an Atlanta task force is established this year, Flemming estimated that it could complete its study phase in the next three to five years before payouts in some form are distributed.
She said she’s confident a reparations program will eventually be established and that Black folks will be compensated for the suffering they and their ancestors have endured.
“The only way that America will truly be a democracy and that Black people — particularly when it comes to wealth in America — can catch up and be where they should be, will be through reparations,” she said. “There’s no doubt about that.”