Elon Osby flashed a warm, charismatic smile as she stood in the middle of Mount Olive Cemetery in Buckhead. The 72-year-old couldn’t find the exact place where her grandparents, William and Ida Bagley, are buried.
The path she used to walk with her parents as a little girl when her family visited the all-Black burial ground is no longer there, she said.
“There isn’t anything that can identify them, any kind of a marker to me that I can remember,” she said. “It’s been a lot of years.”
Recent developments tied to a reparations task force has Osby feeling hopeful about the future for Black families like hers.
On Jan. 18, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners approved a $250,000 budget for a reparations task force to assess the feasibility of compensating the descendants of formerly enslaved Black county residents for the unpaid labor and unjust land seizure their ancestors endured. The 14-member advisory board, which had 11 vacancies earlier this month, is one of several similar research groups created by state and local governments across the country in recent years.
Fulton District 5 Commissioner Marvin S. Arrington Jr. sponsored the resolution that led to the task force’s creation back in April 2021. He said the approved six-figure funding allocation for the program shows the county “is not only aware, but cares about the work being done by the Reparations Task Force.”
“This is important work being done by volunteers who are all passionate about an issue facing every African American not only in Fulton County, but around this country,” Arrington said in a statement.
The preliminary research that the task force conducted last year centered largely on Buckhead, where multiple historically Black neighborhoods existed. One of those communities included Bagley Park.
Bagley Park was recently renamed after Osby’s grandfather, William Bagley, an entrepreneur and community leader who purchased six plots there back in 1929.
Records discovered by the Buckhead Heritage Society, a nonprofit group that works to protect the neighborhood’s historical resources, gave reparations task force researchers a framework to follow for their program.
Osby serves as a member of the heritage society and the reparations task force. She and her family members are among those who could benefit from the county’s reparations research.
Her grandparents were forced to flee or sell land they legally owned not once, but twice before she was born in 1950. The Bagley family was among the roughly 1,100 Black residents throughout Forsyth County who were threatened and intimidated by white locals until they vacated lands some of them owned in 1912. The move led them to Fulton County.
Exactly who would get paid through a county reparations program, and in what form, has yet to be established. Osby said she’d like to see cash payments go to descendants of Black Fulton County residents who were forced to give up land without fair compensation. Other ideas for payment include student loan cancellation and free college for descendants of Black county residents.
“I would want it to be in dollars and cents,” Osby said. “I would be more focused on making my children and my grandchildren whole, the way I would like to see them.”
The task force is one of the first formed in a former Confederate state, according to Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, assistant professor of Africana studies at Morehouse College and chair of the Fulton County reparations research group.
Alvarado’s team spent roughly six months combing through census records, tax digests, newspaper articles, voter rolls, and property tax records before completing an end-of-year report in December.
The preliminary study convinced a majority of county commissioners that the task force could prove the direct role the government played in the enslavement and post-emancipation oppression of Black residents, and that a price tag for their mistreatment could be calculated.
“We were able to organize ourselves to come up with the plan to make the case for financial support,” Alvarado said. “There were task forces that actually received funding. We had nothing. With zero support, we were able to gather almost 5,000 documents.”
Some of those documents showed the average cost of an enslaved person prior to the Civil War. Census and tax records also showed when entire Black communities suddenly disappeared or were displaced, she said. At times, Black county residents were paying taxes like their white counterparts but weren’t receiving equal government services.
This was permissible because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which made segregation legal for a time in the United States.
“[Plessy] gives the county the opportunity to not fairly distribute resources to both Blacks and whites,” she said. “This helps to make the case for reparations. … We began to create these columns for ourselves and looking at what the county is responsible for.”
Task force leaders plan to spend the next two months establishing how their funds will be spent and identifying researchers to work on the report, which is scheduled to be completed by October 2024. The plan, according Alvarado, is to form case studies that researchers will present to the public at two major town hall meetings in an effort to allow residents to offer feedback and make recommendations on what reparations should look like.
In addition to those town halls, the task force has virtual meetings via Zoom on the first Thursday of each month that are open to the public.
Locals like Osby are hopeful these conversations will lead to action.
“If Atlanta really does something with this, other cities will follow because Atlanta is just a leader,” she said. “I think it is a launch point. I hope it is.”