A dancer performs at the Juneteenth Racial Injustice Solidarity March in St. Louis on June 19, 2020. Organizers of the event say the celebration has grown exponentially in the past years. (Photo by Rebecca Rivas/The Missouri Independent)
As Missourians go out to celebrate Juneteenth this weekend and commemorate the end of slavery in the United States, local advocates say they may feel a new sense of hope brewing.
In the past year, the state’s two major cities, St. Louis and Kansas City, have established reparations commissions. These groups of community members are now tasked with studying how slavery and segregation have fostered present-day inequities and recommending ways to repair those harms.
Places like St. Joseph will hold their biggest celebration yet, after receiving unprecedented federal funds to size up their annual event. State legislators allocated $500,000 this year in grants for Juneteenth events. And next year, the grants budget will double to $1 million.
But for organizers, the overall message remains the same as it was before Juneteenth became an official federal holiday in 2021 and a state holiday last year. Juneteenth is a platform to talk about pressing inequities and the calls to action for the work year round, said Makeda Peterson, program director of JuneteenthKC.
“It’s deep work that has to be done,” Peterson said. “We have to have everyone at the table to be able to make the progress that needs to be made. And it has to be continued conversation. The real goal is to make long-lasting, lifelong changes for the community.”
JuneteenthKC is continuing its conversation from last year’s event around housing inequities that have festered since the era of covenants and other racist government policies, she said. This year, they’re coming back with “tools” and resources the group has developed over the past year.
“I definitely see a lot of promise for Kansas City,” she said.
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St. Louis’ commission chair Kayla Reed said the group plans on spending the summer learning from experts and hearing from community members and then beginning drafting the report in the fall. This year’s call to action, Reed said, is for community members to stay engaged throughout the reparations process.
“The establishment of the commission is just means to an end,” Reed said. “We have a lot of reports in St. Louis, and making sure that these recommendations are meaningful and addressed, that is the North Star of it all.”
History of reparations
Juneteenth recognizes June 19, 1865, the day when federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take control of the state and ensure that all enslaved people be freed. It was two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect in January 1863.
Calls for reparations for slavery goes all the way back to that time. At the turn of the 20th century, the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association successfully rallied hundreds of thousands of people nationwide to call for federal pensions for formerly enslaved people as compensation and reparation for their unpaid labor and suffering. They were also asking the federal government to provide food and medical expenses.
However, federal pushback squashed the efforts.
In recent years, national reparations advocates say they’re receiving “unheard of” support nationwide that could lead to long-awaited action.
Missouri had 114,931 enslaved people in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. There were 3,572 free Black residents.
The St. Louis Board of Aldermen passed legislation last year establishing two reparations funds to “support African Americans who have been victims of the effects of slavery” and provide economic development for disinvested neighborhoods. And the mayor also signed the executive order to establish the commission.
When St. Louis advocates pushed for a reparations commission last Juneteenth, their request outlined the framework the United Nations used for Holocaust survivors and apartheid victims in South Africa.
According to the United Nations, five conditions must be met for full reparations to exist: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition.
California’s nine-member task force has used the United Nations’ framework for their study and released the first 500-page report on June 1, 2022.
The California report describes how the federal, state, and local government created segregation in California through redlining, zoning ordinances, decisions on where to build schools and highways and discriminatory federal mortgage policies.
“From colonial times forward, governments at all levels adopted and enshrined white supremacy beliefs and passed laws in order to maintain slavery…” it states. “This system of white supremacy is a persistent badge of slavery that continues to be embedded today in numerous American and Californian legal, economic, and social and political systems.”
The task force’s six pages of preliminary recommendations to state legislators included providing housing grants, free tuition and to raise the minimum wage.
Reed said St. Louis has already completed numerous reports on local inequities that commissioners can draw upon.
A study in 2018 found that for over a century, Black St. Louis residents experienced housing policies and development strategies that trapped generations in segregated and disinvested neighborhoods.
Another study found that residents living in some majority Black neighborhoods in St. Louis have a life expectancy that’s 18 years lower than residents of majority white neighborhoods less than 10 miles away.
Black residents in Kansas City face a similar reality, Peterson said, and historical racist housing policies continue to impact Black residents’ health.
“Because we’re in underserved communities, because we don’t have access to the same quality of schools and grocery stores, because we’re having to eat different things, it has severe health impacts that are affecting our mortality rates,” she said. “So it’s really making the connection that it all goes together.”
In St. Louis, the push for reparations has been part of a larger vision, called the People’s Plan, to address a wide range of inequities, said Blake Strode, executive director of the ArchCity Defenders nonprofit law firm.
“And this year, we really wanted to invite people into that broader vision of what St. Louis can be,” he said, “and how people are on the ground every day trying to make that a reality.”
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