The St. Paul City Council deliberates at a September 2022 meeting. Credit: Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune

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St. Paul will soon appoint members to a new commission that will recommend ways for the city to make reparations to Black residents whose ancestors were enslaved.

On Wednesday, the City Council unanimously voted to create the St. Paul Recovery Act Community Reparations Commission, a permanent advisory body with powers and duties laid out in the city code.

“When George Floyd was murdered in 2020, it became clear that all of us, in any position where we had any ability to make change, needed to make a real commitment to never go backwards,” said Council Member Jane Prince, the ordinance’s lead sponsor. “By our actions, we are committing St. Paul to never go back—but to keep moving forward toward the vision of real racial justice.”

The 11-person commission will advise Mayor Melvin Carter and the council on policy and budget decisions “to specifically address the creation and sustainment of generational wealth for the American Descendants of Chattel Slavery and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the American Descendants of Chattel Slavery community,” according to the ordinance.

The push for reparations in St. Paul was born of a grassroots movement, which eventually led to a formal apology nearly two years ago for the city’s role in institutional racism. Afterward, a city-appointed group met regularly for a year to study reparations and discuss what a permanent commission might look like.

That group, which reported its findings to the council last summer, said the commission’s first task should be to consider direct cash payments to eligible residents.

Though attempts to create a federal commission to study reparations stalled in Congress, local and state movements have gained traction across the country. In 2021, Evanston, Illinois, became the first city to pass a reparations measure, providing $25,000 to direct descendants of Black residents who were affected by the city’s discriminatory housing policies between 1919 and 1969.

“You guys are setting an example for the rest of the country with what you’re doing here,” Trahern Crews, a national advocate for reparations who co-chaired St. Paul’s temporary committee, told the council at a public hearing last month.

Almost two dozen people showed up at city hall on a snowy evening for the hearing, and most spoke in favor of reparations. A few critics wrote to council members saying the city was not responsible for many of the historic harms listed in officials’ apology, including the destruction of the historically Black Rondo neighborhood during the construction of Interstate 94 in the 1950s and 1960s.

Carter has proposed a program, dubbed the Inheritance Fund, that would allow some former Rondo residents and their descendants to apply for up to $100,000 in forgivable loans for a down payment or housing rehabilitation in St. Paul. The mayor has said the proposal, designed separately from the work of the reparations committee, will go up for council approval in early 2023.

Funding sources for other programs have yet to be identified, though the reparations committee’s report suggested looking at the city’s federal American Rescue Plan dollars, sales taxes, land sale proceeds, and philanthropic contributions. Last month, Prince noted that Evanston uses a cannabis tax to fund its reparations work—something St. Paul could explore if the DFL-controlled Legislature legalizes recreational marijuana, she said.

The council has already set aside money in its 2023 budget to hire a full-time staff member to support reparations work, using repurposed funding for a vacant administrative position.

The reparations commission will meet monthly, and members will serve three-year terms. The council will appoint members, with preference given to “candidates who demonstrate lived experience as it pertains to the work of the commission, are engaged in the local community, and understand the role of reparations in addressing the impacts of chattel slavery,” according to the ordinance.

Council members lauded Wednesday’s vote as a “historic moment” that met with applause from onlookers.

“This is just the next step,” Council Member Rebecca Noecker said. “I think the conversations ahead are where I look forward to learning, to delving into the details and to figuring out what this process looks like.”

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Katie Galioto is a reporter covering St. Paul City Hall for the Star Tribune. She previously covered the Duluth/Superior region while based in the paper’s bureau Up North. Galioto was born and raised...