Community Organizers Demand Reparations With Rally and Open Letter

Organizers want the city to discontinue all contracts with the University until their demands are met.

Organizers rallied on November 28 to urge the University to make amends for what they view as “its founding ties to slavery.”

By Jason Lalljee

The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) held a “Rally for Reparations” in front of Levi Hall, the University’s main administrative building, on Tuesday morning urging the University to make amends for what they view as “its founding ties to slavery,” according to Kamm Howard, national male co-chair of N’COBRA.

The rally was followed by a press conference at City Hall, where the group presented an open letter addressed to the University, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and Barack and Michelle Obama “demanding reparatory justice.”

They held the rally in solidarity with the Reparations at UChicago Working Group (RAUC), which published a paper in May contending that the University’s ties to Illinois politician Stephen Douglas warrant reparative actions. Douglas, whose land endowment to the original Bronzeville campus was bankrolled by profits from his slave plantation, was also the first president of the old University’s board of trustees.

“The University of Chicago is founded by slaveholders and the labor of enslaved people can actually be traced through the years,” said Guy Emerson Mount, a co-author of the paper and teaching fellow in the social sciences. “The labor of enslaved people actually translates into buildings, endowments, and real hard material resources.”

Representatives from several student activist groups spoke at the rally. “Reparations is fundamentally a labor issue,” said Jack Dragu, an organizer with the Solidarity Committee for Graduate Students United (GSU). “We are talking about an institution that continues to displace and exploit people and that was founded on free slave labor.”

The RAUC and UChicago for a Community Benefits Agreement (UC for a CBA) both advocated for the installation of a permanent CBA to keep the Hyde Park community involved in changes that happen to the neighborhood as a means of reparations. A CBA is a contract between a real estate developer and community groups that requires the developer to provide certain amenities to the community.

“One of things we’re asking for is a CBA from the University and Obama Foundation as a sort of preemptive reparations that would offset the harm we know is going to come,” Mount said, referring to the University’s involvement with the construction of the Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. “A permanent CBA would mean the community shouldn’t have to fight this fight every time something’s getting built.”

“The University has played a role in changing the racial structure of not only Hyde Park but the Woodlawn community,” Howard told The Maroon. “Historically, a lot of black wealth was built in this area, and that’s being totally usurped…. We would like to see things like more affordable housing to prevent that.”

“The CBA is about bringing together community groups that have the right to not be kicked out of their neighborhoods,” said fourth-year and UC for a CBA member Robert Hayes. “It’s a step to right the wrongs they’ve done to the community throughout history.”

In their open letter, the RAUC and N’COBRA demanded that the University “establish a truth and reconciliation committee that would produce a comprehensive reparations program,” as well as change their establishment year to that of the former campus.

The groups requested that that city discontinue any current and future contracts with the University until their demands are met, citing the 2002 Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance, which requires companies conducting business with cities to disclose their records on slave policies.

“Our leverage is the fact that the slavery ordinance exists… otherwise we wouldn’t be able to hold the University accountable,” said Howard. “Our strategy involves upholding the slavery ordinance, and [having the] University agree to use its intellectual and financial resources to make reparations.”

Existing contracts between the University and the City of Chicago include a contract for the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD).

Mount views changing the school’s relationship with the UCPD as an important potential consequence of discontinuing the contracts. “The police patrol a parameter designed to keep people out rather than in,” he said. “This is an opportunity to have its contract cancelled.”