Council passes reparations ordinance

By Rebecca Wu

Chicago’s new Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance mandates companies to report all ties to the slave trade and labor before allowing them to do business with the city. Passed unanimously October 2 by the City Council, the ordinance is Third Ward Alderman Dorothy Tillman’s latest effort in the fight for slavery reparations.

Tillman plans to utilize the ordinance to gather information to use in legal cases for the reparations movement.

“The ordinance was only to divulge information, not to take action,” said Alderman Toni Preckwinkle of the Fourth Ward. The information is there for council members to use when considering whether to allow or block city contracts with certain businesses.

“This doesn’t prohibit anyone from doing business with the city, should they choose to disclose the information. But if they are found out [to have withheld information], they can no longer do business in the city,” explained Robin Brown, chief of staff at Tillman’s office.

“This ordinance can affect businesses outside Chicago that are not headquartered here. The city does business all over the world. So, this [ordinance] would also affect them,” Brown said.

Insurance companies used to list slaves as assets when asking for loans and railroads used slave labor to build tracks. Under the ordinance, any profits or connections to profits from slave labor must be revealed.

Although reparations lawsuits will mainly target insurance companies, railroads, and banks, other businesses are not off the hook. “It is looking for any amalgam of anything related to the owning of slaves,” Preckwinkle said. “[The ordinance serves as] an ongoing effort to make clear to America how deeply embedded modern companies are in our past and our slave-holding past.”

“We want to know what was your role in slavery. What did you do? Was your company built off the backs of slaves? If they answer wrong, they can no longer do business with the city,” Tillman told

Tillman is one of the most outspoken supporters of reparations for African-Americans. She started her career as a staff worker for Martin Luther King Jr. Since being elected alderman of the Third Ward, she has been spreading the word about reparations across the country.

“Audiences all over have been very responsive,” Brown said.

Brown has been working closely with supporters from across the nation, and Nashville and Los Angeles have requested copies of the ordinance legislation so they can introduce similar legislation in their respective communities.

Skeptics predict that the ordinance will do little to help the cause for reparations. Supporters of slave reparations face moral and legal questions regarding the allocation of funds and the fact that slavery was legal in the U.S. until the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.

“It will be a waste of time for Alderman Tillman to attempt [to find] information on which companies were tied to slavery because of a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity,” said David Goodloe, an executive board member of the Organization of Black Students. “America was barely industrialized at the time…that will be like finding a needle in a haystack.”

“It is not just a black movement,” Brown said. “Whites and other ethnicities have also joined in because it is the right thing to do.”

Despite controversy surrounding the issue, the ordinance passed 44-0, with two excused members and four abstentions.

In terms of how the rest of the city feels about the ordinance, Brown said, “the vote explains itself.”

The Slavery Era Disclosure Ordinance follows the resolution passed by the city in 2000 urging Congress to begin formal hearings on reparations.

“We are very proud of Chicago for taking the lead in the reparations movement. This ordinance speaks of the courage and desires to correct the injustices done to citizens of the nation…Chicago is on the right side of history. We are very pleased with what is being done to help the movement,” Brown said.