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Reparations commission completes voting, recommends 39 policies

The Black Street Grocery was once a fixture of Asheville's Southside neighorhood.
Photo courtesy of UNC Asheville, Ramsey Library, Special Collections
The Black Street Grocery was once a fixture of Asheville's Southside neighorhood.

Asheville and Buncombe’s Community Reparations Commission has completed its recommendations, passing 39 suggested policies and programs.

After more than two years of research, reckoning, debate and dialogue, the Asheville and Buncombe Community Reparations Commission held its final vote, approving the last of its 39 policy recommendations for local government to address some of the systemic wrongs created by racism.

The 25-member group finalized plans for a range of proposals including monetary reparations for urban renewal harm, a Black-led economic development center and universal early childhood education for Black children.

At the June 17 meeting, members approved a proposal that would pay settlements of $148,000 to families and businesses negatively impacted by urban renewal.

The money seeks to address the downturn that once-thriving Black neighborhoods – StumpTown, East-End, Hill Street and Southside – experienced as a result of the City of Asheville’s urban renewal policies in the late 1960s and 1970s which changed the housing code and in some cases, seized and demolished property from Black owners.

Under the guise of rehabilitation and redevelopment, the city seized 930 parcels of land from primarily Black business and homeowners over the span of a decade, according to a 2022 study by Advanced Information Collaboratory (AIC).

The majority of residents never got their land back. They were paid below $10,000 per parcel and ended up either living in public housing or leaving Asheville entirely, which led to a radical configuration of Black communities.

The $148,000 sum represents a potential average loss of wealth per property taken, as determined by the commission. As proposed, the estimated 1,600 injured parties would self-identify to the city, county and forthcoming reparations accountability body to receive their payout. Families, businesses and tenants who seek settlement in an amount beyond the $148,000 would also be encouraged to present their individual cases to the public bodies.

Grants for Black businesses, no-cost health insurance and more

Eight other recommendations were approved at the June 17 meeting. They include:

  • Multi-year funding and business grants of up to $100,000 for Black-owned businesses, which could be used for operating funds, equipment, expansion or renovation. 
  • The establishment of an annual $100,000 fund that would provide no-cost health insurance or health care subsidies to help community members who lack access to adequate healthcare services or Black physicians.
  • A system of ongoing accountability to ensure Black-led businesses and organizations are supported and included through economic development initiatives and government contracts. 
  • The establishment of a private, independent fund that can receive private funding and donations from banks and other institutions, as well as execute some reparations-related programs. 
  • The development of a multi-generational chronic disease prevention and management initiative to help mitigate the decreased life expectancies for Black residents. 
  • A proposal to prioritize environmental justice in Black communities through ensuring safe water and air quality and the elimination of other environmental inequities. 
  • Funding for programming and infrastructure that promotes Black joy, a concept that encompasses resilience, empowerment, healing and collective culture. 
  • Financial support for organizations that help meet health needs of Black elders, including preventive care, clinical services and transportation. 
The 25-member Community Reparations Commission meets on a monthly basis.
Laura Hackett
The 25-member Community Reparations Commission meets on a monthly basis.

Some legal questions remain in limbo

Despite voting on the recommendations to move forward, several commission members continued to call for an extension to make certain the language used in the policies will pass legal muster.

At a June 10 commission meeting, Asheville City Attorney Brad Branham cautioned that explicitly providing funding and programs for Black residents could run afoul of the law, specifically the 14th Amendment.

“We believe you've already delivered several recommendations that are prepared to go right now that are fully legally defensible in my mind,” Branham said. “Others – we believe are question marks and some are going to be very, very difficult. But that was always going to be the case.”

Commission member Dee Williams said she does not want to move forward anything that might not be legal.

“These recommendations need to comply with all statutes, both federal, state and local, and they do not. And that in and of itself is substantiation for extending the length of the [Commission],” she said.

Commission member Dewayne McAfee echoed a stance that Commission Chair Dewana Little, who took over from former Chair Dwight Mullen in June, also maintained: legal concerns should not stop the commission from directly addressing harms done to Black people.

“We need the freedom to use whatever words apply to the atrocities that happened to our ancestors. And I don't think we need to be polite because they certainly were not polite when these events were going on,” McAfee said.

“If America cannot address the harm that they've done, if we can't have an open and honest discussion about it here.Then where do we ever get a chance to address it?”

Commission members said they hoped to receive a timeline extension from the city and county to fine tune the language. Officials from the city council and county commission will hear that request in mid-July. Last October, the commission asked for an extension through December 2024, but the city and county granted an extension only through June 30.

Note: This story was updated on June 25 to reflect that the Community Reparations Commission approved 39 policies, instead of 38 policies.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.