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Pod Corner: 'What Is Owed?' explores reparations for slavery


Boston, Mass. was the cradle of the American Revolution and was also the first American colony to legalize slavery in 1641. Nearly 400 years later, the city of Boston is grappling with that legacy. In 2022, the city created a task force to consider reparations to the descendants of enslaved people. In "What Is Owed?" - a new podcast from GBH News - reporter Saraya Wintersmith explores what reparations could look like and how that debate is reflected across the nation and the globe.


SARAYA WINTERSMITH: It's 3:00 on a weekday afternoon at the John Hancock Memorial in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston.


WINTERSMITH: The site is kind of like a who's who of the American Revolution. There are graves for important figures like Thomas Paine and Samuel Adams. Every year, millions of tourists pass through here to visit the grave of John Hancock. You know John Hancock. Tour guides tout the man's great contributions to the country. But what you might not know, buried beside that much-celebrated Founding Father's grave is a man he enslaved. His name was Frank.

Like many founding families, the Hancocks claimed several people as property, and they made their money in commerce based on products produced by the enslaved. That fortune bankrolled much of Boston's pre-Revolutionary activism. The tour guides here often referred to Frank as Hancock's servant. They say the two men must have been close because of how closely they were buried.

Frank's contributions to the country have never been documented. Neither were the roles of countless other enslaved people - people who helped set Boston's trajectory to become a leader in health, education and technology. They were rarely recorded. Instead, U.S. history is full of portraits of heroic white people, mostly men.


JULIA MEJIA: Boston has a deep racial history, and there's a lot of trauma that so many of us still carry.

TANISHA SULLIVAN: We like to talk about Boston as a seat for the abolitionist movement. We don't like to talk so much about the role that Boston played in helping to finance this booming trade that was dehumanizing of Black folks in this country.

WINTERSMITH: This duality has always existed throughout Boston's history. There's the facts and figures most Bostonians pride themselves on, like Boston being one of the first places in the U.S. to ban slavery. Then there's also the history Black Bostonians have been trying to hold the city accountable for, like being part of the first colony to legalize slavery and, much later, clinging to segregation around the end of the Civil Rights era. Now, Boston has taken it upon itself to bring both narratives together and address the harm. In 2022, the city of Boston made a commitment to address its legacy of oppression since the institution of slavery. And the tool, Mayor Michelle Wu proclaimed, is reparations.


MICHELLE WU: Today, we're announcing a reparations task force to bring together experts and those with lived experience and deep community connections to help us begin the process.

WINTERSMITH: The idea of a city giving reparations to its residents is a relatively new one. Most of the time when we talk about reparations, it's in a national context that harkens back to the post-Civil War promise of 40 acres and a mule for those recently freed. So as Boston finds itself yet again on a journey to be one of the first in the country, we are on a parallel journey to unpack what reparations could look like. When a city as old as the nation declares it's time to address its legacy of Black oppression, how might that work?


WINTERSMITH: To understand how Boston ended up at this moment to consider reparations for its Black residents, we have to go back to 2020. We were enduring the COVID-19 pandemic...


CHARLIE BAKER: Today, I'm declaring a state of emergency in Massachusetts.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're asking people to stay home if possible. Practice social distancing.

WINTERSMITH: ...Navigating a contentious presidential election...


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Will you shut up, man?

DONALD TRUMP: Who was on - listen, are you in favor of law and order?

BIDEN: I'm in favor of law. You followed it.

TRUMP: Are you in favor of law and order?

WINTERSMITH: ...And watching it all isolated indefinitely in our homes. These realities dominated much of what we saw in the news, until...


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Get up and get in the car, man.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Get up and get in the car.

FLOYD: I can't move.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: I've been (inaudible). Let's get up and get in the car.

FLOYD: Mama.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Get up and get in the car right.

FLOYD: I can't.

I can't breathe.


FLOYD: I can't breathe.

WINTERSMITH: ...Millions of people saw footage of George Perry Floyd dying as a police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest.


FLOYD: Mama, mama.

TOU THAO: (Inaudible) hobble?

FLOYD: Mama, mama.

WINTERSMITH: It was the only other story dominating headlines. And the restlessness of being at home, combined with heightened political energy, suddenly got people off their couches.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Chanting) How do we get out of this mess?

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting) Revolution, nothing less.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: (Chanting) How do we get out of this...

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Chanting) No peace.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) No justice.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Chanting) No peace.

WINTERSMITH: And from this moment, something started to give way.

SULLIVAN: When it comes to policymaking, timing matters.

WINTERSMITH: That's Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. She, like many people around the country, was looking for a way to capture the spark during the pandemic and move her community towards greater systematic change. Sullivan decided this was the moment to push the city of Boston to explore reparations.

SULLIVAN: We might never get an opportunity like this again, where not only the minds but the hearts of people are open, and this seemed like the right time to get it done.

WINTERSMITH: Sullivan recognized that any push for reparations was going to need a political champion. Enter Julia Mejia.

MEJIA: Everyone thought I was crazy because I decided to file a hearing order around reparations.

WINTERSMITH: The proposal called for Boston to fund a two-year, community-led commission to do two major things - examine Boston's culpability in the oppression of Black people since the time of slavery and recommend reparations proposals after careful study of the concept. But the proposal was controversial. Mejia says it was the most difficult piece of legislation she's ever carried. She got criticism from all corners. Beyond community criticism, there was an arguably bigger problem - Mejia's council colleagues were skeptical. So on December 14, 2022, Julia Mejia walked into the council chambers at Boston City Hall, not knowing whether she had enough votes to approve the proposal, now known as Docket #0239.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mr. Clerk, can you do a roll call vote?

WINTERSMITH: Somehow, all 13 councilors voted yes.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Docket #0239 has received a unanimous vote.

MEJIA: I am happy with the outcome that Boston, one of the most racist cities in the country, is going to be able to have a mechanism to study the harm and hopefully repair it.


WINTERSMITH: But Boston's new reparations task force stumbled out of the gate. After Mayor Wu announced her picks for the panel in February 2023, they didn't actually meet until May. The slow start, combined with some surprising headlines, raised doubts. Was the city of Boston actually going to take reparations seriously?

It's a huge moment when any government body declares a time to acknowledge and remedy its past wrongs. For Black people, who have waited centuries, it's momentous. And this tension we're seeing in Boston is the same tension we're seeing all across the country.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWSANCHOR #1: The town of Evanston made history in 2021, when it became the first municipality...

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSANCHOR #2: California's first-of-its-kind task force on reparations for Black Americans has submitted...

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSANCHOR #3: The city council of Asheville, N.C., unanimously voted to provide reparations to Black residents of the city.

WINTERSMITH: In places like the state of New York and cities like San Francisco and Detroit, commissions are forming, researchers are studying, and people are asking, what is the debt to Black people in those communities? What historic points should we begin to examine, and how do we measure and assess harm to Black people? Are municipal and state governments truly prepared to acknowledge their culpability? And what about the federal government? Is there really a feasible way to repay Black people, all Black people? As Boston goes on a journey to answer questions like these for itself, we're exploring, too, looking locally and nationally at this moment in history when reparations finally seem possible, searching for an answer to the ultimate question - when it comes to America's so-called original sin and all it has entailed, what is owed?


DOMONOSKE: Saraya Wintersmith is the host of the podcast "What Is Owed?" from GBH News in Boston. You can subscribe anywhere you get podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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