The federal government built Greenbelt for three reasons: to put people to work, to provide affordable housing and to be an experiment in modern town planning.
The city, forged out of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, was supposed to serve as a demonstration of successful suburban living. But when the first homes opened to the public, one group was excluded: Black people.
“There’s this tendency to talk about Greenbelt as a utopia,” Greenbelt Museum Director Megan Searing Young said. “But it tends to get glossed over that it was not open to everyone. It was only utopia if you were a white family.”
Now, almost a century after Greenbelt’s inception, the city will vote on the issue of reparations, a form of compensation for historical wrongs and loss caused by slavery, segregation, stolen land housing discrimination.
On Aug. 9, the Greenbelt City Council approved placing a referendum on the November ballot that will ask voters whether the city should create a commission to study whether and how the city should pay reparations to its African American and Native American residents.
Greenbelt has changed quite a bit since its inception. In the late 1960s, Black families started moving into the city, about 12 miles northeast of the nation’s capital. The city, which is in Prince George’s County, now is home to about 23,000 residents, nearly 47 percent of whom identify as Black or African American, according to census data.
Mayor Colin Byrd, who proposed the referendum, said that because Greenbelt was created by the federal government, its history is uniquely intertwined with the history of the country.
“From the early days of Greenbelt, African Americans were excluded from residency in the city. But at the same time, Black workers were heavily involved in helping to literally build the city,” Byrd said. “That’s part of our history, just like slavery is a part of American history more broadly. And my view is that we should address that history, confront that history, reconcile that history and address the related intergenerational racialized barriers to wealth accumulation that come with that type of complicated history.”
The issue of reparations has been raised nationally for decades, asking the federal government not only for financial restitution, but also a formal apology for the lasting impacts of slavery. Greenbelt is one of the latest in a wave of local governments discussing reparations and other forms of racial reckoning in the wake of a national movement following the police killing of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis.
Ron Daniels, convener of the National African American Reparations Commission, said the Black Lives Matter movement last summer boosted the movement for reparations and created an environment of rapidly growing support.
“This is a unique moment in American history where reparations are literally exploding everywhere, all over the country, in various forms,” Daniels said.
In March, Evanston, Illinois, became the first city in the country to have a program paying reparations to Black residents through homeownership and improvement grants as well as in mortgage assistance. Other municipalities, like Providence, Rhode Island, and Asheville, North Carolina, have models similar to the one proposed in Greenbelt, considering reparations options. Other organizations like the Episcopal Church and colleges like Georgetown University have models to pay reparations as well.
Maryland state lawmakers have proposed similar legislation, though with less success. Last year, Maryland Del. Wanika Fisher, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, introduced a bill that would’ve created a reparations task force in the state. The bill died in the 2020 session.
Reparations are also gaining traction at the national level. In April, H.R. 40, a measure that would create a national commission to study potential reparations, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee for consideration by the full House, the furthest reparations legislation has made it in Congress.
The sole vote against the referendum in Greenbelt came from council member Silke Pope, who raised concerns about the city’s financial ability to tackle reparations.
Daniels said he expects to see more and more local governments follow the energy from the movement in Congress as the federal legislation moves forward.
“It is really the national movement that is inspiring people to come on board at the local level,” Daniels said. “So, there’s a synergistic relationship between the national and the local.”
Melody McCoy, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, wasn’t surprised to hear that Greenbelt included Native Americans in the referendum. She said she has seen these types of small acts of redress pop up all around the country, especially since last summer.
“I’m always encouraged when I hear about these little bitty efforts,” McCoy said.
Native Americans have already received some reparations through the Indian Claims Commission, land returns and other outlets. But McCoy said the kind of loss they suffered is difficult to quantify.
“The question is: Haven’t we already paid the Indians?” McCoy said. “The short answer is no. The other is: Was it enough?”
Despite the growing movement, national polls show a lack of public support for paying reparations. According to a University of Massachusetts Amherst and WCVB poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans, and 90 percent of Republicans, oppose the idea of providing reparations to the descendants of enslaved people.
Byrd knows reparations can be a divisive issue — that’s why after conversations, he and the council decided to propose the reparations commission as a referendum and let the public decide on Election Day, rather than having the city council alone create the commission.
Daniels said it will be interesting to see how the issue of reparations plays out on the ballot. He noted that for the measure to pass, Greenbelt will need informed voters on the issue.
“Having a referendum, in some ways, calls for and begs for education,” Daniels said. “That’s interesting, because it means that the community has to be engaged.”
And right now, education is Byrd’s main goal. He’s not ready to set expectations or outline goals of how to pay reparations — that, he said, would be up to the commission. But he wants to use this as an opportunity for residents of Greenbelt to learn more about race relations and the history of the city.
“I see that learning as being underpinned by very important, honest and heartfelt dialogue,” Byrd said. “And I see success as the city taking financially feasible, tangible and bold actions to really help our Black and Native American residents.”
John Henry Jones, who’s lived in Greenbelt for 50 years, has watched the city evolve firsthand. The 93-year-old sat at his kitchen table recently, surrounded by knickknacks — fresh yellow daisies from his neighbor, thank you cards, a trophy from when he won outstanding citizen — as he retold stories of Greenbelt through the years.
Much like his home, Jones is a treasure trove of memories, almost entirely positive, of his years raising his family as a Black man in the small town. He moved to Greenbelt after falling in love with the woman who would later become his wife. The couple married in 1971, becoming one of the first interracial marriages in the city.
He said he felt accepted in Greenbelt, even during those early days when much of the state was still segregated.
When it comes to reparations, Jones has a lot of unanswered questions. What is the best way to help? Where will the money come from? How do you identify who gets what?
Ultimately, he’s on board with the idea and said he wants to do what he can to help the city in this process.
“There was a lot of hurt done to people of color,” Jones said. “Will we all work together and make it a good living area? Will people allow people to be people?”
He hopes the conversation about reparations is a sign that the people of Greenbelt, the people who’ve welcomed him all these years, are finally ready to tackle their history.