Janice Tillmon, a Detroit resident
Janice Tillmon is among the first Detroit residents to get a $25,000 “reparative transfer” to help her buy a house. Credit: Zoom call with Frances Dinkelspiel Credit: Frances Dinkelspiel

Janice Tillmon had been renting a friend’s house for six years when she saw a Facebook post about a homeownership program in Detroit for people whose ancestors had been enslaved.

The project, started by a nonprofit called Reparation Generation, with roots in Berkeley and Detroit, offered $25,000 “reparative transfers” to help people acquire homes. No strings were attached, as the money was intended to repair the damage done to Black people in the U.S. by centuries of slavery,  violence and economic discrimination and help them build up their wealth.

Tillmon had grown up hearing that her ancestors had been enslaved but she didn’t have any documents attesting to the fact. That’s common because before the 1870 U.S. Census most Black people were not recorded by name. 

What Tillmon knew was that her family had long been poor and had struggled to earn enough to be comfortable, a condition common for many Black Americans. In 2019, the average white family had eight times the wealth of a typical Black family, according to a study by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. White families had a median wealth of $188,200 and Black families’ median wealth of $24,100 was less than 15% of that of white families.

Economists trace the racial wealth gap back to slavery and the laws and barriers put in place to repress Black communities after the failure of Reconstruction. “Gaps in wealth between Black and white households reveal the effects of accumulated inequality and discrimination, as well as differences in power and opportunity that can be traced back to this nation’s inception,” according to a report prepared by the liberal Brookings Institute. “The Black-white wealth gap reflects a society that has not and does not afford equality of opportunity to all its citizens.”

Growing up, Tillmon heard family tales of her ancestors’ struggles. One grandfather had been a sharecropper. “He never got paid much of anything,” she said. Another grandfather, a World War II veteran, had to leave Alabama after getting into an altercation with a white man. “A lynch mob chased him out town — he never went back to his wife and kids,” she said. 

Conditions were not much better for ensuing generations. Tillmon’s mother had her when she was 16 and had two more children with Tillmon’s father by the time she was 18. Neither parent finished high school. Tillmon’s family had been part of the Great Migration when millions of Black people left the South in search of better, safer living conditions in the North. Tillmon lived in five states before her family settled in Detroit about 42 years ago. 

“My parents never had a sure footing on getting started in life.”

Janice Tillmon

“My parents never had a sure footing on getting started in life,” said Tillmon, 45. Even though her father got a job at the Chrysler plant, “I grew up really poor. I remember when our water was cut off because my mother couldn’t pay the bill. We had to find pots and pans and everything to fill up with water because we didn’t know when it was going to be turned back on.”

Tillmon broke her family’s cycle of poverty. She was the first on her mother’s side to graduate from high school. She earned two master’s degrees, one in social work and one in education. After years of eking out a living as a schoolteacher, she started working for Detroit’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund in November. 

But it was not until Tillmon connected with Reparation Generation, founded by white people in Berkeley and Black people in Detroit, that she was able to fulfill a long-held desire: to own her own home. On May 23, Tillmon will move into a light-filled condominium with floor-to-ceiling windows, a spacious balcony, and a view of the Dequindre Cut, a greenway that runs not far from the Detroit River. Her move was made possible, in part, by the $25,000 from Reparation Generation.

“We are about transferring wealth from those who have privilege to those who are owed reparative justice because their families descended from enslavement,” said David Mayer of Berkeley, one of the organization’s co-founders. “Much of our (white people’s) wealth has been obtained at the expense of Black Americans. We have benefitted from institutional racism.”

Reparation Generation has raised $250,000 to distribute to 10 Detroit residents to assist them in purchasing a home. So far, three transfers of $25,000 each have been made, with others pending. These aren’t grants or charitable gifts, the organization is quick to point out, but transfers of wealth from one class to another. Most of the funds came from white people in Berkeley and Los Angeles. The Black leaders of the organization determine the criteria for the payments and to whom they go. It’s similar to the model used to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909: White people funding initiatives to address the civil rights of Black people. 

The U.S. government has never paid reparations for slavery

While the U.S. government in 1988 made small reparative payments to the Japanese Americans it sent to internment camps during World War II, it has never paid anyone compensation for the 246-plus years slavery was legal. The once-promised “40 acres and a mule” never materialized, leaving four million people to fend for themselves after slavery was outlawed in 1865.

Black Americans have been pushing for reparations since then, to little avail. In 1989, the late Rep. John Conyers Jr. introduced HR 40, a bill that would establish a commission to examine the lingering impacts of slavery, racism and discrimination. The bill languished for decades. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, became the lead sponsor for the bill after Conyers stepped down in 2017. In 2021, the House Judiciary Committee passed the legislation out of committee for the first time, but it has not advanced further. Supporters of the bill now say they have enough votes to pass the bill in the House of Representatives, but little chance of getting it through the Senate. President Joe Biden has said he supports establishing a commission and a coalition of groups has called on him to use his executive powers to do so. Just 29% of Americans support making cash payments to descendants of those enslaved, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. But that number is higher than in 2002 when only 14% of Americans approved of the idea. Almost three-quarters of Black Americans (73%), in contrast, support reparations.

In 2020, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 3121, which establishes a commission to study how the legacy of slavery affects Black Californians. A host of cities have introduced programs to examine the issue, including San Francisco, Evanston, Illinois, and Asheville, North Carolina. Berkeley may hire a consultant in the fiscal year 2023 to craft a reparations program for the city. 

It remains to be seen how anticipated legal challenges will affect the government’s ability to make monetary payments to individuals. Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, told the California commission that any reparative payments would have to be framed carefully, in a race-neutral way, to stand up to legal challenges.

Reparation Generation wants the federal government to make payments to descendants of slavery, but recognizes that may not happen for a long time, said Mayer. So until then, his group will use private funds to make reparative transfers, even though the amount of money the nonprofit can disperse is minute compared to the resources of the federal government. The project will also contribute to a growing groundswell of voices pushing the federal government to act. Reparation Generation is piloting its reparative transfers in Detroit but hopes to eventually expand it to other cities.

Reparative transfers directly to individuals have been comparatively rare in the U.S. One woman in Colorado who discovered her family had enslaved more than 400 people decided to pay off one Black woman’s college debt and establish a college fund for Black students studying politics, according to Colorado Public Radio. Mayer said his group did not find many others that were making these sorts of direct payments.

Instead, it is more common for people to donate to groups, relying on the organizations to distribute funds that might be defined as reparative-adjacent in that they are more generally distributed. In Berkeley, an anonymous donor paid $435,000 to save part of the Ashby Community Garden in Southwest Berkeley and has given it to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, run by Indigenous women. A white donor in Kentucky gave a six-figure gift to Change Today, a nonprofit that distributes food and meals in a predominantly Black low-income area of Louisville, according to NPR. In Colorado, a graduate student who had discovered her family’s ties to slavery gave $200,000 to Soul2Soul Sisters, a Denver nonprofit. And there are numerous groups working to advance the idea of reparations by pressuring local, state, and the federal government to pass legislation.

Nikolaus Johnson, a member of the media team for the ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery) Advocacy Foundation, said Reparation Generation’s goals make a “powerful statement.” But he expressed concern that the federal government will try and avoid responsibility for permitting slavery if too many smaller groups step in to make repairs.

“ADOS doesn’t want that to get in the way of a national reparations push and have the federal government say we have organizations giving away money so we don’t have to do it,” said Johnson. “The federal government is the only entity that has the ability to fund a national reparations program.”

George Floyd’s death sparked creation of Reparation Generation

The idea for Reparation Generation was sparked in 2020 in the wake of the protests over the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer. Mayer had been born to a father who grew up in an orphanage in Colorado and had earned a good living as a pharmacist in Sausalito. Mayer moved to the East Bay in 1978 to attend Cal and started Mayer Laboratories, a successful medical devices company that sells Kimono condoms from Japan and other health care products. He considers his family to be a typical Horatio Alger success story.

But one night, his daughter returned from a Black Lives Matter protest and gave him a look so withering it caused Mayer to rethink his relationship with the world. 

“I realized she was saying, ‘For all your progressive Jewish liberal values, what are you doing?'” said Mayer. “I felt at that moment I fell from grace for my child.”

Her condemnation prompted Mayer to dig deeper into the history of the Black American experience. He read more books about slavery, Jim Crow, lynching and segregation. He dug into the history of mistreatment and genocide of Indigenous Americans. Mayer came to believe that he and others had been inculcated with false narratives of white exceptionalism, stories not only untrue but destructive. The narratives were a form of “othering,” intended to keep a division between whites and Blacks and create a caste system based on the color of one’s skin, he said.

Disturbed by what he had realized, Mayer called up Xylindra Smith, a sales representative for Mayer Laboratories in Detroit. The colleagues had had many discussions over the years, Mayer said, about life, race and the economic disadvantages faced by Black people in America. Mayer shared what he had been learning with Smith and later sent her what she called a “manifesto” that eventually became the basis for Reparation Generation. 

“When I first read it, I cried,” Smith, who is Black, said in an interview posted on the organization’s website. “It brought out so many emotions in me.”

Even though Mayer had conceived of Reparation Generation (with help from his wife, Karen Hughes, a health educator at UC Berkeley’s Tang Center), he had no interest in recreating historical patterns where whites assumed authority. He dreamed instead of a multi-racial organization that was Black-led, one where white people recognized their colonial history.

Smith wasn’t interested in a white-led organization either. She brought in Kiko Davis Snoddy, a prominent Detroit resident who was a trustee of the Donald Davis Living Trust. Snoddy reached out to her professional network and recruited a number of other Black leaders in Detroit and elsewhere to serve as founding members of Reparation Generation. Among them are Ian Conyers, a former Michigan state senator whose uncle, the late Rep. John Conyers, Jr., first introduced HR 40 in 1989 and Michael Eric Dyson, an academic, minister and best-selling author of more than 20 books. 

Four of the co-founders of Reparation Generation. From left to right: Ian Conyers, Karen Hughes, Kiko Davis Snoddy, and David Mayer. Credit: Reparation Generation
Four of the co-founders of Reparation Generation. From left to right: Ian Conyers, Karen Hughes, Kiko Davis Snoddy, and David Mayer. Credit: Reparation Generation Credit: Reparation Generation

Denise Brooks-Williams, a senior vice-president and CEO of the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, joined Reparation Generation in part because the acknowledgment of white harm was at the core of the organization.

“It was the intent to have the funding come from people who were willing to acknowledge that something wrong was done,” she said. “Some reparative initiatives that maybe come through the government arena … they don’t always choose space for the history of how we got here, why the inequities are in place.”

The first step in forming Reparation Generation was a conversation or “truth-telling” among those from Detroit and California. People shared their experiences of privilege and discrimination, success and hardship, conversations that brought the group together, said Brooks-Williams. (Snippets of those conversations are on the group’s website).

The Black leaders then determined how the reparative transfers would be made. They decided the pilot program would focus on helping people in Detroit buy a house because homeownership is such an important aspect of building generational wealth. About 73% of white Americans own their own homes, while only 43.4% of Black Americans do. And that percentage is decreasing. Future programs will focus on education and entrepreneurship.

Buying a house is much easier in Detroit than in the Bay Area, where the median home price is $1.25 million. A person can find a house in a safe neighborhood for between $100,000 and $175,000, said Brooks-Williams. 

The Detroit group wanted to make the application process as easy as possible. There would be no income requirements. Applicants would have to show they were descended from those who were enslaved. Since many of the applicants have never owned homes or handled a mortgage, they are also required to take a six-hour course on homeownership. 

Spreading the word house party by house party

As the Detroit side of the operation focused on shaping the reparative payments, the California side focused on raising funds. Rep Gen, as the group is nicknamed, is a nonprofit, so donations are tax-deductible. 

At a recent house party at Mayer and Hughes’s Berkeley home, about a half dozen people gathered to eat homemade nibbles and then learn about the organization. Hughes spoke about her awakening to racial injustice. Conyers Zoomed in from Detroit to a television set up in the living room. The talks were honest, rooted in personal experience. It is in that kind of personal connection, in “house party to house party,” that the organization will grow, said Hughes.

Erika Weissinger, member of Reparation Generation and visiting assistant professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy
Erika Weissinger, member of Reparation Generation and visiting assistant professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Credit: UC Berkeley Credit: UC Berkeley

One of the speakers was Erika Weissinger, a visiting professor at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, who lives in West Berkeley in an area that has traditionally been redlined. Weissinger has long taught a class on race, ethnicity and public policy, often to more than 100 undergraduates each year. She lectures on slavery and its aftermath, mass incarceration, the model minority myth, Indigenous land grabs and genocide, and how U.S. policies have led to the racial wealth gap.

“The students would say, ‘OK, you have taught us how this is and why this is. Now what can we do about it?'” said Weissinger. 

Weissinger always told them a wide array of policy changes would be needed to reduce racism and inequality and close the wealth gap. But she always thought reparations showed a lot of promise. 

Weissinger published an op-ed in the Daily Californian in December 2020 titled: “Aspiring white allies: It’s time to begin your anti-racist journey.” Hughes read it and called Weissinger to tell her about the formation of Reparation Generation. Weissinger immediately got excited.

“‘My heart almost stopped,” she told people at the house meeting. “This was the thing I had been looking for.”

Weissinger and her partner ended up making a stretch donation. They persuaded her partner’s parents to donate as well, she said.  

“It’s been a profound experience for me to join this movement,” said Weissinger.

Not everyone at the house party was convinced. One Oakland woman, who asked not to be named, said she was impressed by Reparation Generation’s mission and would even make a small donation. But she planned to look for a local group to support in a more significant way. “I want to find something that addresses stuff here,” she said. “Oakland has some of the same issues as Detroit — redlining and impoverishment and all the long-term effects of discrimination.”

Black Americans face obstacles tracing their ancestry

As Mayer and Hughes held the house party in March, Tillmon was looking for a place to buy in Detroit. After she spotted the notice about Reparation Generation on a Facebook page for Detroit professional women, she immediately expressed interest in applying. Since she had a good job, she wasn’t confident she would be selected, but she applied out of curiosity.

The first thing she had to do was show Reparation Generation she was a descendant of people who had been enslaved.

The entire question of how people can prove their lineage has come to the fore as California holds hearings on reparation. The commission considering the question must present a report to the Legislature by June recommending who is eligible. After many lengthy discussions, the commission determined, in part for legal reasons, that reparative payment should only be made to people descended from chattel slavery and not to those who came to the U.S. after the end of the Civil War but nonetheless suffer from discrimination and the effects of other harmful laws.

Some who testified before the commission expressed concern about the difficulty of making a strong link to slavery. They pointed out the dearth of records as a major impediment.

Kellie Farrish, a professional genealogist, testified that it is possible to make those connections. It often takes searching obscure records, she said.

Farrish used some less well-known records, including lists of men who fought in the two world wars, to help Tillmon definitely show she was descended from those who had been enslaved. One challenge Tillmon faced was that she didn’t know the names of her great-great-grandparents. And when Farrish located them, she found that Tillmon’s ancestors alternately went by the last name Bueford or Ford. The key came through Tillmon’s great-great-grandmother, Mary Ford, born in 1876. On one census, Ford said her parents had been born in Coahoma County, Mississippi. Farrish knew about the history of that county and knew there were no free Black people living there. This, she said, combined with other documents, showed Tillmon had ancestors who were enslaved. (After helping Tillmon, Farrish decided to join the board of Reparation Generation).

After Tillmon had proven she was the descendant of people who had been enslaved, Reparation Generation invited her to apply. While Tillmon had a good salary (it had jumped $22,000 when she switched from teaching to working for the city of Detroit), she had a six-figure student loan debt. But with the promise of the $25,000 payment, Tillmon was approved for a loan. 

Detroit condominium building where Janice Tillmon bought a condominium
Janice Tillmon bought a condominium in this Detroit building. Credit: Google Earth Credit: Google Earth

Tillmon found a condominium for $105,000. She closed on April 19. With the $25,000 payment bringing down her mortgage, Tillmon said she will be paying about the same amount she paid to rent. But now the place is hers. 

“What do reparations mean to me?” she said. “It has opened up the world to me. It’s given me financial freedom. My whole persona has changed as to what is possible. I don’t feel I’m ever going to have to struggle anymore.”

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...