The city of Greenbelt will hold a referendum on November 2 to examine the feasibility of reparations for Black and Native American residents.
This is Greenbelt’s first attempt to consider compensation for slavery, stolen land, segregation and housing discrimination against people of color.
Greenbelt mayor Colin Byrd proposed the idea over the summer. In light of the ongoing racial unrest throughout the country and the murder of George Floyd, Bryd believed it was time bring up the question of reparations.
“Greenbelt is probably one of the, if not the most appropriate places for the conversation and for this action to take place,” said Byrd. Greenbelt has a history of Jim Crow that is representative of American history as a whole.
The city is a government project born out of the Great Depression era. The project was initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Resettlement Administration in an effort to provide affordable housing and work relief for the unemployed.
Construction for Greenbelt began in 1935 with a workforce of black and white workers. Once housing was finished, only white families were allowed to apply for residency. The Resettlement Administration initially planned to allocate an area called Rossville Rural Development for Blacks to farm and live on, but the plans were dropped. Greenbelt remained segregated for decades until the late 1960’s.
“That’s one of the great, sort of, tragedies of the New Deal is that it wasn’t equal for everyone,” said Greenbelt Museum Director Megan Young.
Greenbelt was one of three other communities built in the “green belt town program” including Greenhills, Ohio and Greendale, Wisconsin. The project was supposed to be a model for the future of American communities. A combination of rural and urban life. A utopia.
“It was only utopia if you were a white family,” said Young.
The history of the land prior to Greenbelt’s construction is less known, but the Greenbelt Museum has considered releasing a statement acknowledging indigenous populations that previously inhabited the land. Young believes the area most likely belonged to the Piscataway people, a tribe that occupied land in parts of Maryland, Washington D.C., Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Greenbelt’s referendum which includes reparations for Native Americans is a small part of the larger picture of America being built on stolen land. Indigenous populations were already granted reparations through the Indian Claims Commission, but is this enough? Does this count as true justice for the loss of ancestral land?
Melody McCoy, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund believes there is still work to be done. “Tribes were cheated by the United States government on the price that they were paid for their lands,” McCoy said.
McCoy explained the challenges of putting a price on stolen land, saying the tribe should be allowed to choose how they want to receive their compensation. Although, does this eradicate the history of oppression faced by indigenous people? Can true justice be boiled down to money?
“The United States had a policy of genocide and cultural genocide...I don’t know how you can value that in monetary terms especially given the intergenerational trauma that American Indians have directly suffered,” said McCoy.
There are still many unanswered questions when it comes to reparations. What form will they come in? How many people will receive reparations? When will they be granted, and how much for each person? The Greenbelt city council will form a committee to answer these questions if the vote passes.
Byrd knows reparations is a complicated topic, but he is optimistic for the future of the city with the vote less than two weeks away. “This is an opportunity for us to address that and I think frankly we will come out of this conversation a better community, a more resilient community and a more harmonious community,” said Bryd.