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Detroit has a big opportunity for reparations. Can it deliver?

Keith Williams sitting at a table
Keith Williams is co-chair of the Detroit Reparations Task Force. He's urging Detroiters to allow the group more time to continue with its work. (Credit: Malachi Barrett, BridgeDetroit)

Rev. JoAnn Watson bore witness to a lifetime of injustices against Black Detroiters and saw a clear course of action to repair the harms inflicted.

The remedies seemed obvious to her, a little over a year ago when Detroit’s first reparations task force was introduced at West Side Unity Church. The senior pastor named the debts and charted an agenda for repair: Repay overassessed property owners, reclaim tax breaks from dishonest developers, restore city ownership of assets like Belle Isle and transfer land to the people.

“That is only the beginning of the work we have to do,” Watson said.


Watson died last July as the task force was just getting started, another civil rights leader who didn’t live to see America’s debt paid. Detroit’s reparations task force inherited her “sacred work” amid an awakened national reparations movement. More than 100 cities and several states are taking responsibility for their role in discriminating against Black residents.


Unyielding Detroiters spent decades lobbying for a federal reparations commission championed by the late Detroit Congressman John Conyers Jr. and “Reparations Ray” Jenkins. The creation of local task forces marks a significant pivot in response to gridlock in Washington, D.C.

Municipal reparations aim to rectify harms caused by cities, which is distinct from federal efforts focused on the legacy of chattel slavery. Detroit’s effort was inspired by a reparations commission in Evanston, Illinois that created grants for Black families who lived through city-enforced housing discrimination in the 20th century.

Rev. JoAnn Watson speaking into microphone
The Rev. JoAnn Watson, right, and Keith Williams, left, attend a Feb. 24, 2023, press conference announcing Detroit’s new reparations task force at West Side Unity Church. (Credit: Malachi Barrett, BridgeDetroit)

The first year of Detroit’s reparations task force was defined by four resignations, mismanaged meetings, private decisions and public spats between task force members. But efforts are underway to get back on track. The group is bolstering its leadership, increasing public access and engagement, partnering with national experts and jumpstarting subcommittees.

City Council President Mary Sheffield, who introduced documents creating the task force and selected its leadership, said it will take years to implement reparations policies.

From the start, city leaders cautioned that residents should steel themselves for a lengthy process. Black Detroiters faced generations of discrimination and inequality, and the repair could take just as long. Co-Chair Keith Williams is asking Detroiters to cool down and let the process play out, brushing off concerns over the task force’s rocky start.

“They’re taking shots at us; we’re trying to work,” said Williams, who led the successful 2021 reparations ballot initiative and now steers the task force.

“They make it seem like we’re confused. This is volunteer work. We’ve come a mighty long way,” added Williams, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party Black Caucus and a former Wayne County Commissioner. “Let the process work; it shouldn’t be rushed.”


Task force members appointed by the City Council were given 18 months and a $350,000 budget to issue a report on housing and economic development initiatives. Sheffield said they have the time and freedom to follow reparations conversations wherever they lead.

“Reparations is such a big topic and people have various opinions on what it is,” Sheffield said. “That has been a challenge – having a clear plan in how we attack this. We’re finally coming to a place where it’s starting to get momentum.”

The task force is considering asking to extend the deadline for recommendations from Nov. 1 to next March. Sheffield said they’ll need more time.

She expects the group will issue recommendations before the end of the council’s current term in 2025 but said implementation is likely a job for the next iteration of the council.

“The work and the research warrants more time,” Sheffield said. “My hope is that if we could have baseline recommendations and goals by the end of this term that would be great and hopefully we could continue on the work for the next council to move forward.”

Venita Thompkins writing a list
Venita Thompkins writes out a list of ways she feels Black residents have been discriminated against during March 11, 2024 reparations task force town hall meeting at Historic King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit. (Photo by Malachi Barrett)

‘Not a handout’

Some residents who spoke with BridgeDetroit are losing patience, saying they feel shut out of the conversation, leave meetings discouraged and worry another chance to pursue reparations won’t come if the task force flops.

“It seems they’re slow-footing the process,” said Kedar Brown, a Detroiter who came together with other residents through social media to track the task force’s progress. “It feels like we’ve got to take whatever they’re gonna give to us. That is a problem, because reparations is not a handout or a welfare program. This is about a debt that is owed because of our ancestors building free labor that benefited the country.

“It’s really important that Detroit, as historically a majority Black city, set the standard the right way,” Brown said.

Reparations task forces formed across the country have asked for additional time while navigating difficult conversations, legal constraints and political disagreements.

Trevor Smith, co-founder and executive director of Black Liberation Indigenous Sovereignty Collective, said reparations advocates must understand the power of building narratives. It starts with addressing the “hope gap.” Smith uses the term to describe a belief among Black Americans that reparations are deserved but impossible to achieve.

“If there’s anything that can get folks out of their seats and engaged in Democracy, it’s a topic like reparations,” Smith said. “We were told this could never be a possibility. We are actually having conversations about it at the local and state level. We will see the policies be better informed if we engage more Black folks.”

“As long as the work of restoring harm to Black people falls on the shoulders of Black people, we continue this cycle,” said Charity Dean, executive director of the Michigan Black Business Alliance.

Charity Dean, executive director of the Michigan Black Business Alliance, said the City Council, corporate entities and foundations don’t need to wait. Detroit leaders could be creating more economic and housing opportunities for residents instead of waiting for another report to illustrate disparities that have been studied before.

“Studying harm is some people’s way of saying ‘we don’t have a solution yet,’” said Dean, who previously ran the city’s civil rights office.

“I don’t think any task force about repairing harm will have power unless you have power engaged in that work. As long as the work of restoring harm to Black people falls on the shoulders of Black people, we continue this cycle.”

Birwood Wall
The Birwood Wall in 2021. (Brittany Greeson for NBC News)

‘It starts with land’

The stakes are high. In Detroit, proud home to the largest percentage of Black residents in any U.S. city, the consequences of discrimination are measured in an abundance of racial wealth gaps.

“You’re talking about people who never had a financial foundation on which to stand,” said Task Force Treasurer Janis Hazel.

She was on Conyers’ staff when his reparations bill was first introduced in 1989. The disparity between Black and white wealth has widened since then.

University of Michigan researchers partnered with the task force last year to study the role of city government in perpetuating and enforcing discrimination. A report is due by September, which Williams said will sharpen recommendations for reparations policies aimed at attacking wealth gaps, including:

A task force subcommittee is looking to advance structural police reforms, potentially resulting in a reallocation of funding. Task Force Co-Chair Cidney Calloway wants to study discriminatory enforcement of traffic laws. Unaffordable auto insurance rates become a “gateway into the carceral system” when uninsured people are pulled over for minor infractions, she said.

Attendees who joined a March town hall raised other issues they consider worthy of reparations. State meddling in Detroit affairs was a common theme.

Residents said state-imposed emergency managers were careless during their reign over the local government and school system in the years leading up to and after the city’s bankruptcy. Water shutoffs, leasing assets and shifting Detroit’s water system to a regional authority have come up in conversations during the last several months.

Housing discrimination has been a clear starting point for the task force. Williams said the Great Migration is where most of the harm against Black residents began.

“It starts with land,” Williams said. “Land use is the key to building wealth in this country. I’m talking about economic-based solutions that create cash and ownership.”

Detroit Task Force Treasurer Janis Hazel sitting down
Detroit Task Force Treasurer Janis Hazel was a staffer for the late Congressman John Conyers Jr., who first proposed a reparations bill in 1989. (Credit: Malachi Barrett, BridgeDetroi)

Detroit and its founding figures have a documented history of participating in slavery. But Williams is focused on discrimination against Black families that moved to Detroit in the 20th century for automotive jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities.

Homeownership is a primary source of generational wealth but was historically denied to Black residents through a combination of redlining, race-based deed restrictions, organized violence and municipal redevelopment projects.

Residents are chiefly concerned with displacement driven by gentrification, overtaxation, evictions and rising costs of housing. Census estimates suggest the city lost 94,000 Black residents in a decade.

“Wealth in this country is pretty much real estate,” said Calloway. “There’s a lot of homes that need to be rehabilitated and turned into affordable quality housing.”

Homeownership is one of the most effective ways to build generational wealth. Slow growth in Black wealth since 1989 has been fueled by a rise in home values, according to federal data.

Earl Lewis, director of the Center for Social Solutions at U-M, said the systematic destruction of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley neighborhoods is a major focus for the research team.

A series of urban renewal initiatives spearheaded by Detroit mayors Edward Jeffries and Albert Cobo razed the thriving Black communities to make room for housing projects aimed at middle-class white families. Lewis said researchers are working with the Black Bottom Archives to quantify the economic impact of removing of Black-owned businesses.

Williams was a child when his family was pushed out of Black Bottom in the early 1950s. His father worked at Chrysler and could afford a house on the other side of town, on Holmur Street near the University of Detroit Mercy.

They were one of the first Black families on the block, but within a few years, all the white homeowners left. Real estate agents were “steering” Black buyers there and encouraging white owners to pack up and move, Williams said, a common form of housing segregation.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaking into microphone
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan gives his annual budget presentation to Detroit City Council on March 7, 2024. (Credit: City of Detroit)

Williams pulled his hat down to protect from the wind after a March meeting at Historic King Solomon Church. He gestured toward vacant lots in the Elijah McCoy neighborhood owned by Henry Ford Health’s real estate arm and the Detroit Land Bank Authority.

“Look at all this land, we could do something with it,” Williams said. “Give us the land and let us cultivate it.”

Easier said than done, Williams admitted.

Overassessment foreshadows legal hurdles

Legal, financial and political constraints will define the shape of policies. Documents that created Detroit’s task force don’t guarantee legislative action or funding for recommendations resulting from the process.

No funding sources have been identified by the task force so far. Reparations isn’t mentioned in Mayor Mike Duggan’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, though the task force hasn’t proposed any programs in need of funding.

Duggan has publicly acknowledged discriminatory housing patterns and other harms caused to the Black community, but administration officials say the city’s ability to pay for reparations is unclear.

Sheffield said Detroit can’t fund reparations policies on its own.

“Any type of reparations is going to, of course, not just be locally funded, it would be state and federal,” Sheffield said.

Detroit leaders say they need partnerships at the state level to provide funding or change laws so the city can create its own revenue source.

Mary Sheffield sitting down
Mary Sheffield said implementation of recommendations for reparations are likely years away for Detroit. (Credit: City of Detroit Flickr)

Michigan law already stood in the way when the City Council tried to fix a more recent example of harm caused to residents. Detroit’s Law Department argued that it’s illegal to give direct cash payments to homeowners who were overtaxed in the wake of the Great Recession.

Detroit News investigation found residents were overtaxed $600 million between 2010 and 2016. Debt created by the errors caused a wave of foreclosures.

Sam Stragand, senior program manager for the Detroit Partnership on Economic Mobility at U-M Poverty Solutions, said property assessments are considered a clear instance of the city causing harm to Black residents. The issue has come up repeatedly in task force meetings.

Bernadette Atuahene, a researcher with the University of California Los Angeles who has studied overassessment in Detroit, said overtaxation also stripped residents of their dignity.

During a task force presentation in February, Atuahene said that is part of a larger strategy of “dehumanization, infantilization (and) racialized abuse.”

“In those situations, just giving you this thing back is not enough,” she said. “The argument when this larger harm called the dignity taking has occurred is that mere reparations is not enough. Just giving you compensation for this physical thing is not enough. What’s required is a more robust remedy of giving your asset in a way that restores your agency.”

Detroit’s reparations task force meeting
Detroit’s reparations task force met for the first time April 13, 2023. (Credit: Malachi Barrett, BridgeDetroit)

Task force member Edythe Ford said overassessment is just the latest system holding back Black homeownership.

Her family’s history in Detroit goes back to 1917. Ford said racial covenants meant her mixed race grandmother had to pass as white to buy the house Ford inherited in the Pingree Park neighborhood.

“We come into the modern day and the same problem comes up with the overassessment,” Ford said. “Residents left this city. It hurt our tax base, it depleted and destroyed our neighborhoods. It’s a history that continues on.”

“We’re apathetic about everything now. I get it, because they promise you everything and come up with nothing,” said Kimberly Canty, Detroit resident and activist. 

MorningSide resident Kimberly Canty said the city overtaxed her $8,000. She’s barely holding on to her home while paying off the delinquent taxes. A generation earlier, her family was displaced from Black Bottom.

“Black Americans are under attack,” Canty said. “We are under attack for our jobs, our housing, our livelihood. We’ve got to keep fighting the good fight, but I seriously doubt anything will pass. We’re apathetic about everything now. I get it, because they promise you everything and come up with nothing.”

Addressing the hope gap

Public access to the reparations task force leapt forward since the hiring of Program Manager Emberly Vick, a former City Council staff member and current Wayne State law student.

Vick got to work on basic administrative tasks that were previously neglected. She fleshed out a bare-bones website, adding a meeting calendarminutes recapping past discussions and a financial report. Residents can submit suggestions for agenda items and participate in regular subcommittee meetings.

community survey was launched. Residents can call a hotline from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursdays at (313) 649-7959.

“The objective hasn’t been to not be transparent, I just think (the task force) didn’t have the administrative support they needed to facilitate these processes, and maybe just did not know exactly what they needed to do,” Vick said. “We’re getting off on a new foot. I really want to engage the community.”


Public meetings in 2023 were inconsistent, not always accessible and prone to interruptions. Residents had little insight into how the task force was functioning, despite assurances that the group was getting to work.
Residents can now jump on weekly subcommittees and in some cases have been asked to join them. Calloway said anyone who is serious about being involved now has the means.

“If you’re a Black person and you’re looking at the government through a historical lens, you have every right to be skeptical, but we cannot give up,” Calloway said. “We have the will. Now we have the momentum and the minds. There’s a lot of allyship happening. There’s a lot of conversation happening, and experimenting with these systems to figure out what can we do differently.”

Other current members were reluctant to speak on the record to BridgeDetroit, citing concerns that publicizing internal disagreements would undermine the task force’s work. Members who resigned cited irreconcilable differences with Williams and the executive committee. What was meant to be a forum for healing was creating more trauma, they said.

“I struggled because this feels like my personal dream coming true,” said former member Anita Belle, who resigned in February. “When your dream is becoming a nightmare, like that feeling Martin Luther King might have had where he said ‘I’m integrating my people into a burning house.’ Here I am watching the house of fire and feeling like this is my time to get out.”

Belle said an unwillingness to consider cash payments was another part of the reason she stepped down, though Calloway said it’s not off the table. Cash payments has been a wedge issue regardless.

Detroit residents pushed the city to “cut the check” since the task force was assembled. Anything less than direct payments is unacceptable in the eyes of some vocal advocates.

Shannon Slayton, another leader with the Detroit Grassroots Coalition, is also advocating for direct payments for descendants of slavery. She argues that’s the vision most voters had for reparations when they cast ballots in 2021.

“The task force has a responsibility to Detroiters who advocated and voted for this,” Slayton said. “If this doesn’t happen, I don’t know whether there can be another initiative. It’s important to keep the promise they made to the people.”

Task force leaders agree that the process won’t work without mutual respect and meaningful public participation.

“I’m begging them to come talk to us,” Calloway said. “We want to be held accountable. We want to have candid conversations. If you see me on the street, tap on my shoulder.”

“If we’re going to wait for somebody to save us, we’re never going to get saved,” said Jamarria Hall, Detroit resident and advocate.

Three town halls were held in March for Detroiters to share how discrimination affected them. Vick said the task force is planning a public education campaign and other opportunities for residents to get involved.

“I want to make sure that the community can participate and contribute to this process as much as possible, I know that that’s what they want as well,” Vick said.

There’s still been a disconnect between residents and the task force. Monthly meetings in February and March featured verbal clashes between residents and reparations officials and in-fighting among members.

“When they get together they remind me of a segment out of Abbot Elementary,” noted Ken Gray, an organizer with American Descendants of Slavery Foundation. The first two meetings I (attended), I knew it was a farce. I don’t see that board as a group of people who are trying to get us reparations. I see it as a political stunt to make themselves look relevant.”

Tensions were rising at the March meeting as Williams and task force member Gregory Hicks argued over procedure. Frustrations peaked as Williams moved to adjourn with 15 minutes left on the schedule. Jamarria Hall stood up and took the microphone as the task force voted to end the meeting.

“As a young person seeing this go on and being at this meeting, this is not it, this is not going to get it done,” Hall said. “You’re respecting nobody. If we’re going to wait for somebody to save us, we’re never going to get saved.”

Jamarria Hall speaking into microphone
Jamarria Hall argued during a March meeting that task force members “forgot what their true assignment was. (Credit: Malachi Barrett, BridgeDetroit)

Hall is among former students who settled a $94 million lawsuit with the state for failing to provide a proper education when it controlled Detroit schools. Hall said the March meeting was the first task force session he attended, and he wouldn’t encourage others to participate based on what he saw.

“They feel like they’re in power and forgot what their true assignment was. That’s to get input from the community,” he said. “In these meetings we see no young people. I wouldn’t want to bring young people to this. Is it a safe haven or some place where people lose hope in reparations and entities of control?”

Williams says his strong personality has made him a target of criticism – he’s also quick to say reparations wouldn’t have been put on the ballot without him.

Williams models himself as a self-made entrepreneur – “the man in the hat” and a “capitalist with a conscience.” He runs an online media network and events venue on the northwest side, which includes a print shop and music studio.

In the public arena, Williams said he’s a “bull in a china shop.” But that doesn’t mean there’s no plan; Williams said the reparations task force is focused on helping residents build wealth. He’s remained confident that they are moving in the right direction.

“Bringing people together is hard,” Williams said of both the task force and critics. “But they are some good people, man. We’re gonna get this done.”

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