“Equity, Equality, and Repair”: the African-American Redress Network’s Mission: THE EYE

By Lilienne Shore Kilgore-Brown

When Linda J. Mann arrived at Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights as a fellow for the Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability, she quickly noticed something.

While researching for the Georgetown Memory Project—designed to address the legacies of the 272 enslaved people Georgetown University sold to Louisiana plantations in 1838—she discovered a large number of initiatives across the nation aimed at addressing and providing reparations for past atrocities committed against Black people in America. However, the groups were mostly working separately from one another.

“They may or may not have [had] institutional support; they may or may not have [had] a political backing, and many of them were working in silos without knowledge that there were other organizations, maybe even 45 minutes away,” Mann said. Many of these reparations efforts were being led by small groups, and some by just one or two particularly passionate individuals.

Mann, who now has an appointment at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), soon began reaching out to a cross-section of these groups and individuals addressing reparations: academics, but also museum curators, lawyers, and, as Mann put it, “most important[ly], members from local redress organizations.” In the fall of 2018, with the essential help of SIPA professor Elazar Barkan, they brought everyone together for their first convening—over two days, the 35 attendees shared, discussed, debated, and eventually decided to create a network.

Immediately after, Mann approached professor Justin Hansford, who serves as the executive director for the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at the School of Law at Howard University—an institution she had previously collaborated with—in the hopes that they could work together to start building a network. According to Mann, Hansford was the only person she could imagine co-founding the network with, not unfoundedly. A notable and “leading scholar and activist in the areas of critical race theory, human rights, and law and social movements”—as detailed on his faculty listing at the Howard University School of Law website—Hansford was recently elected to serve on the UN Permanent Forum on People of African Descent. As Mann continuously emphasized, Hansford’s involvement proved paramount to the initial formation of the network. Soon after Hansford’s agreement, and following much discussion and logistical debate, the African-American Redress Network was born.

AARN, now well established with a growing steering committee and internship base, is an organization that operates on a local, state, and federal level to interact with, provide support to, connect, and assist organizations and individuals working in reparations and racial redress. Such groups are usually directly identified by AARN, though some also approach the network, asking to join. At present, AARN provides technical assistance to the local redress efforts they partner with, offering legal advocacy and archival and genealogical research. They also become incredibly invested in each community they work with.

“The only thing that matters is that you say that this is a collaboration with Howard … and that we [Columbia] are, as a PWI [predominantly white institution], listening to Black communities and we are serving as an ally in their efforts,” Mann stated.

Acknowledging her position as a “white researcher and practitioner,” she wanted to ensure that AARN was, first and foremost, Black-led. Students and faculty at Howard’s Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center, particularly managing director, Billi Wilkerson, provide invaluable perspectives, both as members of a historically Black university, and through their ability to view the projects AARN tackles through a legal mindset, which directly complements the human rights perspective the students and faculty of SIPA work from. As AARN has grown, though, it is not just SIPA and Thurgood Marshall students that have become involved—undergraduates, too, have made their mark on the organization, spearheading projects in “one-man-band” operations with the ardent support of the larger network.

Ilana Hamer, a senior in the joint program between the School of General Studies and the Jewish Theological Seminary as well as an intern at AARN, could not be more eager to talk about the critical work AARN is doing.

As a human rights major, Hamer has always had an interest in adjacent fields, though she had not worked specifically in reparations before. As a result, she is learning a lot—especially since she is at the forefront of creating, posting, and promoting engaging educational content for AARN’s social media platforms. At present, Hamer runs the social media mostly by herself, a rather substantial task as AARN continues to grow and create more partnerships. However, Hamer finds great pleasure in her work and tackles it with tenacity. Because of AARN’s flexibility and encouragement of its interns to do the work they find interesting and fulfilling, Hamer was able to establish herself as the social media manager—she and a small team worked to develop the website, strengthen AARN’s Instagram and Facebook presence, and create a Twitter. The streams are filled with features of the steering committee and interns, information about ongoing projects, and more general posts detailing historical events. More recently, Hamer was asked about other things she might be interested in doing, and now, after mentioning her enthusiasm for event planning, she is helping to coordinate the 2022 Convening.

Before social media and event planning, though, Hamer was a part of the team developing the star of the AARN website—the Redress Map. The Redress Map uses ArcGIS technology to show locations around the country where groups and organizations are working on reparations for the tragedies they are addressing, both past and present. During the initial mapping, the AARN identified approximately 100 local redress efforts in the Southeast—today, it has mapped around 500 throughout the entire country.

To be included on the map, redress efforts have to meet certain criteria through a systematic human rights framework. This framework acknowledges five categories of reparations: satisfaction, which might be an acknowledgment of a tragedy or the removal or erection of a memorial; restitution, which would include the return of land; rehabilitation, such as mental and physical health services; compensation, which is giving some form of money; and, finally, guarantees of non repetition, which is creating mitigation “that would aim to alter systemic racism within the structures of an institutional organization.”

Once organizations are identified, they need a point person at AARN. This is where intern Pat Lilly comes in. Lilly, a General Studies student, serves as the communications assistant, acting as the middle man between the larger organization and the smaller, local groups and individuals seeking to establish partnerships. Though an intern, Lilly appears to be a cornerstone of the organization. In every interview for this piece, her praises were sung. “You must speak to Pat Lilly,” Mann said, grinning from ear to ear, while Hamer introduced her as “wonderful”. And indeed, Lilly is warm, clear, and thoughtful: A self-proclaimed lover of learning, she has a wealth of knowledge and is deeply dedicated to her work at AARN.

“They’re so passionate when they talk about it,” Lilly said of the local redress effort organizations she interacts with. “You can feel it, so powerful, so emotional … That’s, for me, the most interesting part, to hear their stories and to realize the harms that were done to them.”

Lilly feels a particular connection to a project in Africatown, Alabama. Founded in 1859 for the preservation of African traditions, the community was started by the enslaved people brought to the United States on the Clotilda, the last recorded ship—filled entirely with young children—to bring enslaved Africans to the United States. The Redress Map lists the goals of the Clotilda project as satisfaction and truth-seeking. They aim to unearth exactly what happened, to discover any descendants that may still be alive, and, in general, to educate the public about the event. Lilly said the community has planned lantern walks from the school to the cemetery “where the elders are buried”.

Lilly initially got involved with AARN through a class with an internship requirement. As a full-time employee on the Manhattanville campus, Lilly was concerned about having enough time to commit, but AARN ended up being perfect for her. The evening meetings did not conflict with Lilly’s day job, and the organization has been flexible in letting the interns determine how much time they can give. In general, AARN has also been very accommodating, with Mann having agreed to meet with Lilly as early as 7:30 in the morning.

As AARN has grown, it is not just Howard and Columbia students getting involved. Corey Shaw, a senior at the University of the District of Columbia, has spent a large amount of his time working with AARN since the fall. During the day, he works with emergency service programs in his district for nonprofit civil rights organizations. Last semester, he was working on collecting oral histories for the Chevy Chase project, specifically following the legacy of George Pointer, who was born into slavery, Pointer bought his own freedom for $300 before becoming a supervisory engineer at the Potomac River company. After Pointer’s death, the land he owned and lived on was destroyed by the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which also displaced his family. When Mann went to talk to his class, Shaw was drawn into working for AARN.

Shaped by his upbringing in the South and the fact that his great-great-great-grandfather was enslaved, Shaw had written his thesis on reparations the previous semester.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about, honestly, since I was a kid,” Shaw explained.

Along with the Chevy Chase project, he is especially interested in the effort to get recognition and protection for the Mount Zion Female Union Band Society Cemetery (which had a bike path built through it in the ’30s without disinterring bodies, and was, peculiarly, condemned by the District Health Department in the ’70s, despite its numerous connections to African American history), and Brown Grove, where a Wegmans distribution center was slated to be built in a location that may have housed African American burial grounds.

“I’m almost certain that they’re connected,” Shaw said of these three projects, partially joking, but mostly not, as he detailed how those who were displaced at one site moved to the location of another. “I cannot stop talking about them. Brown Grove is amazing, and the cemetery and Chevy Chase are just—wow.”

Luckily for someone who can’t stop talking, Shaw’s current project at AARN is the development of a podcast titled Let’s Talk Reparations. For Black History Month, he is putting together a short form series called The Crossroads: Preservation and Reparation. This podcast “is going to serve as a platform for descendant communities, activists to come and share their stories.” He is already slated to do episodes about Brown Grove and the preservation of Colored School No. 4 in Chelsea, an effort spearheaded by Columbia Community Scholar and independent historian Eric K. Washington; Shaw believes that these episodes will generate more public involvement with the featured descendant communities.

Although Shaw had not podcasted before aside from a few class projects, he is excited about the work, and the audience engagement has already exceeded his expectations.

Shaw is not the only AARN member who loves his job; every interviewee spoke with great pride about their work and remarked on how delighted they are to have become involved in AARN. Lilly noted an incredible passion among the members, saying that many of them had barely started their tenure at AARN when she first joined the team, but that “it seemed like they’d been there forever.”

Mann, as co-founder, could not be prouder of the students.

“Let me just give a shout out to the student volunteers at AARN,” she said. “They are incredible. They are dedicated; they’re genius. I think they’re brilliant, and I’m so grateful to every single one of them. In many ways, we are a student-led organization, as well. I look at everything we do as a fellowship—I don’t see a hierarchy.” Such feelings of admiration are wholly reciprocated by Hamer, Lilly, and Shaw.

For the interns, the learning opportunities they encounter have proved hugely valuable. Lilly, for example, has begun to see her day job in a new light. At Manhattanville, she serves as the senior manager of community engagement in the Forum Building, where it is her job to draw the community in. When a community member is standing at the gates, unsure if they are welcome on campus, Lilly sees it as her duty to show them that they belong. She helps in coordinating events such as “Saturday Science”—a Zuckerman Institute program held in the Jerome L. Greene Science Center where kids were able to visit campus pre-COVID to be taught by a neuroscientist—and she also leads tours, bringing people into the Nash Building where there is an exhibit “dedicated to the Manhattanville area.” She hopes to show community members that they can enter buildings to study with free WiFi, eat at the local businesses, or even just to escape the elements, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, no ID required.

When Manhattanville was being built, however, residents worried about being forced out. Though University President Lee Bollinger said he would not use eminent domain, there were two buildings in the way of the planned construction. These buildings housed 27 families in total, all of whom were in the Tenant Interim Lease program, meaning that they were on their way to owning their homes. To circumnavigate the issue, Columbia built a new building and moved the families as opposed to using eminent domain, where they became owners immediately instead of some years down the line.

“‘That’s a form of reparations,’” Lilly recalled Mann saying when she went on Lilly’s tour. “All this time I’ve been doing my tour, I never thought of it that way, so it was really eye-opening when she said that, that it could be considered a form of reparations, because you’ve made it right.”

That is what AARN, ultimately, is working toward—making it right. As Shaw said, reparations do still have somewhat of a reputation among certain groups of people, who see the practice as handing out free money “on a racial basis.” However, the use of the human rights framework expands what reparations are and can achieve.

Shaw asked, philosophically and rhetorically, “What do we hope we can all accomplish from this?”

To answer his own question, Shaw paused and thought for a moment before remarking thoughtfully: “It’s in pursuit of the more perfect union. We recognize that there are these historical injustices, and very methodically, student researchers, descendant communities, professionals in fields, we come together, we collaborate, and we try to find ways to move past these things, provide equity, equality, and repair.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly implied Columbia used eminent domain to displace persons for the Manhattanville campus. Spectator regrets the error.

Features Editor Lilienne Shore Kilgore-Brown can be contacted at Article from The Eye.