'I Knew We Were Going to Be History-Makers': How This City Approved Reparations for Black Residents

As Told To Madison Feller
Photo credit: MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
Photo credit: MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

From ELLE

On July 14th, in the middle of a national reckoning around racial justice, the Asheville, North Carolina city council unanimously voted to approve reparations for its Black residents. Through the historic resolution, the council apologized for the city's participation in slavery, segregation, and discrimination and sought to establish a Community Reparations Commission that will make recommendations on investing funds in areas of the community where Black residents face disparities, such as health care, education, and home ownership.

While some have criticized the resolution for not going far enough or for being too vague in its wording, members of the city council have said this is an essential first step for the city, where Black residents make up about 12 percent of the population.

“[The commission] can be deep and expansive in their thinking, and they are to come back with recommendations about how we can actually realize reparations,” Sheneika Smith, the city's sole Black councilwoman, told ELLE.com. Below, she describes what it was like participate in the momentous vote—and what she hopes is in store for the future of her city.

The day of the vote was one of the most intense days of my life.

I'm a native of Asheville, but I recently moved back within the last eight years. When I returned, I was a community organizer and activist, and there was a lot of momentum growing on the grassroots level. But in my heart, I knew that we needed to leverage that to actually move into positions of power and decision-making.

Councilman Keith Young came to my home about three years ago. He told me that he had been sensing a shift. He felt like it was time for a Black renaissance in Asheville. He pretty much told me, "I need you to run for city council, and I need you to win." Before he got the words out of his mouth, I knew this was where I was supposed to place my yes. I knew that this was the door that I was looking for.

Councilman Young and I are always in conversation about what’s needed from us and what our contribution is to the movement. There are multiple roles needed in order to inspire social change. Whether you're an organizer, a helper, a healer, an activist—all of those play a symbiotic role in pushing change. But there is a level of decision-making power that we have, so once the entire nation decided to congregate in the streets of America for the Black Lives Matter protests, I think that was the signal that told Councilman Young: The time is now to do something very radical with our position. He presented the reparations resolution to me, and I said, "Let's go on and execute.”

When he first brought it to me, it did feel bigger than a local issue. I always felt like reparations were going to come from the federal government and trickle down. But I think that’s the idea of this movement: We're trying to defy and dismantle the top-down power, the top-down decision-making, and do something that really focuses on empowering the people and their families and their community.

The day of the vote, there was excitement but also the pressures of responsibility to really make things come to fruition. When you're a Black person in a position of power, you always want to pay homage to the struggle and to the lives lost. It gets real. I started to think about my elders, my parents. It was a very emotional day.

After the resolution was introduced by Councilman Young, they opened up the floor for deliberation. That's when you get a true sense of how people feel, and each councilperson gave us their perspective that shaped their "yes" vote. Some people were really data-focused. Of course, Keith and I come from lived experience—the trauma that was experienced by our forefathers, even though you haven't experienced something, you still carry it through your bloodline.

If my constituents had any opposition to it, it's because they don't trust the government to make this type of step in the right direction. It might've triggered some trauma of promises not met in the past, especially with my older, Black constituents. Then there were individuals who were flat-out opposed, people who don't understand privilege. Some fear might come because they feel like Black Lives Matter means superiority, but it doesn’t.

I believe, like I said on the day of the vote, that’s just the miseducation of Americans. We don't learn the extent of the impacts of slavery and Jim Crow laws and segregation and even mass incarceration. They just breeze over it and mention some of the players, but they don't really chart the history, or even connect the history, when it comes to the life and experience of Black Americans.

I knew when I won city council that we were going to be history-makers. I'm not a very egotistical person, but I just felt in myself, in my being, that I was placed in this position because there was going to be some very transformative thing happening. That’s all I would preach, that's all I would speak. I wanted to help the city make amends.

Asheville has never been able to really stand in deep solidarity with the national movement. But I believe now, because we are in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, that we'll actually see some of the deeper and transformative change in our city.

The protests were definitely a breakthrough moment in Asheville, but it's almost like the reparations resolution was when the floodgates opened.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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