Why Boston Activists Want White Churches to Pay Reparations

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
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Religious leaders in Boston have rallied together to demand reparations for Black Americans, including a call for $15 billion from city authorities and white churches to help bridge the equity gap and tell a story of enslaved people in the northeast “that is rarely talked about.”

In February 2023, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu appointed members who would be part of the city’s Reparations Task Force. However, last month the task force said it would not complete its work by the end of the year as originally planned and that an action plan is now expected “sometime in 2025.”

Boston is one of a number of U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, and St. Louis, that is working to identify local ties to slavery and whether reparations are appropriate.

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Arlington Street Church Rev. John Gibbons, a white community minister who leads a multi-ethnic congregation, says many people consider Boston to be “the Deep North,” a play on the racist ideologies of the Deep South.

“In New England, we don’t think of New England and the North as a place of slavery, and it did take a different form than it did in the South,” he told The Daily Beast. “But we’re uncovering more and more evidence of the ways in which all of the prominent families in the founding of Boston were most frequently engaged in slavery.

Photograph of Arlington Street Church in Boston

The Arlington Street Church through early-morning rain and fog.

Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty

“We’ve had truly segregated housing. We have virtually exclusively Black neighborhoods, virtually exclusively white neighborhoods and suburbs, and this was done deliberately through the real estate practices of blockbusting and redlining where Black families were given loans but only if they would buy in particular neighborhoods. This has had a devastating effect,” Gibbons said. “T​​here are deep roots of racism in the North, and in Boston in particular.”

Boston People’s Reparations Commission Co-Director Edwin Sumpter, who shares the role with Heather Cook, said that Black Americans have given so much to the country but still suffer from the effects of enslavement and its aftermath with poor “housing, crime, joblessness, over policing, all the policing, health, environmental.”

“They ought to be willing to give back to those communities that have been so hurt by the fact that for the 300 years or so in the United States, Black people really got a low stock in terms of realizing the quote-unquote ‘American Dream.’ For so many years for us, it was an American nightmare,” Sumpter said. “Even after slavery ended in 1863, 1865, it was still another 100 years before the Civil Rights Bill was signed.”

He added that progress will be made when the Black community isn’t the last group to the table to discuss reparations.

“We’re the ones who reparations are going to impact. Without depending on the city to keep our community involved or engaged or educated on reparations… we just want to make sure that there’s some consistency going on… to whatever conclusion this all comes to.”

In 2022, Boston established that there would be a Reparations Task Force to study the “legacy of slavery in the city and its impact on descendants today,” according to the group’s website. But local leaders say the research is taking too long to show results.

“From my point of view… there needs to be more pressure for action and for moving forward and considering economic reparations in a variety of ways,” Gibbons said.

Gibbons says his social justice group, the New Democracy Coalition, helped push for the Boston City Council’s 2022 apology for the city’s involvement in the enslavement of Black people and the creation of a reparations task force.

He said the group has been working directly with the Boston People’s Reparations Commission—a band of local Black activists who partner with other progressive groups throughout the city—and its appeal for reparations.

“We have demanded $15 billion, and usually we say $15 billion is not enough,” he said.

“[The $15 billion] is a way of saying that the damage done by slavery has been incalculable over the generations, not just to those who were enslaved, but to the cascade and generations that have been harmed by white supremacy, by racist housing, real estate, employment, education, health practices,” Gibbons explained. “We particularly are directing this demand to the financial institutions of Boston and to the white churches and, most especially, to the legacy white churches—by which, I mean the churches that were part of the founding of Boston. Really the economy, the structure, the culture of Boston was founded on the institution of slavery.”

In an interview with local news outlet BCAM TV in Massachusetts last month, Boston People’s Reparations Commission Co-Director Heather Cook said the city’s official task force needed to have more of a working relationship with its constituents.

“Because there was that gap, we saw that there was a need for there to be the [Boston People’s Reparations] Commission,” Cook said. “The Boston People’s Reparations Commission was created by the people for the people. We're very appreciative of the fact that the city has joined our meetings, is interested in what the community has to say, and truly wants to partner, and that’s what the conversation is right now.”

Late last month, Boston People’s Reparations Commission President Rev. Kevin Peterson, who also works with the New Democracy Coalition, called on older church denominations that have predominantly white congregations to join its mission to repair Boston’s Black community—monetarily, emotionally, and historically.

“We call sincerely and with a heart filled with faith and Christian love for our white churches to join us and not be silent around this issue of racism and slavery and commit to reparations,” Peterson said, according to the Boston Globe. “We point to them in Christian love to publicly atone for the sins of slavery and we ask them to publicly commit to a process of reparations where they will extend their great wealth—tens of millions of dollars among some of those churches—into the Black community.”

The leaders of some churches, a number of which have been around since the 17th and 18th centuries, feel they have an obligation to make the public aware of Boston’s history.

Photograph of Old South Church in Boston

Old South Church, Boston.

Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty

Rev. John Edgerton of Old South Church explained that his church maintained archives of previous members, and in turn, created a memorial to enslaved congregants.

“We’re a very old institution that has been here since 1669,” Edgerton told The Daily Beast. “During that period of time, slavery was legal in the colony [of] Massachusetts. We know that those institutions—and institutions of white supremacy in general—are things that are bound up in our history.”

Edgerton said the Old South Church of Boston had a duty to do historical research considering its legacy.

“We’re in a really good position to do that historical research. That is both an opportunity, and also I feel like it’s a responsibility that we have as an institution.”

Rev. Kenneth Young, associate director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches told The Daily Beast the history of enslaved Black people of Boston and its trajectory into the marginalization of the Black community is not a common topic in the city.

“Not only is it rarely talked about, you think about churches that played a role in that,” he said. “Culturally, Boston, particularly, is a place you go to experience a progressive culture… And now the underbelly of it is like, ‘How did we manage to get all of this?’ Well, some of it happened through enslaving people like they did in the South.”

Photograph of Trinity Church in Boston

Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square.

Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe via Getty

Rev. Morgan Allen of Boston’s Trinity Church said while his church did not directly enslave people according to its records that have been found, he recognized that its members were probably patrons of various industries that profited from enslaved Black labor.

“Trinity’s commitment to repair looks not only to our community’s past, but into our present and future,” Allen wrote in an email. “Trinity launched and continues to support a separately incorporated, non-profit, Trinity Boston Connects (TBC), which heals the traumatic impact of systemic racism on youth of color in the City of Boston.

“There has never been a time when Trinity Church was not a multi-racial community. From our founding in 1733, church registers testify to baptisms, marriages, and burials of people of color. Records identify some Black persons as ‘free,’ while we also expect that before Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783, some were likely the enslaved servants of white parishioners,” Allen wrote. “In the nearly 300-year history of Trinity Church, our parishioners remained—and remain—entangled in structures and systems of racism, even while we continually seek justice.”

Sumpter said that Black Americans were treated like “less than second-class citizens” until the Civil Rights Movement and that the only way for the country to prosper is if everyone operates collectively to uplift the community as a whole.

“African Americans in the 21st century… are in positions because of what African Americans in the 16th and 17th and 18th century had to endure,” Sumpter said, explaining that he doesn’t want the Black community to be in the dark as the City of Boston’s Reparations Task Force “sits on their hands” and ultimately decides what to do.

“When this whole reparations situation moves forward, we just want to make sure the community moves forward with it.”

For Gibbons, he says the “issues are too important to be given to a study commission” without any action.

“We can’t get [progress] until there is some means of addressing the damage, truly genocidal damage that was caused to Black Bostonians and Black Americans,” Gibbons said. “I feel these issues are too important to be left to the Black community to be responsible for white institutions. White people need to acknowledge our complicity over the generations. And sure, it means research and understanding the history.”

Mayor Wu says she hopes to begin implementing the task force’s recommendations, once they are made, by the summer of 2026, to mark the 250th anniversary of America’s founding, reported local outlet WBUR.

Communications for the City of Boston’s Reparations Task Force did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment for this article.

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