Fulton County Board of Commissioners approves budget for reparations research task force
What is believed to be the nation’s first-ever county-led reparations research task force has just received funding in Fulton County.
The Fulton County Board of Commissioners executive session on Jan. 18 approved the overall county budget in a vote of 4-3, which included funding for the task force. The budget was approved for $250,000 after a preliminary cycle of research that was completed over the course of more than a year.
The push at the board meeting
“It has so much potential as a county-led task force because everyone in the U.S. lives in a county or parish,” said Dr. Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, chair of the task force. “When we begin to look at reparations and who committed wrongs against formerly enslaved people, or even individuals during the Jim Crow Era and during the period of urban renewal during the 20th century, you begin to look at how the county was explicit in exploiting the goods, labor and services from people of African descent in the United States.”
Sims-Alvarado pointed to the Antebellum Era, Reconstruction, Post-Reconstruction and Jim Crow as a few eras, and found a common thread — the mistreatment of Black people and extortion of their services to aid the county.
Marcus Coleman, vice-chair of the Task Force Advisory Board, spoke candidly at the Fulton County board meeting when making the case for funding to continue the study.
“This is a charged-up topic for some. But truth be told, it should not be. Being from Atlanta, I am more than honored and proud to serve on this task force,” Coleman said. “I am somewhat concerned because today is a ‘good faith day’ in many of our opinions… Dr. Bernice King spoke eloquently, as she always does, on King Day about the convenience of honoring her father. But there’s an inconvenient part of Dr. Martin Luther King that we forget to honor; you all are faced with that inconvenient honoring today as I see the streets riddled with ‘it begins with me’ signs with Dr. King and Coretta. We truly have the opportunity to set the tone as a county in this nation.”
Coleman concluded his time with one line: “Please don’t let this work be in vain.”
Commissioner Khadijah Abdur-Rahman of District 6 shared similar sentiments on the topic making some uncomfortable while underlining it is still important to address it.
“How are we to ever become that beloved community we often talk about on one day out of the year, when the other 364 days we don’t talk about what we need to do to get to the beloved community?” Commissioner Abdur-Rahman asked.
Commissioner Marvin Arrington, Jr. of District 5 passionately advocated on behalf of funding the task force he helped originally sponsor when questions of the differences between a task force, board, and council were raised and — more importantly — if task forces in the past been funded.
“You can call it whatever the hell you want; they all serve the same thing. These are volunteers from our community working on our behalf, and yes they get paid,” Commissioner Arrington Jr. said as he slammed his fist on his desk. “Development Authority gets paid, the Board of Elections gets paid. Don’t come in here starting that mess. They all have budgets.”
“We have [multiple] types of volunteer community boards that all have budgets in Fulton County right now. What’s the budget for the Board of Registration and Elections?” said Arrington Jr., repeating his question several times.
Newly elected Commissioner Bridget Thorne of District 1 was hesitant to approve the task force budget, and said she did not have enough information to properly assess at the time. She also cited concerns that this research would be never-ending, and said many other people and positions in the county could use funding instead.
“I myself am half-Hispanic. So I understand, like, injustices… so I just wish we could focus on helping people, and just helping everyone and focus on building bridges like Mayor Andrew Young said this weekend,” said Commissioner Thorne.
First-of-its-kind task force
The resolution for the task force was originally adopted in April 2021 after Commissioners Marvin Arrington Jr. (District 5) and Natalie Hall (District 4) sponsored it. The vote to create the task force was 4-2, with one commissioner abstaining.
It took some time for members of the task force to be appointed, and preliminary work didn’t begin until October of that year. Initially, it was intended to have one representative appointed by each of the seven Fulton County commissioners.
Part of that delay was that some of the county commissioners were hesitant to appoint. “Three of the commissioners did not appoint anyone at all,” said Sims-Alvarado. “So we were operating with four individuals.”
Marcus Coleman noted during the board meeting that all four commissioners who appointed appointees for the task force were Black.
Due to the workload, the task force then asked for two appointed members per district to operate at full capacity and got the resolution passed. Eventually, after county commissioner changes through elections and resignation, new commissioners came on board the task force grew to six as of Jan. 2023.
The official report presented to Fulton County in January listed Dr. Sims-Alvarado, Marcus Coleman, Tamika Jackson, Shanti Vissa, Elon Osby and Honorable Khalid Kamau as the task force Advisory Board. Olivia Reneau and John Wright were listed as task force researchers and report contributors.
Multiple case studies were performed in preliminary research and used to justify the requested budget. These include Bagley Park and displacement, a study on convict labor in Fulton County, and the direct effects of slavery in Fulton County.
The research looked at Fulton County across multiple periods of time, starting from the beginnings of slavery, up to urban renewal, and as late as the 80s.
Fulton County’s role
Sims-Alvarado believes this is a historic opportunity.
“In Fulton County, the county is responsible for voting, healthcare, libraries, property taxes, the courts, and the jails. So when you think about that history — when Fulton county became a county in 1853, it began to use the labor of its people to provide those services,” said Sims-Alvarado.
As a new county, Fulton needed people to build its new buildings, along with infrastructure like railroads. Who would build them? The answer, Sims-Alvarado said, is simple: enslaved people.
Only, the county needed a new source of exploited labor post-slavery. That’s when their efforts were shifted towards convict labor, effectively replacing enslaved labor.
“After slavery, you began to really see a shift… you have a huge migration of Black people coming into Atlanta because the city is literally experiencing reconstruction during the Reconstruction period — Sherman had burned down everything,” explained Sims-Alvarado, adding that people came to the city looking for opportunities. “Who is going to clear the roads, cut down the trees? Who is going to produce the bricks in order to build the buildings? So the county would go from using enslaved labor to — and it doesn’t take long for this to occur — convict labor.”
The county used these forced labor camps, like the Chattahoochee Brick Site, to build itself up and used convict labor as a replacement for enslaved labor.
“From the onset of the county, 20 percent of its population consisted of slave laborers… The same individuals involved in the selling of slaves, one of the most notorious individuals becomes the commissioner of public works with the City of Atlanta immediately after slavery ends,” said Sims-Alvarado at the board of commissioners meeting.
The truth of convict labor’s role in being a replacement for enslaved labor has come to light in recent years; in 2009, the book “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” won the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction for chronicling the ordeal.
Companies would enter contracts with the county to provide a service, and contract out labor from the county in the process — some as long as 20 years. Some laborers included children who were orphaned or displaced because of the war who came to the city looking for opportunities and were arrested on loitering laws because they had nowhere to go.
“People were arrested for petty crimes and given unfair, long-term sentences, and it matches the term length of the contracts between the county and the business,” Sims-Alvarado said.
The case for reparations
Reparations are long overdue, according to Sims-Alvarado.
“Reparations just means to repair, to restore, to make someone whole. Someone’s been damaged; you need to make them whole,” Sims-Alvarado said.
The tricky part lies in what exactly wholeness looks like. The task force, however, has been able to take inspiration and guidance from past cases of it, albeit on a small level. One example was the Chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Janice Hahn fighting to have Bruce’s Beach returned to the Bruce family after it was unjustly seized over a century ago. The Bruce family eventually sold the land back to the county for $20 million.
Sims-Alvarado said Supervisor Hahn’s decision to pursue justice by meeting with those who could return the land to the Bruce family so many years later acted as a guide for how reparations could look in Fulton County — at least in one form.
“Hahn shared with us that she simply used her power as an elected official to do the right thing,” said Sims-Alvarado.
Still, coming up with exactly what forms reparations could look like is no easy task.
“I don’t think there’s one clear definition because if you’re talking about millions of people in the United States that have been wronged, who have been exploited in so many different ways… it’s going to vary in so many different ways,” Sims-Alvarado said.
The task force hopes to get closer to that resolution through their research.
What the budget means and what’s next
“What we’ve been tasked to do is investigate the need for reparations,” Sims-Alvarado said. With the approved $250,000 budget, she believes the team can get it done.
The task force will only be able to look into areas within Fulton County for their investigation. But Sims-Alvarado believes that if done correctly, this could highlight the need for similar investigations elsewhere, regardless of the results here.
“We may not find that Black people in Fulton County today are denied suffrage rights, but if you were to examine the Jim Crow years, you will see evidence of disenfranchisement in Fulton County, in other Georgia counties, and in other states,” Sims-Alvarado said.
Now that the budget has been approved, Dr. Sims-Alvarado said the real work begins. And it starts by asking the right questions.
“In what ways did the county wrong individuals? Were they responsible in ensuring that African Americans did not register to vote? Did their names disappear from the registry rows following the Smith v. Allwright case when African Americans were able to participate in the white primary? How can we prove that with the empirical data that exists? How do you quantify that information?” Sims-Alvarado said. “And then do you contextualize that information? You do that with the data to see the impact on the lives of individuals.”
To accomplish this, two studies will be performed; one will be an empirical study driven mainly by Fulton County records. The information that is found will then be presented to the present-day community and solicit their feedback about what restitution should look like.
From there, the task force will make recommendations to the county and perform a feasibility study to see where resources could come from to fund long-term repairs. The proposed timeline of the work is between April 2023 through Oct. 2024.
$250000 is now the price for virtue signaling in Fulton County.Report