In two weeks, the Boston Reparations Task Force will hold its first meeting. At the head of the task force is Joseph Feaster Jr., who will lead the team’s efforts in studying Boston’s role in slavery and how reparations can redress the city’s historical harms its African American residents are still suffering from.

In an interview this week, Feaster said he has four key questions that need to be answered before the task force can issue its recommendation to the city, which is due late next year.

What is the debt?

One of the first items on the task force’s list will be to hire a researcher or a firm to help them measure the size of the debt owed to Boston’s African American residents.

Although Feaster isn’t sure what he’ll specifically ask of the firm, he does know that their research will involve exploring the history of enslaved Africans in Massachusetts.

In 1641, slave owner John Winthrop, who was also Massachusetts’ first governor, helped author the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, a piece of legislation that legalized slavery in the commonwealth. From 1704 to 1751, the number of enslaved Africans in Boston grew by 350%, according to a resolution from the Boston city council. Jared Ross Hardesty, a professor of history at Western Washington University, estimated that during the mid-18th century, more than 1,600 Africans were enslaved in Boston, NPR reported.

Although slavery was eventually abolished in Massachusetts in 1783, Boston was still complicit in the practice of slavery, purchasing and selling goods that were either created by or would be used by enslaved Africans.

There is evidence the city’s legacy of slavery helped shape the systemic inequality its African American residents face today. In 2015, a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston showed the severe wealth gap between the city’s white families who had a median net wealth of $247,500 and Black families who had a median net wealth of $8.

Like many on the task force, Feaster is a descendant of enslaved Africans. According to Feaster, his grandfather, Allen Feaster, on his father’s side was an enslaved farmer from Winnsboro, South Carolina, during the late 1800s.

“When you start talking about reparations, it’s a matter of, let’s talk about what they should have properly received like any other American, even though they were not considered Americans back in that time,” Feaster said.

Who would be entitled to reparations?

Although there is no clear-cut answer to who in the Black community deserves reparations, Feaster believes the historical suffering of African Americans is unique.

“I recognize that there were persons who have come from other countries who are here,” Feaster said. “What the reality is, the devastation and the insidiousness that was rendered upon Black people is well documented from the slave trade.

In Feaster’s mind, the question becomes whether the “lucky ones” were the people who arrived in the Americas or if they were the people who died during the Middle Passage.

In addition to researching the debt owed to African Americans, the research firm hired by the task force will also help determine who will be entitled to reparations in the city, according to Feaster.

In the meantime, the question of who is owed reparations is a matter of debate for Black Bostonians — specifically, whether reparations should only apply to descendants of African Americans, or if they should also include Black immigrants.

Black immigrants account for about 25% of Boston’s foreign-born population, according to a 2018 report from the Boston Planning and Development Agency. Like African Americans, Black immigrants also suffer from the effects of systemic racism.

But for Feaster, there is a distinction.

“Our arrival here was different. Immigrants that came in were not brought here as slaves – Black people were,” Feaster said. “I feel the plight of any persons red, white, blue or green, that are in poverty, but the circumstances are unlike what was done [to African Americas]. Black people were brought here as slaves, remained as slaves, and to this day, there are the disparities and the racial disparities that take place … So our experiences are different.”

Who pays and what does the payment mean?

As a self-proclaimed “reparationist” — which to Feaster means someone who is entitled to a payment for the historical transgressions their enslaved ancestors faced — he likens reparations for African Americans to a mortgage loan.

“If there’s a mortgage loan, [and] the original debtor passes away, I have yet to find a lender that says at that point, ‘the loan is forgiven’,” Feaster said. “They say ‘the estate has to pay the debt.’ And that’s what I’m saying here. While the persons now might say ‘we weren’t the ones that did it,’ then I still say that still may be true, but your ancestors did and so therefore, there was a debt.”

The task force isn’t mandated to figure out who would pay for reparations, although they may arrive at the answer depending on the course of their research, Feaster said.

Determining exactly how reparations would be paid has been a difficult question in the past. In 1989, Massachusetts’ first Black senator, Bill Owens, sponsored a bill that would’ve required the commonwealth to pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans. However, the bill didn’t say where the money would come from.

Although Owens’ bill fell through, the piece of legislation later became the inspiration behind the Boston City Council’s unanimous decision to form a reparations task force.

On the state level, Sen. Liz Miranda filed two pieces of legislation in January, one that would create a statewide reparations commission and another that would establish a reparations fund using excise taxes from “applicable educational institutions.”

Although reparations can take the form of direct payments, like when the U.S. passed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which gave surviving Japanese Americans $20,000 in reparations for their wrongful internment during World War II, Feaster isn’t sure a check to Boston’s African Americans will be the outcome of the task force’s work.

“We may decide that there is a more general use of the funds. We may decide that it may relate to scholarships or they may relate to building monuments,” Feaster said.

Organizations like the National African American Reparations Commission developed a preliminary 10-point plan that outlines what reparations could look like. Some measures include funding a regional system of “Black controlled” health and wellness centers and an African American Housing and Finance Authority.

When would a payment be made?

A report on the task force’s findings and recommendations for reparations is due by October of 2024 to Mayor Michelle Wu and the City Council.

In a press conference, Wu said she plans to start implementing the recommendations set by the task force by the summer of 2026, the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States of America.

However, Feaster said the city’s timeline, “really depends on what we find, how quickly we can find it and how quickly we can get it to them and they adopt it.”

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