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Decatur City Commission approves funding request for Beacon Hill for reparations research

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Decatur City Commission approves funding request for Beacon Hill for reparations research

FILE PHOTO: Decatur City Commissioner Lesa Mayer dances with Caitlin and Courtlin Moore during the first installment of the Beacon Hill Concert Series in Decatur on Sunday, March 27, 2022. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated.

Decatur, GA — The Decatur City Commission approved a funding request from the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights to continue their reparations work. The city commission, at its March 4 regular meeting, directed the city manager to develop a contract for services with Beacon Hill in the amount of $25,000.

The city has a goal in its 2020 strategic plan to establish a reparations task force, and the plan notes a “community-directed task force should document the city’s role in these injustices and address reparations,” City Manager Andrea Arnold said.

Once the contract for services is developed, the city can disburse the funds, Arnold said.

Beacon Hill is working to lay the groundwork for the task force to be established, but is not acting as the task force, Beacon Hill Co-Chair Phil Cuffey told Decaturish. Beacon Hill began doing reparations research in 2022 and now needs additional resources from the city.

The first steps for the group have been to understand the history of the Beacon Hill community. The Beacon Hill community was the area of Decatur where freed slaves began to settle. The square mile area was the site of a thriving African-American community of homes, businesses, churches and schools. In the early 20th century, the neighborhood became known as Beacon Hill, according to a city website.

“There was a thriving community, and we look at it today. What do we see? It’s largely absent,” Cuffey said.

A process the city initiated called “Urban renewal” displaced these residents.

“For decades, the Beacon area was considered by city officials to be a slum,” the city of Decatur’s website says. “Urban renewal, the process to buy, clear, and redevelop the area, began in the late 1930s. …Urban renewal expanded in the 1960s. Families and businesses were again displaced to make way for the Swanton Heights housing project and other public developments, including the new Decatur High School, and the county courthouse.”

As the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights continues its work, it will focus on research, community education and engagement, and interviewing community members who live in the Beacon Hill area.

“It will help us to garner more resources and experts in this field,” Cuffey said. “We’re not the task force. It’s going to help formulate and put in place a task force.”

Cuffey added that he has gotten questions about why the city is doing the reparations work now.

“My thought process around that is this work is important because it addresses the harm that was done, and it brings clarity and truth to our history, and it also lays out steps for healing,” Cuffey said.

Commissioner Lesa Mayer presented the request on behalf of Beacon Hill on Monday night. She noted that equity and racial justice are the most significant and challenging of the city’s strategic plan’s six categories of action.

All the commissioners acknowledged that difficult conversations are on the horizon, but important work remains.

“We live in a social climate that encourages the adoptions of words and language related to equity and racial justice, but that falls short of implementation and true meaningful action,” Mayer said. “As a city, Decatur must continue to honor its values and take actions on matters of true justice and belonging to truly be a welcoming city that prioritizes equity and engagement.”

She added that the city has an opportunity to lead by example and act with bravery.

“When we talk about reparations, we’re talking specifically about repairing the harm that was done in Decatur to Black residents of Decatur by the city of Decatur,” Mayer said. “Research and review of practices and acts by the city of Decatur that caused direct harm to its Black residents over its 200-year history must first occur to start this process.

“We know from the stories we’ve heard by people who have been impacted, residents of the Beacon Hill community, specifically, of their forced resilience because they were required to live the best quality of life possible in the throes of destructive ordinances, segregation and what we believe to be city-sanctioned oppression that generations since of these former residents continue to be disadvantaged by today.”

She added that the city is not prepared and does not have the expertise to lead the work on reparations, nor is it appropriate for the city to lead the effort.

With the $25,000, Beacon Hill will partner and engage with others who have spent years studying, advocating, and educating about reparations, Mayer said. The group will develop recommendations on how the city can move forward in establishing the reparations task force

“You know it’s important work when the community gets behind it and this is what our community has said is something that’s important,” Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers said. “This work will be difficult.”

Mawuli Davis, the co-founder of Beacon Hill, said the members of Beacon Hill’s reparations committee are standing on the shoulders of their ancestors and the communities, families, and churches of the Beacon Hill community that were displaced.

“It’s those ancestors who we want to acknowledge with our work, and we believe this is a sacred work and an important work and one that we are very honored to be able to take up,” Davis said.

Powers also recalled a moment in early 2020 when he was standing on the steps of Decatur City Hall. A movement was afoot, he said.

“It started to happen because people were tired. They were tired of being oppressed. They were tired of being attacked. They were just tired, and those people look like me and Commissioner Mayer. We were elected to represent our city and how best to represent than to represent our people as well,” Powers said.

Here are Powers’ full remarks from Monday night:

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