Detroit reparations task force promises to get the job done amid rocky start

Last Saturday’s meeting of the Detroit City Council Reparations task force could have been a significant one, and at least a few residents showed up expecting big things. It was the historic commission’s fourth public meeting – and its first since the passing of legendary Detroit activist and executive committee member Rev. Dr. JoAnn Watson, who died July 10.

Resident Talecia Felton arrived hoping to learn about the state of the task force in the aftermath of Watson’s death, and to get an update on the research and progress the task force has made since it formed in April. 

But Felton says the meeting, which was scheduled for two hours but adjourned not long after 30 minutes, gave her nothing of value. 

“Thirty minutes for a reparations meeting is not enough,” Felton said. “They didn’t provide an agenda. They didn’t give us an update on their progress. And we rearranged our weekend to be here.” 

After roll call, members gave remarks honoring Watson, followed by special presentations from Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield and task force member Anita Belle. That transitioned into public comments – then the meeting adjourned.  

Felton came to Saturday’s meeting with Terrence Ealy, who said he would’ve been better off going in to work.

“They cut the meeting short, and then they’re still in the room lollygagging with one another,” Ealy said. “This whole time we could’ve been talking about business.”

In November 2021, 80 percent of Detroit voters approved the creation of a taskforce to explore reparations for the city’s past discriminatory policies. The 13-member team, formed in April after more than a year of research, was given 18 months to research and develop recommendations to present to the city council. According to the Detroit Free Press, the task force is working on a budget of $350,000. The public meetings are held the first Saturday of every month, both in-person and over zoom. 

“I agree there wasn’t a lot of content for the public,” co-chair Lauren Hood said of Saturday’s meeting. “But what we’re doing hasn’t been done before. There is no template, no roadmap – we’re doing this ourselves. Most of the work happens behind closed doors, and we will give updates as we move along, but sometimes we won’t have anything significant to share.”

Keith Williams, also a co-chair, said a website where residents can visit to stay updated is currently under construction. 

Other residents, like Norrel Hemphill, have chosen to be patient with the task force. Hemphill has attended every meeting so far. 

“I come into these meetings with an open mind,” Hemphill said, a water justice advocate who is a part of the “We the People of Detroit” coalition. “But we have to get serious about the recommendations and not miss this moment to do something meaningful.”

Hemphill said she decided to trust and buy into the task force once she found out that Watson was on it. Watson was one of four executive members appointed by Sheffield, who now must decide what to do with the late Detroit icon’s vacant seat.   

“We’re still trying to figure it out. We’re still in the grieving process,” Sheffield told BridgeDetroit. “We may bring somebody else onboard, or we may leave her seat vacant in her memory.” 

Hood said it would serve the task force best if a fellow member is promoted to an executive position. Regardless of what happens, Williams believes the passing of Watson isn’t going to prevent the task force from completing its mission. 

“We’re going to get it done,” Williams said. “Dr. Watson was all about moving forward. We owe this to her.”

Williams said in addition to providing updates, the public meetings will have an educational component, moving through a timeline of events that contributed to systematic racism and discrimination against Black people in Detroit. The next meeting is scheduled for September 2. Williams says the topic of discussion then will be the history and demolition of Black Bottom. 

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