Thursday, July 18, 2024

Saskia VannJames consults a text during an Aug. 31 work session in her offices at the Democracy Center in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. (Photo: Kate Wheatley)

Creation of a Cambridge Freedmen’s Commission was embraced by city councillors, city staff and members of the public at an Ordinance Committee meeting Thursday. 

The work to advance reparations from Cambridge’s recognition of American Freedmen – the descendants of enslaved people in the United States – has been led by Saskia VannJames, who presented to the council’s Civic Unity Committee on Aug. 21 and again to the Ordinance Committee.

“Our city councillors need an additional tool to combat institutional racism and oppression that is occurring in our society,” VannJames said. “We’re not going to move any further in our racial conversations if we don’t start acknowledging American Freedmen.”

All seven members of the committee present voted to send the proposal to the full City Council with a favorable recommendation. City manager Yi-An Huang, who would get any eventual order and decide whether and how to implement it, said staff is also “really committed to being in this work and excited to have further conversations.”

Deputy city solicitor Megan Bayer said there were ways to strengthen the language of the ordinance, and committee chair Quinton Zondervan followed by proposing a motion for the Law Department to review the language and make recommendations on its way to the full council.

Beginning a process

The commission would oversee a Cambridge reparations process helping correct wrongs dating back to the founding of the county and its Jim Crow era, which dismantled wins from the Civil War. That is more complex than many might assume – “reparations is not a check,” VannJames said, “it is a process” – but begins with understanding the difference between racial justice, which is based on civil rights, and transitional justice, which is based on human rights. “Reparations is not racial justice, reparations is transitional justice,” VannJames said, and transitional justice can take on many forms.

As a start, VannJames said, just the creation of a commission will be significant, as it will be a “huge” step to be acknowledged as Freedmen “for the first time since the Civil War.”

After VannJames presented to the committee on reparations and immediate and long-term visions for action, the committee voted to send the proposal onward, led by councillor E. Denise Simmons. “I believe truly in my heart that we are not only ready but prepared to do this work,” Simmons said.

Councillor Marc McGovern said it was important to think of the issues raised by VannJames, even in a liberal city such as Cambridge in a blue state such as Massachusetts.

“One of our major challenges in Cambridge when it comes to talking about race and racism and white privilege is that I think in Cambridge, we don’t think that those are issues we have to deal with,” McGovern said. “Anything that we can do to educate people and highlight those conversations and push that agenda forward is something we need to do.”

Two concerns

Councillor Patricia Nolan had the most pointed concerns, including whether the term “Freedmen” would be problematic because it is gender specific. Because she considers it the name of an ethnic group, VannJames said she takes the name on proudly – even as Nolan’s question would certainly be explored further.

“I take pride in this name because I know that I come from a lineage of people that died for their freedom to be considered not a negro, not a colored, not a mulatto, not a piece of property, but a freed man,” VannJames said. The masculinity of the name is in some ways fitting, considering we “are living in a world where the standard of freedom is a white, cisgender, heterosexual man.”

Nolan also asked whether VannJames would make sure that the commission works with groups at the state and national level addressing the same issues.

Yes, VannJames said: “All of these things are going to require research, and that research is not just to be done on Google. That research is going to require collaborative conversations,” she said. “We cannot walk alone, we cannot walk in a vacuum.”

Votes of confidence for the plan were also heard from a handful of meeting attendees during public comment.

“To me, engaging in the process of reparations as a massive public history project in itself is reparations beginning. It’s the first step. I think it’s important for everyone, not just Freedmen,” Lydia Eccles said.