Last summer, Burlington became just the fourth U.S. city to ever form an official task force to study possible reparations for descendants of slaves. The Queen City’s Racial Justice Fund is paying for its work, to the tune of $50,000.

However, the group can’t come up with any recommendations about what the city should do regarding reparations until it researches just how extensive the effects of slavery — and forms of discrimination that have followed it — truly are.

Part of the task force’s research will concern African-American history in Burlington and elsewhere in Vermont. Dr. Elise Guyette expects to write the portions of the report covering pre-statehood through 1890.

“I’m sure we’ll find some de facto discrimination in housing and in hiring practices,” she said Wednesday night. “I also want to look at all the housing data that we can find.”

Other housing data the task force will look at will have to do with racially restrictive covenants — legal language in real estate deeds barring anyone non-white from buying or living on the property.
Federal law allowed them until the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1948 Shelley v. Kraemer decision.

Last year, a study of Census Bureau data found that Minnesota’s Twin Cities have the lowest African-American home ownership rate of any major U.S. metro area. University of Minnesota researchers recently wanted to know how housing covenants played into that. They studied digital copies of deeds from 1910 to 1955 with database software.

“The research team figured they would find about, maybe, 100 or so racial covenants,” University of Minnesota doctoral student Rashad Williams told the Burlington task force. “They ended up finding over 20,000, and so this is something that no one really knows, the extent to which racial covenants mapped urban geography throughout the country.”

The task force has a goal of scanning Burlington property deeds written from 1900 to 1960, but at the moment, the city has only digitized deeds dating back to 1986. Besides aiding the task force’s work, creating electronic copies of earlier documents would also benefit the city in another way.

“If there’s a fire at City Hall, they’re gone,” Burlington Director of Racial Equity, Inclusion & Belonging Tyeastia green said. “There’s no backup of it, there’s no record of it, they’re gone forever, and so it’s twofold there.”

The task force has until February 3, 2022 — a year from Wednesday — to research and present its report. The group is also looking into a formal apology from the Queen City for its role in slavery.