Ramona Burton, 73, first learned about the local reparations effort when Danny Glover visited her local church, First Church of God, in December 2019.
“But I never thought I would ever be chosen. Especially the first 16,” Burton said.
On January 13, the Evanston Reparations Committee met at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Community Center to obtain numbers that would identify the first recipients of the $25,000 Restorative House grants – and Burton’s number, 872113295, was one of the first 16 drawn, making her eligible to receive funds.
When Burton’s number was called, she was watching the selection process remotely, but her audio wasn’t working, so when they pulled up and read a number, she didn’t know who they were calling. Luckily, Delois Robinson, one of her relatives, was there and she called Burton with the good news.
Burton’s closest friends and family are excited for her. She said she has a 52-year-old son living in a suburb of Atlanta who was happy to hear that too: “My son said, ‘Oh, I’m happy to see the white man doing it. something for us.'”
‘Ancestor’ claims take priority
The Evanston Local Reparations Restorative Housing Program is the first initiative of the city’s $10 million commitment “to eradicate the effects of past systemically racist practices by the city government and all city-affiliated organizations.” The first $400,000 of the reparations program is earmarked for housing.
Applicants deemed eligible for the program and selected to participate can receive up to $25,000 in funds to purchase a home, renovate a home or pay a mortgage. The home must be in Evanston and must be the applicant’s primary residence. The amount of US$400,000 is enough to fund 16 grants of US$25,000.
To participate, Black Evanstonians must fit into one of three categories:
- Residents who lived in the city between 1919 and 1969, called “ancestors”.
- Direct descendants of a black resident from 1919 to 1969.
- Residents who provided evidence that they experienced housing discrimination due to city policies or practices after 1969.
There were over 600 applicants in total for the Restorative Housing Program, and 122 of them were ancestors. The Reparations Committee decided to prioritize this group for the first 16 donations.
The Burton family history
Burton was born in 1949, the youngest of six children to Ethel Elizabeth Dixon Champion and Lewis Bernis Champion. His parents were born in the South – his mother was from Charlotte, North Carolina, his father was from Sumter, South Carolina.
Ethel Champion would move to Evanston shortly after 1927, attend Northwestern to be a daycare teacher, and then marry Burton’s father in 1939.
“And that’s all I know,” said Burton, “I don’t know when my father moved to Evanston.”
Burton said he was born at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County (then called Cook County Hospital) rather than Evanston Hospital because, famously, “Evanston Hospital didn’t allow black babies to be born there.”
She grew up in a house on the 1600th block of Dodge Avenue, which her father bought with an advance loaned to him by one of his employers, Oscar Mayer. Her other two jobs were as a clerk at A&P and caretaker at the Evanston Theatre, she said.
Her mother worked as a daycare teacher at Learning Bridge when it was called the Child Care Center of Evanston, and located in the basement of the First Church of God, Burton said.
The house her father bought was two apartments; his uncle and wife lived on the second floor, while the champions lived on the first floor.
Growing up in Evanston
Ramona Burton says not being born in Evanston because of hospital racism was the only “real” discrimination she could remember. By the time she passed through the school system – namely Dewey Elementary School and Nichols Middle School, followed by Evanston Township High School – classes were already integrated. She had white and black friends, she said.
“I’m sure there was some [discrimination] but I don’t remember anything. There was nothing worthy that stayed with me,” she said.
Burton said one of the main differences between today and the 1960s is that back then, “everybody took care of everybody else.” She said she was raised in the church and grew up as Katy Walker’s best friend. Burton said about half of the families that were here when she was growing up are still here.
“And that’s all. A normal childhood, strict parents.” She left her home in Dodge when she married her husband Edward A. Burton in 1967. Her mother died in 1970 and her father in 1983.
Burton took a few community college classes after high school and then worked in insurance for most of his life. His favorite job was at the Educational Testing Service, known for the SAT, GRE, and other standardized tests. His most recent job before retirement was at a collection agency in Skokie.
Plans for repair money
The grant recipient plans to use her repair funds for her home on the 500th block of Asbury, where she has lived for 46 years. Burton and her husband bought it when she was 27 and their son was 6. It wasn’t difficult to buy the house, she said, because her husband had “a really good job” as a supervisor at the Glenview Post Office. Edward Burton died in November 1993.
Burton has a detailed wish list on how to spend the $25,000 donation.
“I want a new roof. I want to get new windows around. And a new fence at the back of my yard, because the fence on top belongs to my neighbors who live around the corner, and it’s getting pretty tattered,” she said.. “If I have money left, I’d like central air conditioning. I have a window unit that cools my entire house. But I would replace that with central air if I had enough money left.”
She had no intention of getting those improvements until the Restorative Housing program because she couldn’t afford it otherwise, Burton said. One of her son’s good friends is a realtor and said he would offer his help with contractors, she said. She will contact him, but wants “the money in hand” before doing so.
Burton has only two siblings still alive, a brother in Westchester, Illinois and a sister who lives in a suburb of Las Vegas. They left Evanston 30 and 50 years ago, respectively. Ramona is alone in Evanston and has never planned on leaving.
“I like living here,” she said. “My son tried to move me to Atlanta when my husband passed away, but I didn’t bite.”
Are they true reparations?
Currently, Ramona spends her retirement listening to R&B, going to church and watching some of her favorite TV shows. These shows include “Married at First Sight”, “All American” with Taye Diggs and game shows like “The Price is Right”, “Let’s Make a Deal”, “Wheel of Fortune” and “Family Feud”.
“My family and I applied for ‘Family Feud’ about three or four times,” she said, “but we were never chosen.”
In terms of being chosen for this $25,000 housing grant, she is still waiting for city officials to talk about next steps. She tried calling the city to speak with someone, but it was sent to voice mail.
When the Roundtable asked Burton if she believes these reparations are “real,” she said she doesn’t.
“I wouldn’t think of it as true until all black people got something. … All blacks must be rewarded. Not just a few, I don’t think it’s enough,” Burton said. “I mean, you can’t repay all the damage that was done to us and how it messed up this psyche.”