By: Antonio Ray Harvey, California Black Media
Statewide — The California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans will discuss how the wealth gap has affected Black Californians at its next two-day meeting in Sacramento on Friday, March 29, and Saturday, March 30, at the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) headquarters’ Byron Sher Auditorium.
The sessions will begin at 9 a.m. on both days.
At the previous meeting held in Sacramento March 4 and 5, several Black California families – legal heirs to land grabbed illegally or extralegally by the state through eminent domain – shared stories or how their families were forcefully removed from property they owned without compensation.
Michael Johnson and his sister Marian Johnson told the task force how his grandparents and great grandparents were removed from Russell City by eminent domain. Russell City was an unincorporated majority Black community in Northern California that local authorities bulldozed in the 1960s.
“Let’s call it what it is, ‘stealing land from Black people,’” said Michael Johnson, a member of the Russell City Reparative Justice Project. “Russell City holds the answers to questions that California reparations committee has on how to quantify the harm caused by the unjust property taken by eminent domain.”
This upcoming meeting in Sacramento, which is the 14th for the task force, will feature analysis by a team of economic experts who will propose a framework for calculating restitution owed to Californians who are the descendants of Black people enslaved in the United States and make recommendations for how the state can offer that restitution.
The recommendations by a panel of five experts have been long awaited and would influence the final recommendations the task force makes in its proposal to the state by July 1.
According to the task force’s “preliminary draft report” the policies of the federal government and California
Elmer Fonza of Las Vegas and his elder brother Medford Fonza, who lives in the Los Angeles area, said their great, great, great grandfather Nelson Bell was brought to California as an enslaved person around 1850 to mine gold. He was later freed.
Bell purchased land in Coloma, 48 miles east of Sacramento, but the family lost it all after he died in the 1870s. The Fonzas believe their family property was taken by wrongful state actions.
The Fonzas are not the only family tied to Nelson Bell. Sacramento residents and twin brothers, Jonathan and Matthew Burgess, are descendants of Bell. The brothers, who met the Fonzas at the meeting for the first time, have been doing research to determine how Bell’s land was taken through eminent domain.
Jonathan Burgess said his “family got deeds and receipts that go back from 1870” that proves Bell owned land in what is now considered Gold Country. The town of Coloma is mostly a state park run by the state’s parks and recreation department.
Matthew Burgess said his family wants more than reparations.
“The descendants of slaves want (government) contracts for 25 years in perpetuity,” Burgess told the task force. “We don’t just want the reparations.”
Dawn Basciano, who testified in October 2021 about how Black families lost land in Coloma was in attendance but did not make public comment.
Basciano, a regulatory manager at the California Department of Public Health, is the great granddaughter of Pearly Monroe, the grandson of Nancy and Peter Gooch.
The Gooches were enslaved and brought to California to mine for gold in Coloma in 1849. When California became a state in 1850, they were freed and acquired nearly 400 acres in Coloma. They paid for the freedom of their son Andrew Monroe in Missouri, who joined them in Coloma in the 1870s.
Basciano said most of the Gooch-Monroe land was forcefully taken by the state after a long court battle in the 1940s. Members of the Monroe family say their case is well-documented and their land has been a major part of the state’s park and recreation historical activities, mainly because of the fruit orchards the Black family owned.
“Unfortunately, most of it was taken by eminent domain,” Basciano told Emend the Mass Media Group later in March. “Essentially, (Coloma) was owned primarily by two prominent Black families (Gooch-Monroe and Burgess). What is there, today, is not in the hands of any of those families.”
Eminent domain’s historical application by the government and its impact on racial wealth disparity have been passionately discussed at the reparations task force gatherings. In the 1950s, for example, the city of Santa Monica utilized an unlawful approach to confiscate land, causing thousands of families to be evicted from their homes.
The move was to pave the way for the Interstate 10 freeway and the city’s Civic Auditorium. Most of the Black families that were living in the Belmar Triangle, a community in downtown Santa Monica, migrated to the beach town from the deep south. They occupied the area for nearly 50 years.
Extensive research of the historical Belmar district has been conducted by Dr. Alison Rose Jefferson, the author of “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites She believes that many of the families who were displaced are eligible for compensation.
“Yes, I do think there should be some reparations for those who were forcefully removed,” Dr. Jefferson said in October 2022.
For more information about the Task Force meeting, please visit the California Department of Justice (DOJ) website or contact the DOJ by email at ReparationsTaskforce@doj.ca.gov or phone at (213) 519-0504.