By Sarah Mizes-Tan

November 1, 2021

On a quiet, tree-lined road off Highway 49 in the Gold Rush town of Coloma sits a small, dilapidated white church. For some, it might go unnoticed. But for Jonathan Burgess, he says the humble wooden church represents his family’s legacy.

Burgess says his great-great grandfather first came to California from New Orleans in 1849, initially brought as a slave to mine for gold. But he says he eventually was able to purchase his freedom, send for other family members and buy some acres of land to farm, as well as the church. Burgess has copies of newspaper clippings that refer to it as the first African American Methodist church in Coloma.

Today, he and his family claim that the church, along with a portion of land that is now within the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, once belonged to them — and was unfairly taken away by the state. Newspaper clippings confirm this turnover of the land in 1947.

As a kid, he remembers visiting. “An older uncle, that was my grandfather’s uncle who could no longer talk, he would just point and cry,” Burgess said. “Now as an adult, piecing this history together, I get why he was crying: all the land that our family once owned.”

The state and lawmakers have yet to address the Burgess family claims, so they remain disputed. But California is trying to confront its racist history, in particular policies that have discriminated against African Americans and Black residents. A law passed in 2020 created a state reparations committee, which has convened to study and determine how the state might make amends.

Part of the reparations discussion has centered on the subject of returning land that was taken from Black and African American residents. It’s an issue making headlines this year: In Los Angeles, the state returned a stretch of coastline property called Bruce’s Beach this summer to the original African American family that owned the property, after it was taken decades ago via eminent domain and the family was pushed out of the community.

Burgess didn’t fully become interested in looking into his family’s history in Coloma until 2018, when a group reached out to him regarding the restoration of the African American church.

He said this prompted him to start researching more into his family’s history, where he then found his grandfather’s name on the deed for the church in 1877.

“The people that live here today had nothing to do with the wrongs that were done,” Burgess said, referencing the homes near his family’s former church and orchards. “So the last thing that I would say is uprooting them out of their homes regardless of whose land it is.

“But in the instances where the state owns the land … those lands should be returned to the rightful owners.”

Some experts say returning land is nowhere near enough to be called reparations.

William Darity, a public policy and African American studies professor at Duke University, is one of the nation’s foremost experts on reparations. He said that the United States will have to extend beyond land — and beyond California.

“I don’t think that the state of California in isolation can actually meet the full terms of what’s required for reparative justice,” Darity said. “But the state of California certainly can address historic wrongs that have been committed there and reverse policies and practices that continue to damage the lives of its Black citizens.”

Finding exact documentation and quantification of what the United States government has taken from African Americans can be difficult, Darity says, so reparations in the form of closing the racial wealth gap is the most effective step forward.

“If we want to find an indicator that tells us something about what has happened with respect to the economic status of Black Americans, the wealth gap is probably the most useful indicator of the cumulative intergenerational effects of American white supremacy,” Darity said.

He suggested a national policy that would give about $350,000 in a lump sum to “each African American who is eligible” who can show harm from government policy. This would be to account for loss of income as a result of discrimination, unfair housing policies and land and property stolen. He acknowledges, however, that getting the United States government to make this wholesale change — which would be the only path toward true reparations, he argues — might “not happen in his lifetime.”

“A lot of people remain convinced that the reason we have this racial wealth gap is the fault of Black people themselves,” Darity said, adding that a national reparations program would require a shift in the way Americans think about economic justice.