By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Local entrepreneur and firefighter Jonathan Burgess will testify in front of the state’s reparations task force on Thursday, Sept. 23, to discuss his family’s Gold Rush history in Northern California.
Burgess said he will also share with the task force evidence of alleged slavery and decades of continued silence about how the state acquired his great grandfather Rufus Morgan Burgess’s land in Coloma.
The town is 48 miles east of Sacramento.
“As it was put to me, the testimony is the nexus for the case of reparations,” said Burgess, a battalion chief for the Sacramento City Fire Department. “My family’s story, with the documents we have that can support and show with proof, there were things done to conceal the truth. We can prove it because we have documentation that remains in our family.”
Jonathan Burgess, and his twin brother Matthew Burgess, learned through intense research that their enslaved great-great-grandfather, Rufus Burgess, was brought to California from Louisiana by a person named Robert Bell in 1848 to mine for gold.
Rufus Burgess, a Black man of mixed races, eventually was freed and earned enough money from panning for gold to send for his 22- or 23-year-old son Rufus Morgan Burgess, who was in bondage in Kentucky.
The elder Burgesses were also able to purchase 88 acres in Coloma and Rufus Morgan Burgess operated a blacksmith shop. But somehow the state was able to take control of the property, Jonathan Burgess told the OBSERVER. He also thinks that other families could be suffering from the same dilemma.
“What I hope to walk away (from the testimony) with is that for the people who say reparations is not something that’s owed, against reparations, or don’t know what reparations is, for them to understand why this is a big issue,” Burgess said. “Yes, in the case of my family there’s a little bit of restitution because so much was taken. But more was taken from Black families than mine. I believe there are more stories like ours.”
The virtual event will be the third meeting since the nine-member task force first convened in June. It was created as a result of Assembly Bill (AB) 3121, the first-in-the-nation effort by a state government to take an expansive look at the institution of slavery and its present-day effects on the lives of Black Americans.
The State of California Department of Justice (DOJ) has requested the presence of the Burgess family and other Black individuals across the state to provide testimony and evidence to a task force committee.
Ms. L. Dee Slade, the executive director for the African American Network of Kern County Inc. in Bakersfield, also said that she expects to go before the task force to discuss whether Black farmers in San Joaquin Valley are entitled to reparations.
Slade will cite events that took place before and after at Allensworth, the first town in California founded, financed, and governed by Black Americans in the early 1900s. Now owned by the state, Lt. Col. Allensworth Park is 40 miles north of Bakersfield.
“I was contacted by (state) Sen. Steven Bradford’s office,” Slade told the OBSERVER. “I don’t know when, but I do expect to testify. No, you can’t talk about reparations if you don’t include Allensworth.”
Sen. Bradford (D-Gardena), the chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, is a member of the task force. Attorney Kamilah V. Moore is the chair of the task force while Civil Rights leader Rev. Amos C. Brown serves as vice-chair.
State Assemblymember Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-South Los Angeles), San Diego City Councilmember Monica Montgomery Steppe, Dr. Cheryl Grills, Lisa Holder, Donald Tamaki and Dr. Jovan Scott Lewis round out the nine-member task force.
Jonathan Burgess will be speaking at “Witness Panel No. 2: Slavery as the Foundation of Systemic Racism” at 1:00 p.m., on Thursday, Sept. 23. In this session, there will be two presentations before his, he said.
The Burgess family owned and farmed the land from the mid-1800s until the mid-1900s when eminent domain proceedings were completed by the State of California.
After World War II, state government officials forced the Burgess brothers to surrender their land to the state, and they received no payment, Jonathan Burgess stated.
“Historical wrongs should not be accepted as status quo. The withholding of documentation for more than 75 years continues to be extremely disturbing to the (Burgess) family,” Burgess said. “Just this week, I learned about a document that stated my grandfather, who served this country in World War I, and his two brothers would have been prosecuted for not giving their land to the government.”
The Task Force meetings begin at 9:00 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 23, and Friday, Sept. 24. Interested parties are asked to attend the meeting, participate and comment at https://primetime.bluejeans.com/a2m/live-event/ayssqwxw
Public commenting is on a first-come, first-served basis and by logging in early. To stream and listen only, visit www.youtube.com/c/ETMMediaGroup