Sacramento firefighter and entrepreneur Jonathan Burgess speaks at the California Legislative Black Caucus Juneteenth celebration earlier this year. Antonio R. Harvey, OBSERVER

By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Black members of the Sacramento community have been fully engaged in the first three meetings of the California Task Force to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans.

They have made their presence known whether they are voicing their opinions during public comments, testifying about racial injustice, or sharing pertinent information about social inequality around the state of California.

Chris Lodgson, a member of the Coalition for A Just and Equitable California (CJEC) who has been in lockstep with the proceedings, said the engagement from Sacramento is by design. 

“The community has been and will continue to be a part of this public participation,” Lodgson told the OBSERVER after the third two-day, task force meeting. “I attribute (the involvement) of Sacramento, generally Northern California, because they were a part of it from the start. The African descendants of slavery will be heard.”

CJEC is a grassroots coalition of organizations and associations united for political education, community organizing, and effective political action statewide, specifically in the interests of California’s Black descendants of slavery. 

“It’s just a lot of folks that have worked with me and others in Northern California to make this task force a reality from here in Sacramento,” Lodgson said. “We have also been able to bring in new people, most of them who have not been aware of the meetings. People in Elk Grove, Richmond, and Oakland are a part of this too.” 

Lodgson also noted that he and other participants are learning about obscured Black history in the state of California. Alleged slavery, stolen land, and segregated Jim Crow practices in California have been shared through expert testimony.

“Specifically, I didn’t know it took California a hundred years to finally accept the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the (United States) Constitution,” Lodgson said. “I also didn’t know that California set the tone and example of what would be the Dred Scott decision. Three former slaves, who struck gold in California, were sent back to their enslaver.”

With the knowledge of the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court declaring that Black Americans would never be free until federal law changed, Lodgson was educated through the third meeting about Carter Perkins, Sandy Jones, and Robert Perkins, three former enslaved men brought to California from Mississippi in 1849 during the Gold Rush. 

The Black men were left behind by their enslaver who ran out of money mining for gold. The trio became successful businessmen after they acquired a mule team and wagon to transport supplies to gold mine camps. 

Unfortunately, under California’s 1852 Fugitive Slave Law, they were deported back to Mississippi on a steamboat after earning a great deal of wealth. The three men’s issue of freedom, decided by the state’s Supreme Court, was fought in a Sacramento courtroom, according to information provided by the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.

 “They couldn’t testify in their defense,” Lodgson said he learned. “They were someone’s property. They didn’t have rights. I’m sure we’ll find more about these types of stories.”

 The formation of the task force was made possible by the governor’s signing of AB 3121, authored by then-Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego). Weber was appointed Secretary of State in Jan. 2021. 

Seven more meetings are scheduled before the task force will present a proposal in January 2023.

Under AB 3121, the task force is instructed to recommend, “among other things, the form of compensation that should be awarded, the instrumentalities through which it should be awarded, and who should be eligible for this compensation,” as it is stated in the legislation’s agenda.

Dawn Basciano, a regulatory manager at the California Department of Public Health who resides in Sacramento, provided emotional testimony on the second day of the task force virtual meeting. 

Basciano told the task force that “documenting and reliving her family’s trauma” almost kept her from testifying that her great grandmother moved to California in 1929 after her husband was lynched and their home was burned down, killing their only child.

Basicano’s grandmother eventually married Pearly Monroe. In the 1870s, the Monroe family began acquiring nearly 400 acres in the Gold Rush town of Coloma, east of Sacramento, but Basciano said most of it was forcefully taken by the state after a long court battle.

“I’ve been living in California all my life and I didn’t know any of this, what happened to my elders, until I started doing some deep-dive research 20 years ago,” Basciano said. “There is so much more but I just couldn’t pack it all into 10 minutes (of testimony). But we need to expose it, get it out there, and make some changes to some so it won’t happen again.”

Local entrepreneur and firefighter Jonathan Burgess virtually testified in front of the state’s reparations task force on Thursday, Sept. 23, to share how his family’s real estate property was taken by the state.

His great grandfather, Rufus Morgan Burgess, acquired land in Coloma, a town 48 miles east of Sacramento, a few years after Gold was discovered in nearby Sutter Creek. 

The elder Burgess, a blacksmith, was able to purchase 88 acres in Coloma. The state of California used eminent domain to confiscate the Burgess property and additional land owned by other Black Americans.

“Thanks to the California Department of Justice, I was informed that yes, laws were actually passed to allow the attorney general and legislators to condemn property and not pay families,” Jonathan Burgess told the members of the task force. 

All of the people that testified in the two-day meeting were asked by task force chairperson Kamilah Moore, after their presentations, what a reasonable reparations package would look like.

Jonathan Burgess, also a realtor, said financial compensation would be an ideal approach. 

“Those properties should be returned to actual owners and leases enacted for 200 years, and they pay all the back pay with restitution,” Burgess said. “That would be fine for the Burgess Family and any other family that’s proven whose land was wrongfully taken through legislative practices that discriminated against descendants of slaves in California.”