By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Local firefighter Jonathan Burgess, 48, with his brother Milton Burgess, 74, holding up a 170-year-old Bible bestowed to the family by their former enslaved great-great grandfather, Rufus Burgess. The Burgess believe that the state of California wrongfully took the family’s land in Coloma by eminent domain in the 1940s (photo Antonio R. Harvey).

There was a time after the abolition of slavery in the United States that violence was used to force Black people from their farms, homes or businesses through a terrorist tactic called Whitecapping. 

Whitecapping — implemented by homegrown racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, Night Riders, and Bald Knobbers — was a lawless plan of action to run African Amerians out of town and steal their possessions. It took place all over the country, including to some degree in California.

With that knowledge, Sacramento firefighter Jonathan Burgess said not violence, but forceful confiscation, was used to obtain land in Coloma owned by his former enslaved great-great grandfather Rufus Burgess. Burgess in September passionately told California’s nine-member Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans that the state was responsible for the land grab.

The commission is examining the extent of California’s involvement in slavery, segregation, and the denial of Black citizens’ constitutional rights. The task force is also studying incidents of state-backed racial crimes, such as the seizure of Black-owned property in El Dorado County involving the Burgess family.

A legal, but often controversial, process called eminent domain stripped Rufus Burgess and other Black families of decades of generational wealth. 

Eminent domain is the power of local, state or federal government agencies to take private property for public use so long as the government pays just compensation, according to California Eminent Domain Laws. It has been a basic principle of law for centuries and is found in both the United States Constitution’s Fifth Amendment and the California Constitution. The California Supreme Court described the power of eminent domain as “an inherent attribute of sovereignty.” Examples of eminent domain include schools, roads, libraries, police stations and fire stations.

In California, the state must pay compensation for the property. But the process where African Americans are concerned is “legalized Whitecapping,” Burgess said. 

“Thanks to the 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,” Burgess told the task force. “Those properties should be returned to actual owners and leases enacted for 200 years, and they pay all the back pay with restitution.”

Jonathan Burgess believes that Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, 48 miles northeast of Sacramento, is located on his great-great grandfathers’ land. 

The place where gold was first discovered in 1848 dwells on the properties of other Black families, including the Gooch-Monroe family, Burgess said. The family owned 420 acres in Coloma but much of it was impounded by the state of California through eminent domain to build Marshall Gold Discovery State Park. 

Violence wasn’t used to claim the Gooch-Monroe family’s property, but a common scheme achieved a specific end, Burgess said.

“These are the things that we have to talk about when we talk about reparations. From what I know is that these tactics (of taking Black people’s land) did not just exist in Coloma,” Burgess said. “Let’s just face it. Coloma is about 500-something acres. The whole state park. That’s a small park on a plot of land and most of it is on Black people’s land. Massive orchards were there. The state said that the orchards were dead from frost and whatever else but there are still fruit trees around that place today. Those people up there today have made fortunes.”

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, who was of mixed races, eventually was freed and earned enough money from panning for gold to send for his wife and 23-year-old son Rufus Morgan Burgess, who were both in bondage in Kentucky. 

Other Black individuals and families arrived in Coloma and surrounding El Dorado County areas such as Mud Springs and Diamond Springs almost the exact way that Rufus Burgess did: enslaved to mine for gold by way of their owners.

“There was a Black presence in these areas at one point and they were there for a reason,” Burgess said. “Back then, AME (African Methodist Espiscopal Church) preachers used to go from town to town to preach. Why? Because there were Black people living in those towns. At least 200 Black people worshipped in the church in Coloma.”

The elder Burgesses were able to purchase 88 or more acres in Coloma and Rufus Morgan Burgess operated a blacksmith shop. Jonathan Burgess said that the family also owned one of the oldest churches in the area and still has the deed. His great uncle Marion Burgess was married in the Emmanuel Church in Coloma. The Burgess family owned, farmed, and lived off the orchards 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 family to surrender their land to the state, and they received no payment, Jonathan Burgess said. Marion Burgess ended up living the rest of his days in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood.

“I learned (in September) 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 Burgesses hope a law that helped a Black Southern California family retain their property will do the same for them and other families they know have lost their land to eminent domain and alleged Whitecapping.

On Sept. 30, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill (SB) 796, authored by Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena). SB 796 authorized the County of Los Angeles to return the beachfront property known as Bruce’s Beach to the Bruce family.

In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce, a young Black couple, purchased property in Manhattan Beach and built a resort run by and made for Black residents. It was one of only a handful of beaches where Black residents could go because so many other local beaches were off-limits to people of color. But the cruel method of Whitecapping descended on the Bruces’ space. The couple and their customers were harassed and threatened by White neighbors as well as targeted by the KKK, who burned a mattress on the property. The Manhattan Beach City Council later seized the property using eminent domain, purportedly to create a park.

“In the face of racism and violence by the KKK, the Bruces were steadfast, but ultimately could not stop the City from seizing their land and forcing them away,” said Bradford, the chairperson of the California Legislative Black Caucus. “When the land is returned to the Bruces, we will have proven that it is never too late to correct injustice and that there are a multitude of ways to do so. If you can inherit generational wealth in this country, then you can inherit generational debt too.”

Generational wealth is an abundance of valuable assets transferred from one generation of a family to the next. It may consist of prized possessions such as cash, real estate, securities, or ownership of a family business.

The Burgess family owned orchards, a blacksmith shop, homes, and Rufus Morgan Burgess had in his possession a gambling license. The family also have deeds, obtained from the state, to the Emmanuel Church in Coloma.

The great-great grandfather Rufus Burgess, who actually had to live with the enslaved name of Nellson Bell (also known as ‘Nelson’), and his son Rufus M. Burgess were Black entrepreneurs. 

Through the years, Rufus M.’s sons — Rufus Jr., Edgar, and Marion — ran the business at the orchards. Marion Burgess can be found in vintage photos taken around Coloma, including a September 1924 image of him with six other residents photographed on the side of a store holding a long saw blade from Sutter’s Mill.

“Uncle Marion drove the delivery trucks back and forth from the orchards to Placerville,” Jonathan Burgess said of the town 10 miles from Coloma. “He lived in Placerville but eventually moved to Sacramento in Oak Park when he got older. All of my family members owned houses and had plenty of cash on hand.” 

The elder Burgesses’ creative ventures of running businesses have been passed down to twins Jonathan and Matthew, who have careers of their own. Jonathan is a battalion chief for the Sacramento Fire Department and Matthew is a California Highway Patrol officer.

On the side, the twins are the proprietors of a food company that sells their signature ChurWaffle, barbecue sauce, smoked sausage, burgers, and premade meals. The twins’ trademarked ChurWaffle iron can be purchased through Amazon.

Rufus Burgess Golden Ale, distributed locally by New Helvetia Brewing Company, is named after their great-great grandfather and accompanies the elder Burgess’s likeness on the label. The man in the photo holding a shovel is a Burgess.

“The actual photo is public domain and has been used in many places. It’s been used for a calendar, postcard, and on the front cover of author Betty Sederquist’s book (‘Coloma: Images of America’),” Burgess said. “Some accounts say it’s my great-great grandfather and it was taken in 1852. But I think it was taken in the late 1880s and it’s my great grandfather, Rufus M. I still don’t know the accurate date when it was taken.”

The front cover of Betty Sederquist’s book, “Coloma: Images of America,” published by Arcadia Publishing in August 2012. The front cover image features Rufus Burgess, second right with a shovel assisting miners in Coloma, but the family believes it is possibly his son Rufus Morgan Burgess. Newspaper clippings say the photo was taken in 1852. Jonathan Burgess believes it was photographed in the late 1880s.  

Sederquist is the daughter of a state park ranger. She used images from Marshall Gold State Historic Park and the California State Library for the book released by Arcadia Publishing. Jonathan Burris also has a family photo of his great grandmother Josephine Burris Monroe standing in front of John Marshall Monument in Coloma.  

The Burgess twins have countless artifacts that document the family’s existence in Gold Country. But the most important heirloom is a Bible dating back to the 1850s, left by Rufus Burgess.

The autobiography of Nellson Bell, the slave name given to Rufus Burgess, was tucked away in this Bible with the names and dates of death of family members. The twins’ brother Milton Burgess, 74, held on to the Bible for 41 years. Milton, who now resides in Brooklyn, New York, placed the book of scriptures in Jonathan’s care when he recently visited Sacramento.  

“It is not uncommon for people to use family Bibles for birth records, deeds, and other biographical information,” Brittneydawnn Cook, executive director of the California State Library Foundation, told the OBSERVER. “These Bibles are sacred and hold the keys to the families’ past.”

Other documents found in the Burgess’s Bible include a fruit voucher from Rufus M. Burgess in 1885 and an 1872 deed of George H. Ingham’s ownership of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (today called the Emmanuel Church), which is situated on Parcel Four: Lot 3, Block 7.

Parcel Four: Lot 3, Block 7 in Coloma is listed in the 1948 court case, “The People of the State of California v. Rufus Morgan Burgess Jr., Marion Burgess, Edgar Burgess, and 19 other defendants.” 

The original legal complaint, filed in the El Dorado County Superior Court, was a cause of action for condemnation of real property, also known as eminent domain. Other Black families, including members of the Gooch-Monroe family, were forced to give up their property.

“Yes, it was a form of Whitecapping. I know that Josephine and her sons were run (off their property),” Jonathan Burgess said. “There was aggression and a movement. I probably won’t be able to prove who did it. But with the state of California having all these pictures and documents from my family, I know it wasn’t a friendly exchange.”