By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Social justice activist Kavon Ward, co-founder of the nonprofit Where Is My Land, stopped in Sacramento last weekend on her way to visit Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma.
Months after helping a Black family regain their beachfront property after 100 years, Ward’s visit was all about learning the history of Black miners and their families’ lifestyle during the gold rush of the early 1850s and beyond, she said.
Ward said land was once owned by Black people in Coloma, 48 miles east of Sacramento and her organization is exploring how they acquired it, how long they had it, and how they may have lost it through unscrupulous actions.
“With our organization, Where Is My Land, we focus on the families and we center the families’ stories. We just provide resources in order for them to get what they need to get,” Ward told the OBSERVER. “I feel like any story should focus on the history.”
Co-founded by Ward and Ashanti Martin, Where Is My Land, helps Black Americans reclaim stolen land through advocacy, research, data, and technology. Ward traveled from Southern California to gather intelligence about the Monroe and Burgess, Black families that once owned property around the town where gold was first discovered in 1848.
The Burgess family’s enslaved great-great-grandfather, Rufus “Nellson Bell” Burgess, was brought to California from Louisiana in the early 1850s to mine for gold in Coloma. He was freed and settled down as a blacksmith.
The elder Burgess later bought 88 acres in Coloma but somehow the state was able to take control of the property through eminent domain. The Burgesses have reported that other Black families lived in Gold Country but allegedly were forced to leave.
Ward led the successful return of land stolen from Willa and Charles Bruce in 1924. The California legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 796, which made it possible for a government entity to return property that had been ripped by the city of Manhattan Beach through eminent domain.
Under the states’ law, 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.
Bruce’s Beach was the location of the first West Coast seaside resort for Black beachgoers and a residential enclave for a few African American families. Manhattan Beach city officials seized the beachfront property from the Black couple, citing an “urgent need” to build a city park.
Under a racist climate that involved the Ku Klux Klan, “Whitecapping” strategies of intimidation and physical violence, the city succeeded in obtaining the land but the area was not developed for recreational use for decades.
On April 9, 2021, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said that a plot of land would be returned to the family’s heirs. The Black couple purchased Bruce’s Beach in 1912 for $1,225.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 796, authored by California Black Legislative member Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) at Bruce’s Beach on Sept. 30, 2021, alongside Ward, Bruce family members, Bradford, and local leaders.
An “urgency measure,” sponsored by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the bill authorized the county to immediately begin the process of transferring parcels of the Manhattan Beach property to the Bruce family.
“As we move to remedy this nearly century-old injustice, California takes another step furthering our commitment to making the California Dream a reality for communities that were shamefully shut out by a history of racist exclusion,” Newsom stated. “We know our work is just beginning to make amends for our past, and California will not shy from confronting the structural racism and bias that people of color face to this day.”
Describing it as “perfect timing and perfect alignment,” Ward said she started her advocacy around Bruce’s Beach on Juneteenth 2020, which quickly brought the issue to the national front. Juneteenth, the celebration of the abolishment of slavery, is now a federal holiday.
Ward is the founder of Justice for Bruce’s Beach. She told the OBSERVER that the way the land was taken dominated the headlines but there were also some underreported stories concerning the reclamation of the property.
“What people don’t understand is that Willa and Charles were unique Black entrepreneurs,” Ward said. “They had plans to expand the property, open more businesses, and hire more people. The place was a safe haven. Black people from all over the country visited the lodge on the beach. There were no fights or anything there. Just a place where Black people can go and relax.”
Ward is a highly sought-after educator and reparations consultant. Last summer, she was one of the first experts that testified in front of California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans.
She is a former Congressional Black Caucus fellow and public policy lobbyist who holds a bachelor’s degree in communications, a master’s degree in public administration, and is pursuing her doctorate at Antioch University’s Graduate School of Leadership and Change.
Ward and the organizers of Where Is My Land’s mission is clear and simple: Land must be returned to Black people if it was wrongfully taken from them. She said Bruce’s Beach is “one of many stories” where injustice denied Black people the American dream.
“It’s good that policymakers did what’s right for the Bruces but they need to step it up statewide,” Ward said. “This visit to (Sacramento and Gold Country) is to figure out how I can work with folks in the community. Because of what happened with Bruce’s family it put (other families) who had land in a better position.”