By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer
The brothers Elmer and Milford Fonza plan to ask the state’s reparations task force how their family can file a claim of eligibility when the group conducts its next two-day meeting in Sacramento, March 3-4.
The nine-member California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans had discussed recommending to the legislature a centralized agency that would manage all matters related to descendants of enslaved and free Black people.
“We will be in Sacramento for that meeting. I can say that for sure,” Elmer Fonza said. “It’s just to give them a clearer understanding of what we, my family, know and what we don’t know. And the likelihood of reparations, we want to know how to file a claim [for reparations] if and when this takes place.”
The brothers once again will share the in-depth history from their perspective about land in Gold Country once owned by their formerly enslaved third great-grandfather. The Fonzas believe the Black man lost his property through fraud and deception.
Nelson Bell arrived in Northern California from New Orleans, Louisiana, as an enslaved man under the ownership of Robert Bell, to mine for gold around 1850. The land is 48 miles east of downtown Sacramento in the small town of Coloma. Gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma about a year before the gold rush began.
Bell, born in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, around 1790, died in Coloma on Jan. 13, 1869. A court-appointed appraiser listed an inventory of Bell’s personal and real estate property in the form of “a dwelling house and land adjoining the town of Coloma,” according to findagrave.com.
The website, which gives details about cemeteries and memorials for the deceased, states that a “probate file on the Estate of Nelson Bell” revealed that he left “no heirs within the state.”
The Fonzas learned that Bell was freed and purchased land in El Dorado County as early as 1852. The property, today known as Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, is managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
“Yes, we have a lot of questions about how this was done. A lot of questions,” Elmer Fonza said in August.
Nelson Bell is buried in El Dorado County’s Pioneer Cemetery. Last summer, the Fonzas and other descendants visited the burial site on a “fact-finding mission,” Elmer said, to learn about the family’s past and beginnings in California.
The family have appeared at other reparations events around the state conducted by the task force and the California Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Enforcement Section. The brothers and one of their nephews attended the task force’s two-day meeting in September in Los Angeles, but spoke for only two-minutes during public comments.
“We’ve done the most we could to be a part of the [reparations task force’s] activities,” said Elmer Fonza, 71. His 78-year-old brother Medford lives in the Los Angeles area.
Jonathan Burgess and his twin brother Matthew Burgess said they too will attend the task force meeting to make remarks during public comments only. Jonathan Burgess testified in front of the task force in October 2021.
The Burgesses have acknowledged that Nelson Bell is their third great-grandfather, too. The Fonzas and Burgesses are in the early stages of sharing information with each family to justify their family ties but refrained from commenting further on the developments, Elmer Fonza said.
In the interim, the Fonzas will focus on the California American Freedmen Affairs Agency, an agency that resembles the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (Record Group 105), widely known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in the War Department by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865, according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
The bureau “was responsible for the supervision and management” relating to the “refugees and freedmen and lands abandoned or seized” during the Civil War, the National Archives stated on its website.
“Its mission was to provide relief and help formerly enslaved people become self-sufficient,” the website stated.
The Fonzas’ appearance in front of the task force in Sacramento comes two months after it was announced that Bruce’s Beach in Southern California will be sold back to Los Angeles County for $20 million.
The oceanfront property in Manhattan Beach was taken through eminent domain from Black owners Willa and Charles Bruce in the 1920s. Senate Bill 796, a law authored by Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 30, 2021, allowed the heirs of the Bruce family to regain possession of the property.
Braford stated that “the Manhattan Beach City Council stole the land under false pretenses”and “deprived the Bruces of generations of wealth.”
“I fully support the decision made by the Bruce family to sell the property to the County of L.A. They are exercising a right that should have never been taken away from them. I understand why the Bruce family would want to sell the property,” Bradford said in a written statement dated Jan. 3. “The current zoning regulations would prevent the Bruce family from developing the property in any economically beneficial manner. Based on that fact it leaves L.A. County as the only logical purchaser of the property.”
Authored by Secretary of State Shirley Weber when she was a member of the state Assembly, California’s Assembly Bill 3121 was signed into law in 2020. The bill created the nine-member task force to investigate the history and costs of slavery in California and around the United States.
AB 3121 charges the Reparations Task Force with studying the institution of slavery and its lingering negative effects on Black Californians who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.
A final report of proposals and recommendations will be submitted to the California state legislature by Saturday, July 1. The Fonzas’ public comments will be entered into record with those of many others who have made remarks before the panel.
The family still seeks answers about Nelson Bell’s death and how his land ended up in the state’s hands.
“This is long from over,” Elmer Fonza said. “Too many unanswered questions.”