Disputes over land, lineage, and documents complicate the Golden State’s bid to right historical wrongs
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The Saturday afternoon tour at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento is running a few minutes behind schedule. Docent George Palmer shakes hands with little visitors toddling into the room, which is a replica of a Sierra Nevada train tunnel. When the slight 84-year-old takes his position in front of a towering 1862 locomotive from the transcontinental railroad, the room grows quiet, and his voice echoes. Palmer’s 45-minute tour includes plenty of railroad history. But he also inserts stories of African American pioneers who helped make California what it is today.
One story runs right through the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, a little Gold Rush town about an hour northeast of Sacramento. Palmer worked there as a docent for more than a decade in the early 2000s. During that time, he delved into state archives and made his own discovery about the park’s history—a story that now figures prominently in California’s debate over reparations.
Here’s what Palmer learned: A couple named Peter and Nancy Gooch were the property of a white man who lived in the slaveholding state of Missouri. During the Gold Rush in 1849, they migrated to Coloma with their slaveholder, who had struck west to seek his fortune after James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill.
The Gooches gained their freedom a year later when California entered the Union as a free state. In the years that followed, Peter and Nancy got married and bought land. Nancy saved $700 to purchase freedom for her son Andrew, left behind in Missouri. Andrew Monroe moved to Coloma with his wife and two sons, and the family accumulated more land and started a fruit farm and other ventures. The Monroes’ oldest son, Pearley, eventually became a prominent landowner and entrepreneur who by the late 1920s owned about a third of the land California officials would soon covet. The acreage included the site of Sutter’s Mill.
Toward the end of the Great Depression, state officials decided to establish a park in Coloma to commemorate the Gold Rush and the town’s role in state history. To do that, they acquired portions of the Gooch-Monroe land through the process known as eminent domain. Palmer’s research shed light on this lost narrative tied to the park, which now includes a trail, an orchard, and a house in the Monroe family’s name, along with plaques and other evidence of their imprint on the town.
But recently, the history of the Gooch-Monroe family and other black pioneers from the Gold Rush era has attracted attention for other reasons.
As California embarks on a sweeping effort to provide reparations for descendants of slavery, a growing number of African Americans are demanding state and local governments return land—or pay restitution—to black families who say their properties were unfairly seized under eminent domain.
Among them are Dawn Basciano, Pearley Monroe’s step-great-granddaughter, and Jonathan and Matthew Burgess, twin brothers whose great-great-grandfather, Rufus M. Burgess, was formerly enslaved and among the early black settlers in Coloma.
In 2020, following the death of George Floyd, California established the nation’s first statewide reparations task force to study the economic effects of slavery and racist policies. On July 1, the nine-member group appointed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom is due to submit policy recommendations to the state Legislature on compensating those who can prove direct lineage to enslaved African American ancestors.
It’s not a simple task. The intensifying land dispute in Coloma is emblematic of thorny questions over how the claimants will prove past harm—and who should pay for it. Parsing out what happened there, including land ownership disputes, family lineage, and whether the government unjustly seized black-owned property could prove challenging. But how the state handles those claims and increasing demands that it return land to other black families could have ripple effects across the country. Critics say it could also usher in a new, tumultuous chapter in the nation’s racial reckoning.
EMINENT DOMAIN—when the government acquires private property for public use, such as when constructing roads, highways, or schools—is legal. But the Fifth Amendment stipulates property owners must be given “just compensation.” Reparations advocates argue that many such acquisitions have been unjust—and that those have disproportionately affected black landowners, businesses, and neighborhoods, contributing to the longtime wealth gap between white and black families.
Basciano and the Burgess brothers have testified multiple times before the reparations task force. They say that between their two families, the state confiscated hundreds of acres of land under eminent domain to establish what is now the 576-acre Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Jonathan Burgess claims their forebears once owned most of the park.
In separate interviews, Basciano and the Burgess brothers said what they seek might not fall under the task force’s scope. “Returning stolen land or compensation for that land is not reparations, it’s restitution,” Jonathan said.
Reparations involve providing compensation for past harm, a massive endeavor with a big price tag. About 2.5 million Californians, or roughly 6.5 percent of its population, say they are black or African American. Based on the task force’s draft proposal, some economists have put the reparations price tag at $800 billion, more than double the state’s $300 billion annual budget. But it will be up to state lawmakers to determine a dollar amount.
Proposals involving financial redress for historical discrimination have attracted nationwide attention. Task force documents also suggest creating a new state agency to vet claims of past harm and render payments. The draft proposal does not calculate harm for property taken through eminent domain due to lack of data.
But the state isn’t waiting for the task force recommendations to start returning some of that land.
Last July, Los Angeles County returned a 7,000-square-foot stretch of beachfront to descendants of Charles and Willa Bruce, who more than a century ago owned the Manhattan Beach property and operated a thriving African American resort. The couple endured years of racial harassment from white neighbors and the Ku Klux Klan. In 1924, the city used eminent domain to seize their property, offering them a fraction of what it was worth. Officials told the Bruces they needed the land for a park. But the lot sat vacant until it was transferred to the state in 1948.
In late 2021, Newsom signed legislation permitting the land transfer in what many described as a straightforward, well-documented case showing the family’s historical claim to the property. The deal signified the largest piece of land returned by the government to African Americans, according to Kavon Ward, an activist who represented the Bruce family in their campaign.
Family members announced earlier this year they would sell the property back to the county for $20 million.
After that victory, Ward went on to co-found Where Is My Land, a group dedicated to helping other black families “reclaim stolen land.” Since Bruce’s Beach, the group has received 800 claims from black Americans seeking to get their land back. Of its 40 active cases, five are in California. “We’re learning that this happened a lot,” Ward told me. “This was an epidemic in this state and across the country.” She advocates for state legislation allowing individuals to file claims for land restitution and hopes lawmakers “didn’t just do it for the Bruces because it looked good politically.”
At a dedication ceremony last July, state Sen. Steven Bradford, a Democrat on the state reparations task force, called Bruce’s Beach “a template for other states to follow to fight, to repair, and to ultimately salvage what was lost not just here in California but every place where blacks were not given equal opportunity.”
Jonathan and Matthew Burgess attended the beach dedication ceremony. They hope for a similar outcome in Coloma. “Was that a one-time wonder … just to get people excited, or is there a way that the governor could actually come here to do something, too?” Jonathan asks. He believes their case could set a precedent for “anybody to make the claim.”
PEARLEY MONROE’S BROTHER, James, was believed to be the last living heir in the Monroe-Gooch family at the time of his death, according to a 1988 story in The Mountain Democrat, California’s oldest newspaper. In a recording made in 1982, Pearley’s youngest brother trudges through dry grass, birds chirping in the background. James, then 96, is with a park ranger who asks questions about what used to be the family’s land and home.
“This here tree was just about where the back part of where the kitchen used to be,” James says. “The peach trees were up above the shop … above where my grandmother’s house was.” He says the Burgesses joined the fruit farming venture until “the state got the whole business.”
James Monroe died six years after that interview.
Forty-one years later, Dawn Basciano walked the same state park land in Coloma with CBS News’ Gayle King. Like the Burgesses, Basciano says she is entitled to restitution for part of this acreage. “Imagine being able to look around and say, ‘All this is mine,’” she told King in a February 7 CBS report. “You know, I own this. This is within my family.” Pearley’s land “was part of the generational wealth that was ripped away. It is something that should have stayed in our family and it didn’t,” Basciano said.
George Palmer, the museum docent who unearthed Pearley Monroe’s ties to the land, produced a 60-page research project. It included Pearley’s will, which seems to challenge Basciano’s claims. Pearley died in 1963 at age 94. His will states, “I am divorced, and have no wife. I have no child or children, or child of a child.” The will states that anyone who later claims to be Pearley’s wife or child would receive just $1. While Pearley didn’t have his own children, he did have step-children. His previous wife, Evelyn Binion, entered their marriage with three children of her own, including Basciano’s grandfather, Douglas Binion. The couple apparently divorced, although Basciano says she hasn’t found any official paperwork.
Palmer told me an archivist recently questioned him about Basciano’s relationship as a step-great-granddaughter to Pearley. “I says, I don’t want to get involved with that, their problem. … I say, I only have the documents that’s here that if it’s printed, signed, that he had no other children, no wife … if he had a family, why didn’t he leave it to them?”
Pearley accumulated most of the Monroes’ landholdings between the 1890s and 1950s, according to Palmer. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at about $132,478, roughly $1.3 million today. In his will, he left $2,000 to his youngest brother, James, and a little over $69 to 35 Coloma children, including three from the Burgess family. Pearley bequeathed the balance of his estate to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People with the stipulation that the organization could not spend the funds for 50 years.
But Basciano claims Pearley’s beneficiaries influenced the will. She sent me a screenshot of a 1964 legal document from the state’s division of beaches and parks, appearing to show James contested the will after his brother died. In particular, James wanted 74 acres of land Pearley left to the NAACP. Basciano believes bad actors within local governments and the NAACP influenced Pearley on his deathbed to sign over the bulk of his assets. But a certified copy of his will on file with the El Dorado county recorder shows he signed it four years before his death. I reached out to the Sacramento and state chapter of the NAACP about Basciano’s other claims, but neither answered my questions.
In 1938, during the New Deal era, California started eminent domain proceedings against Pearley, the Burgess family, and other landowners along the American River to establish the state park ahead of a centennial celebration of gold discovery. According to Palmer’s research, the state offered Pearley $2,000 for 8.9 acres. Pearley asked for $6,000. The condemnation proceedings eventually resulted in a $3,100 payout, about $66,000 today. Palmer says that by 1963, Pearley sold the last of the Monroes’ property—78.15 acres—to the state for $30,500, about $304,000 today.
In 2020, California state parks started the Reexamining Our Past Initiative to study its “contested place names, monuments, and interpretations … through a modern lens.” In an email, a state park spokesperson said part of that initiative includes expanding Marshall Gold Discovery state park’s “narrow focus” on people and events leading up to gold discovery. The email also said state parks signed a memorandum in March with the California African American Museum to create a network of historians “to address gaps in the contributions made by African Americans at state park sites.”
THE BURGESS FAMILY’S DISPUTE with park officials over the amount and location of their land spans decades. Jonathan and Matthew have built their case based on their own research, including the family’s oral accounts, letters passed down for generations, deeds, and other historical documents. Until recently, no plaques in the park mentioned the Burgess family.
One 1950 article in The Mountain Democrat reports that the Burgess home from the 1860s was “razed last week by state employees. … Once one of the nicest homes in Coloma, it was bought by Rufus Burgess when the owners moved to greener pastures.”
The family owned five parcels of land before eminent domain proceedings, according to documents I reviewed from the county index recorder. According to the state park’s website, Rufus Burgess owned 9 acres prior to his death in 1900. After that, Burgess’ wife, Josephine, sold one lot where Rufus operated a blacksmith shop. It’s now the location of Gold Trail Grange Hall, a 1926 building used for community events.
Jonathan claims “land was re-surveyed and moved around … maps were redrawn” beginning in the late 1880s. Because of that, the document trail is hard to follow. He says his family owned a plot of land on the other side of town, now the site of Emmanuel Church, where their fruit orchards were located. The state park website disputes this, citing information compiled by a local historian named Jeff Lee. The website says “research conducted to date has not found documentation that the property where the Emmanuel Church resides was previously owned by the Burgess family.”
In an email, a park spokesperson said it is working with Lee to review county land records and other historical documents spanning 175 years. It plans to create a “geographical information system” detailing the land that was acquired for the park.
Lee has lived in Coloma for a decade and spent four of those years studying the town’s historic churches for a book he’s writing. He provided land deeds and other information on the Burgesses’ land holdings but declined to respond to the dispute with the family over Emmanuel Church.
“It’s quite difficult to find source documents … to find the facts,” he said. Old newspapers and other accounts offer some insight, but it’s hard to know whether they’re accurate, Lee says. “Was there bias by the people who were writing these stories at the time? Was it manipulated? I can’t tell.”
Disputes over family connections also play a role in the Coloma land case.
The Burgesses claim Nelson Bell, another formerly enslaved black pioneer and landowner in Coloma, is their third great-grandfather, a connection Jonathan says the park has known about but not confirmed. But the brothers believe Nelson Bell was an alias. Jonathan says DNA testing has linked the Burgess brothers to Bell’s slave owners and to the Gooch family, leading them to believe Peter Gooch and Nelson Bell are the same person. If that’s true, the Burgess family could claim their own land and property was once owned by the Monroe family.
So far, the Gooch-Monroe and Burgess families have only been definitively connected through one childless intermarriage: After Rufus M. Burgess died, his wife, Josephine, went on to marry Pearley’s brother, William.
In all Jonathan’s assertions, he maintains he’s “not about kicking people off their land.”
“Families that can prove or have the documentation should be afforded some sort of restitution,” he said. “Any land that can be returned should be returned. Specifically, if it’s at the state park, reinstate the orchards.”
Today, a plaque on a vacant lot near Sutter’s Mill marks the spot of the Burgess family home. But Jonathan says he is “extremely disappointed with what the state park has done thus far with some little markers and … sharing only portions of the stories.”
IF BASCIANO AND THE BURGESS BROTHERS produce more evidence proving their claims, the story of what happened in Coloma could look different in the coming years and propel others seeking land restitution in California and elsewhere. But testimony before the task force doesn’t equal concrete proof. For example, Basciano frequently refers to herself as Pearley’s great-granddaughter, without mentioning that she’s related to him through marriage—a marriage Pearley himself said was dissolved—and not by blood. Still, she claims the state and the NAACP stole land that should have been hers.
Basciano’s case, with its complex family ties and documentation obscured by the passage of time, shows the difficulties municipalities and claimants face in the broader reparations debate. Already, Hayward, Calif., city officials are considering proposals for reparations for land seized from African American and Latino families in the 1960s. San Francisco; Boston, Mass.; and Evanston, Ill., are creating their own reparations programs, including proposals for direct payouts from taxpayer coffers. Evanston was the first U.S. city to approve a reparations program—$10 million in the form of housing grants to address discriminatory 20th-century zoning policies. A proposal in San Francisco involves potentially giving $5 million to each longtime black resident.
But critics question whether it will help or distract from current problems in the black community.
Bob Woodson, 86, is a black conservative, longtime poverty-fighting activist, and founder of the Woodson Center, a nonprofit dedicated to neighborhood-based initiatives to reduce crime and violence, restore families, and revitalize low-income communities. Woodson called reparations “a distraction.”
“The civil rights movement has lost its moral footing and is now a part of the racial grievance industry,” he told me.
Woodson said he was an “ardent opponent” of eminent domain since seizures in many cases displaced thriving black communities and commercial districts. “But for us to get involved in the legal entanglements of who owns the land, what’s the good? Should we be spending our time looking for new grievances? What does it do for the contemporary crisis we’re facing today with our children?”
Earlier this year, Democratic lawmakers in Washington, D.C., introduced a bill that would establish a commission to study and propose federal reparations over slavery. The same bill has been introduced every year since 1989. In 2021 it passed out of committee for the first time, but still didn’t make it to the House floor for a vote.
Although controversial, reparations aren’t without precedent. The federal government provided reparations to Japanese Americans interned during World War II and to families who lost loved ones in the Sept. 11 attacks. A 1946 commission to compensate federally recognized Native American tribes for land that had been seized resulted in a $1.3 billion payout. But each individual got less than $1,000.
Woodson is doubtful reparations efforts for slavery will gain traction nationally. In low-income neighborhoods, he says, few even talk about it. Only 3 in 10 Americans believe descendants of enslaved African Americans should be repaid in some way, including land or money, a 2021 Pew Research Center survey found. Among black adults, 77 percent supported reparations, compared with only 18 percent of whites.
Back at the train museum, Palmer carries a backpack with manila folders containing newspaper clippings and documents. He spreads papers on a conference room table and offers to make photocopies. Raised in the segregated South, Palmer said he heard little of African American heroes or stories about their resilience and ingenuity in the midst of adversity. Discovering and sharing those stories became a lifelong passion. In that sense, he says, “I’m glad what happened [in Coloma] is coming to light.”
Does he see the push to return land as a positive step? Palmer seems to understand the answer to that question reveals the complexity of reparations in one of the most culturally diverse states. Noting his great-grandmother was from the Cherokee tribe, he asks, “Suppose they demand that you give me all my property back?”
Then he laughs for 18 seconds straight. “That would be a joke on America.”
—with reporting by Marci Seither, author of the children’s book The Adventures of Pearley Monroe
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