A survivor of forcible evictions from Section 14 and a local lawyer spoke to an audience of roughly three dozen people Wednesday evening about eminent domain, reparations, and the pain that remains for many who lived through the events and their aftermath.
The Palm Springs Black History Committee held the event at the Palm Springs Cultural Center to educate the public. Committee members said they hoped to clear up any misconceptions about the city’s efforts at reparations and to inform the community about the history of Section 14 directly from a survivor.
Section 14 — a one-square-mile section of tribal-owned land in the center of Palm Springs — was the primary residential area for minority city residents from 1930 to 1965. They built hundreds of homes on leased land. But when white developers sought long-term leases to build on the land, they also sought to push out the owners of those homes.
Local lawyer Anyse Smith laid out in painstaking detail how a consortium of conservators, judges, and others colluded to evict the residents of Section 14 off the land without the use of eminent domain. A 1968 report from the state attorney general at the time called it a “state-engineered holocaust.”
“The attorney general report outlines the corruption between conservators and brokers and the illegal fee-splitting,” said Smith.
During the course of the past 16 months, Palm Springs officials have sought to make amends for the city’s role in Section 14 evictions, issuing a formal apology, removing a statue of the city’s mayor at the time from in front of City Hall, and expressing willingness to offer some form of reparations.
Last November, a group of survivors and descendants of those who lived in Section 14 filed a claim with the city seeking damages from evictions in the 1950s and 1960s they say could amount to $2 billion or more.
The move comes after the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce were given back valuable beachfront land in Los Angeles County that was taken from their ancestors in the 1920s after white neighbors complained about the success of a resort they had built on the property that catered to members of the Black community.
In the same decade in Tulsa, Oklahoma, angry mobs of white people burned Black neighborhoods to the ground, killed 300 people, and injured 800.
That was the kind of violence and danger the McPeters family was escaping when they left Texas and headed for Palm Springs.
“My family and everybody else who left the South thought they were getting away from Jim Crow,” Pastor Carl McPeters said during Wednesday evening’s presentation. “They came here to seek a better life despite the cost and obstacles. And they made a better life.”
Black families that escaped the violent racism elsewhere quickly learned California wasn’t a utopia. Racism persisted, but through words like “blight” and “urban renewal,” which, Smith said, were simply coded words for Black neighborhoods.
“Eminent domain was used to force highways through thriving Black communities, and the harmful effects of eminent domain persist: lost property, lost wealth, the psychological effects of communities separated and families and losing their homes,” Smith said.
White residents and lawmakers used existing laws and city planning to enforce a more subtle form of segregation through practices like redlining – the discriminatory practice of denying services, such as home loans – and building highways through Black neighborhoods. While less overtly racist, the practices were still a way of denying Black Americans the ability to fully participate in the home-ownership economy.
The Bruce family will now sell their reclaimed land back to Los Angeles County for $20 million, finally taking a step toward rebuilding the generational wealth that was ripped from them a century ago.
In Palm Springs, Janel Hunt, secretary of the Black History Committee, said it’s vital that everyone in the city learn what happened from people who were there. “I have family stories, relatives that lived in Section 14, so it’s personal for me,” Hunt said.
McPeters was a child when he and his family were forcibly removed from Section 14. He explained to the audience that, at first, he didn’t understand what was happening. As he grew older, however, McPeters said he was horrified to learn details.
“At that time period, when Black people were fighting for the voting rights bill and civil rights, it was a critical time in American history,” he said. “It was the height of racism and the movement of Dr. King, and Palm Springs chose to disregard all of that and decide that Black people don’t matter and that they have to go.”
Hunt and the rest of the committee also want residents to understand that reparations are more than just a blank check. “People hear a dollar figure and think it’s all about money,” she said, “but it’s about so much more than that.”
“It’s not a ‘handout’ as many would call it,” explained Smith, “It’s a debt that is owed. It’s restitution or recompense for an injury or loss.”
Restitution can come in many forms, she said. Beyond individual payments, reparations could be college tuition, student loan forgiveness, a down payment on a house, and revitalization grants for neighborhoods and businesses.
Reparations on the national level are often spoken about with respect to descendants of former slaves. But Smith pointed out that other groups in history have received reparations, including Japanese Americans who were interned during WWII.
“You hear people say that slavery was so long ago and that there are no slaves or slave owners alive anymore. But those slave owners got reparations once the slaves were freed,” Smith reminded the audience. “There’s a well-documented legacy of wealth that has been lost.”
Jarvis Crawford, president of the Black History Committee, pointed out that recent polling shows that only 18% of white Americans support reparations. Smith said that’s typical because of the misconceptions about the topic.
“Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author at the forefront of the reparations movement, said himself that he wasn’t originally on board with the idea,” Smith said, adding that she hoped events such as the one held Wednesday evening can help educate communities and empower allies to advocate local, state, and national governments for reparations.
“We need solidarity, we need a united front, and we need allies,” said Smith.