Palm Springs leaders are moving forward with steps to formally apologize for one of the ugliest periods in city history, hoping to take the first step to right the wrongs done to communities of color here nearly 60 years ago.
The city’s Human Rights Commission voiced unanimous approval earlier this month for the apology, in the form of a resolution that will be brought before the Palm Springs City Council March 25. A draft of the resolution was read by Councilmember Geoff Kors during the Commission’s March 8 meeting.
“We must take steps forward and we’ve got to begin to right the painful wrongs of our past,” said Ron deHarte, chair of the commission, prior to Kors’ reading of the apology. “Tonight’s discussion and action will hopefully be one of the steps needed for our community to heal”
At issue is the city’s treatment of residents of a one-square-mile section of downtown— known as Section 14 — in the late 1950s through mid-1960s. Those residents, primarily Black, Indigenous and other people of color, built homes and formed a tight-knit community on tribal-owned land, only to be dispersed, often violently and illegally, when the property they lived on became valuable to developers following the 1959 Indian Leasing Act. The act permitted certain tribes, including the Agua Caliente which owned Section 14, to lease their lands up to 99 years. White business owners hoping to build projects on the land were able to convince Agua Caliente members to evict Section 14 residents, often destroying their homes before notices of eviction were served.
“People would come home and their personal belongings would be out on the street,” recalled James Jessie, former director of the city’s Desert Highland Unity Center, in an article in American Indian Magazine in 2019. “They would just come in and bulldoze your house while you were gone to work or school.”
Traumatized by the city’s actions, many Black families fled the city, settling in nearby Beaumont and Banning. Others moved to land that was just north of the city limits, now part of the city known as Desert Highland Gateway Estates.
The actions by the city were found to be so abhorrent that Loren Miller Jr., assistant California attorney general, said they amounted to “a city-engineered Holocaust.”
“The City of Palm Springs not only disregarded the residents of Section 14 as property owners, taxpayers and voters,” Miller wrote in a 1968 report. “Palm Springs ignored that the residents of Section 14 were human beings.”
If approved by the City Council, the apology would be the first official action taken to acknowledge the atrocities. A letter from former Mayor Will Kleindienst acknowledging the events is said to exist, Kors said, but to date nobody can locate that letter.
The apology, which Kors said he hopes would be displayed at all city buildings, could also be the first step toward paying reparations to families that have suffered as a result of the city’s past actions.
“An apology certainly is in order,” said one member of the Human Rights Commission during the March 8 meeting. “But with the documentation of what happened and the egregious nature of this incident, if there’s any place where one would discuss reparations I think this would be it.
“I don’t know what that would look like, but I know if I were one of the family members that were robbed of generational wealth and other things by this incident, an apology would fall fairly on deaf ears for me if I didn’t have a strong sense that there was something else being done as a result of this incident.”