California Panel Sizes Up Reparations for Black Citizens

In the two years since nationwide social justice protests followed the murder of George Floyd, California has undertaken the nation’s most sweeping effort yet to explore some concrete restitution to Black citizens to address the enduring economic effects of slavery and racism.

A nine-member Reparations Task Force has spent months traveling across California to learn about the generational effects of racist policies and actions. The group, formed by legislation signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020, is scheduled to release a report to lawmakers in Sacramento next year outlining recommendations for state-level reparations.

“We are looking at reparations on a scale that is the largest since Reconstruction,” said Jovan Scott Lewis, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is a member of the task force.

While the creation of the task force is a bold first step, much remains unclear about whether lawmakers will ultimately throw their political weight behind reparations proposals that will require vast financial resources from the state.

“That is why we must put forward a robust plan, with plenty of options,” Dr. Lewis said.

The effort parallels others on a local level, in California and elsewhere, to address the nation’s stark racial disparities and a persistent wealth gap. The median wealth of Black households in the United States is $24,100, compared with $188,200 for white households, according to the most recent Federal Reserve Board Survey of Consumer Finances.

In a preliminary report this year, the task force outlined how enslaved Black people were forced to California during the Gold Rush era and how, in the 1950s and 1960s, racially restrictive covenants and redlining segregated Black Californians in many of the state’s largest cities.

Californians eligible for reparations, the task force decided in March, would be descendants of enslaved African Americans or of a “free Black person living in the United States prior to the end of the 19th century.” Nearly 6.5 percent of California residents, roughly 2.5 million, identify as Black or African American. The panel is now considering how reparations should be distributed — some favor tuition and housing grants while others want direct cash payments.

The task force has identified five areas — housing discrimination, mass incarceration, unjust property seizures, devaluation of Black businesses and health care — in discussions for compensation. For example, from 1933 to 1977, when it comes to housing discrimination, the task force estimates compensation of around $569 billion, with $223,200 per person.

Final figures will be released in the report next year; it would then be up to the Legislature to act upon the recommendations and determine how to fund them.

The state and local efforts have faced opposition over the potentially steep cost to taxpayers and, in one case, derided as an ill-conceived campaign to impose an “era of social justice.”

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A two-day public meeting of the state task force this fall, in a makeshift hearing room tucked inside a Los Angeles museum, included a mix of comments from local residents on how they had been personally affected and how the disparities should be addressed, along with testimony from experts who have studied reparations.

While even broad-scale reparations would be unlikely to eliminate the racial wealth gap, they could narrow it significantly, and proponents hope California’s effort will influence other states and federal legislators to follow suit.

“Calling these local projects reparations is to some degree creating a detour from the central task of compelling the federal government to do its job,” said William A. Darity Jr., a professor at Duke University and a leading scholar on reparations. Even so, Dr. Darity, who is advising the California task force, said “there is an increasing recognition” that the lasting effects of slavery must be addressed.

Every year for almost three decades, Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan introduced legislation that would have created a commission to explore reparations, but the measure consistently stalled in Congress. After Mr. Conyers retired in 2017, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas began championing the measure, which passed a House committee for the first time last year, but stalled on the floor.

Underscoring the political hurdles, opinions on reparations are sharply divided by race. Last year, an online survey by the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that 86 percent of African Americans supported compensating the descendants of slaves, compared with 28 percent of white people. Other polls have also shown wide splits.

Still, several efforts have gotten off the ground recently.

In 2021, officials in Evanston, Ill., a Chicago suburb, approved $10 million in reparations in the form of housing grants. Three months later, officials in Asheville, N.C., committed $2.1 million to reparations. And over the summer, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a plan to transfer ownership of Bruce’s Beach — a parcel in Manhattan Beach that was seized with scant compensation from a Black couple in 1924 — to the couple’s great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons.

“We want to see the land and economic wealth stolen from Black families all across this country returned,” said Kavon Ward, an activist who advocated on behalf of the Bruces’ descendants and has since started a group, Where Is My Land, that seeks to help Black Americans secure restitution.“We are in a moment that we cannot let pass.”

A so-called blight law from 1945, the task force’s interim report explains, paved the way for officials to use eminent domain to destroy Black communities, including shuttering more than 800 businesses and displacing 4,700 households in San Francisco’s Western Addition beginning in the 1950s.

After work on Interstate 210 began later that decade, the report goes on, the freeway was eventually built in the path of a Black business district in Pasadena, where city officials offered residents $75,000 — less than the minimum cost to buy a new home in the city — for their old homes.

And there is Russell City, an unincorporated parcel of Alameda County near the San Francisco Bay shoreline where many Black families fleeing racial terror in the Deep South built lives during the Great Migration. Testimony to the task force by Russell City residents recounts the community’s rise and ultimate bulldozing.

A mural honoring the history of Russell City in what is now Hayward, Calif.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Monique Henderson-Ford grew up hearing stories from her elders about Russell City, where many Black families fleeing racial terror in the Deep South built lives during the Great Migration.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times
The town was demolished to make way for an industrial park.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Unlike neighboring Hayward and San Leandro, Russell City didn’t have racist housing covenants stipulating that only white families could own certain homes. After World War II, it grew into a small but tight community of Black and Latino families that once included seven churches.

On weekends, children played on the unpaved streets as their parents, many of whom worked in the shipyards, sat on porches, and on some foggy nights, Ray Charles and Big Mama Thornton played shows at one of the town’s music venues, called the Country Club.

“It was vibrant,” said Monique Henderson-Ford, who grew up hearing stories about Russell City from her mother, grandmother and cousins.

After leaving Louisiana in the 1950s, her grandparents lived briefly in San Francisco but were displaced by an urban renewal project. Using savings from years of work at Pacific Gas & Electric, her grandfather paid $7,500 for their property and home in Russell City, and the family soon added three small houses to the homestead for their sons.

“This was their American dream,” Ms. Henderson-Ford said in an interview.

But it didn’t last long.

Lacking sewer lines and reliable electricity, the area was designated as a blight, and officials called for its destruction and the area to be turned into an industrial park. Russell City was annexed into Hayward, and the city and county bought up some properties and seized others through eminent domain. Residents, including Ms. Henderson-Ford’s grandmother, pleaded with officials to be allowed to remain in their homes.

“I got a nice place,” she told the Alameda County Board of Supervisors during a public meeting in 1963, according to a transcript. “Allow me a break.”

In exchange for their property and homes, county officials gave the family roughly $2,200, less than a third of what it had originally paid, according to Ms. Henderson-Ford.

On a recent morning, Ms. Henderson-Ford and her cousin joined a reporter on a walk through what was once Russell City but is now an industrial park.

They passed the spot where their grandfather used to fish, yanking up striped bass from the bay as he peered northwest and watched San Francisco’s skyline take its distinctive shape.

“Imagine if the houses were still here,” Ms. Henderson-Ford said. “We would all be sitting on a fortune.”

Amid the uproar in 2020 over the murder of Mr. Floyd, a Black man, in police custody in Minneapolis, Artavia Berry, who lives in Hayward, knew she had to do something.

“We could not look away from what happened right here,” said Ms. Berry, who learned the history of Russell City after moving to the region from Chicago a decade ago.

Ms. Berry, who leads the Community Services Commission, a municipal advisory body, composed what would become a formal apology from the City of Hayward to onetime residents of Russell City. Last November, the City Council approved the resolution, as well as several follow-up steps.

An aerial view of the area as the industrial park that replaced Russell City, lower right, was under construction in 1971.Credit…Hayward Area Historical Society
A kindergarten class on the playground at a school in Russell City in 1949.Credit…Hayward Area Historical Society

But in a public letter to city officials, Hayward Concerned Citizens, the group that railed against an “era of social justice,” said the apology was misguided, arguing that Alameda County, not the City of Hayward, had pushed residents out.

“We are strongly opposed to any direct financial reparations,” the group wrote.

For Gloria Moore, who grew up in Russell City, the words stung.

Now 79, she was 3 when her parents arrived in Russell City from Texarkana, Ark. Her mother worked as a cook at a local elementary school and her father worked for Todd Shipyards in the Bay Area. She still has vivid memories of walking to school in the mud when it rained, because the streets weren’t paved and there was no public transportation.

After their home was taken for about $2,200, the family members struggled to regain the financial stability and community they had built in Russell City.

By the 1970s, Ms. Moore had moved to Los Angeles to begin a career in city government, and she remembered noticing how many of her co-workers owned their own homes. She was renting.

Over the years, she and other former residents of Russell City have gathered at a park in Hayward for a Labor Day reunion, where they share stories and often tears.

“Sometimes things were suppressed because it was too painful,” she recalled. “But no one ever forgot.”

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