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Wednesday, January 19 — Where Is My Land, whose mission is to help Black families reclaim stolen land, is launching a new campaign to reclaim California land taken in 1947 and 2019 – highlighting that Black land theft is a historical injustice and ongoing phenomenon that continues to negatively impact the wealth and economic power of Black people.
The cases of Jonathan Burgess and Zoli Stevens are among the nearly 200 instances of stolen land that Black families across America have reported to Where Is My Land in an effort to reinstate ownership and secure restitution.
Inspired by the landmark return of Black land in Manhattan Beach, California, Where Is My Land will take the same approach to advocate for the Burgess and Stevens families, using public engagement, media awareness, and high-visibility action to garner support for the return of land stolen by private and public entities.
“The experiences of the Bruce descendants and other Black families who have had land stolen show that even the tireless pursuit of families on their own has fallen on deaf ears,” said Where Is My Land co-founder and advocacy lead Kavon Ward. “What we learned from the success of Justice for Bruce’s Beach is that public support is critical to forcing governments and institutions to stop ignoring the appeals of these families and finally address their financial loss and deprivation of civil rights.”
In 2020, Ward sparked the movement to return coastal land to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce and founded the grassroots organization Justice for Bruce’s Beach. The group’s efforts led to the signing of legislation to deed the land back to the members of the Bruce family who never realized the benefits of their ancestors’ hard work.
The cases detailed below span northern and southern California and raise the question of whether statewide legislation is required to specifically address the theft of Black land.
- Jonathan Burgess, a professional firefighter and proprietor of the Burgess Brothers food and beverage company, is pursuing the recovery of land taken by the state in Coloma, California. Burgess’s great-great-grandfather Rufus Burgess arrived in the Gold Rush town with his enslaver in 1849. While there, the elder Burgess was able to gain freedom and acquire enough money to purchase farmland, which Rufus Burgess and his descendants used to sustain their family and build community in Coloma with properties including a blacksmith shop and the Coloma Emmanuel Methodist Church built in 1856. In 1947, the land was seized by the state of California in what Burgess calls an abuse of eminent domain policies.
- Zoli Stevens, a Detroit native who played professional basketball in Australia and later became an actor, model, and real estate investor, is fighting to keep a home in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. In 2019, Stevens took out a loan in order to purchase a property, renovate it, and resell it for a profit. Stevens says that the lender stole more than $3 million in equity on his primary residence and forged loan documents against unrelated property leaving him with millions of dollars in high-interest debt and without title to the investment home. Stevens was forced into bankruptcy, where he is being compelled to sell all his properties and is still struggling to prove that loan documents connected with his properties are fraudulent.
“These cases are examples of two of the many methods used to steal Black land over centuries and to this day,” said Ashanti Martin, Where Is My Land co-founder and marketing lead. “Fraud, forgery, and eminent domain abuse have been used, along with outright violence, for centuries to deprive Black Americans of wealth and opportunity, both economic and political.”