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Tamiko Overton Parks
Thursday, September 30, 2021 — With the signing of California legislation that will return wrongfully seized land in Manhattan Beach to the descendants of the Black entrepreneurs who owned it nearly a century ago, Where Is My Land (WIML) is launching the next chapter in the national movement to restore property and secure restitution for Black families whose land was unjustly stolen in the United States.
At the ceremony where California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 796, WIML co-founder Kavon Ward announced that the organization will commence a reparative justice campaign for Winston Willis, a Black property developer whose land was seized and demolished by the city of Cleveland in 1982 while he was being held on questionable charges for a bounced check.
Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s top-ranked hospitals with locations in London and Abu Dhabi, expanded its campus in the 1980s, and the W.O. Walker Center now stands where there
was once a thriving center of Black commerce and community. The residential communities adjacent to the clinic, meanwhile, are economically distressed; more than half of Cleveland’s population of children lives below the federal poverty line.
“We know what Cleveland Clinic did to Winston Willis. They seized and destroyed not only Winston’s property, but the heart of Black life in Cleveland during the 1960s and 1970s,” said
Ward, who founded Justice for Bruce’s Beach and led the groundbreaking effort to return land to the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce. “I said it before and I will say it again: How can we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps when the boots and the socks are stolen right off our feet?”
The story of stolen land is not limited to Manhattan Beach and Cleveland; there are untold instances in which Black families’ livelihood and legacies were cut short through the theft of land and property.
CLEVELAND CLINIC THRIVED AND GREW, BUT AT WHAT COST?
Winston Willis began acquiring property and opening businesses as residents left the city in the wake of social unrest in the 1960s. He had already opened a movie theater and a popular jazz cafe when he sought to develop the area of East 105th Street and Euclid Avenue.
Through his property development company, Willis owned and operated more than 25 businesses, including several restaurants, movie theaters, taverns, a food market, and a penny arcade. Local service providers such as doctors and social workers were his tenants, and he employed hundreds of people. Many residents considered it the Gold Coast of Black entertainment and frequently referred to the area as an “inner-city Disneyland.”
During this same period, Cleveland Clinic was growing rapidly, having gained international fame for perfecting the heart bypass in 1967. Willis’s sister, Aundra Willis Carrasco, said she has been trying to draw attention to her brother’s story and seek justice for more than 30 years.
“The sprawling multibillion-dollar medical metropolis that is now part of Cleveland Clinic has been occupying several city blocks of land that, as far as I am concerned, Winston still owns,”
Willis Carrasco said. “What Winston suffered in the illegal takings of his properties and the destruction of his Euclid Avenue business empire is one of the most criminally underreported stories in Cleveland history.”
After years of harassment including surprise inspections by the city and a near-constant police presence, Willis was accused of bouncing a $421 check, arrested in his office at gunpoint, and imprisoned for more than a week while his buildings were seized and demolished. No payment or restitution was issued, despite Willis’s several attempts at legal action.
AN ISSUE OF SYSTEMIC SCALE AND SCOPE
Land ownership is a key driver of generational wealth. Barriers to ownership — including land theft, redlining, and economic disenfranchisement — have resulted in a persistent and
pernicious racial wealth gap. The return of Bruce’s Beach has sparked a growing interest in the history of Black land ownership and the erasure of Black enterprise and economic success in
The stories of the Bruces, Winston Willis, and countless others across the United States demonstrate the widespread occurence of Black land theft, with families and individuals losing their land and equity through legal maneuvers, harassment, violence, and murder.
- The 1921 Tulsa massacre, long obscured from public memory, destroyed swaths of the Greenwood district, including four drug stores, two dozen grocery stores, and 31 restaurants
- Enslaved as a child, George Floyd’s great-great-grandfather acquired 500 acres of land in North Carolina by the time he was 21. White farmers seized the land, and Floyd’s ancestors ended up as sharecroppers.
- Sacramento Fire Battalion Chief Jonathan Burgess testified before California’s reparations task force about 88 acres of land that was seized from his great-grandfather in the gold rush town of Coloma, Calif.
“Closing the wealth gap is imperative, but before we look forward, let’s look back. Look back at what was taken. Black communities across America were thriving until land was stolen,” said WIML co-founder Ashanti Martin. “We are not asking for a handout or new social programs. We want the land back, and we want restitution to be paid.”