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‘That story needs to be told’ | Black Sacramento family on a mission to reclaim land in Coloma

The state of California took a Black family's Coloma land in 1949 to add to a state park. Now, their descendants are working to reclaim it.

COLOMA, Calif. — Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include information from California State Parks about added signage mentioning the Burgess family's early presence and contributions in Coloma, as well as a list of properties early African American families owned. That list includes disputed information about the ownership of a church.

A Black Sacramento family is working to reclaim the land they say the state took unfairly from them decades ago.

They made their case Saturday as they toured the land, which is now a part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma. They took the opportunity to gather in that small El Dorado County community, some coming this weekend from as far away as Denver.

“To have the family here, I’ve overwhelmed with joy. You know, a lot of emotions going on,” said Jonathan Burgess.

He and his twin brother Matthew Burgess have been researching their long family history in Coloma, dating back more than 170 years. Their ancestor Rufus Burgess was brought to California as a slave around 1850.

RELATED: Sacramento's Burgess Brothers give back to the community they call home

Rufus Burgess became free and bought land. The family eventually farmed fruit trees and owned a blacksmith shop in town.

Jonathan and Matthew Burgess’ sister Dr. Tonia Burgess said, “if you have a 170-year history in a town where gold was discovered, that story needs to be told.”

She and her family members say the state unfairly took some of the family land in the mid-1900s through eminent domain, also known as condemnation. That’s a process by which the government can take private land for public use and pay what’s supposed to be “fair market value.” In this case, that public use was adding the Burgess family land to Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.

ABC10 obtained documents from the El Dorado County Recorder-Clerk’s office that show the Burgess family owned at least five parcels of land in Coloma, all of which are now within the boundary of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. According to one of the documents, through the process of a forced sale (eminent domain) in 1949, the state paid a split total of $9,858.30 to members of two Black families for four parcels of land, two of which were the Burgesses’.

One member of the other family — listed as P. A. Monroe - received $3,702 from that total for one of his family’s parcels. ABC10 does not have the document showing how much of the remaining $6,156.30 went to be split among the three Burgess brothers for their two parcels of land and how much went to the Monroe family for the final parcel.

Jonathan Burgess said he believes the fact that the state resorted to eminent domain indicates the purchasing of that particular land was a forced process and one that unfairly disadvantaged Black families, as the Monroe family is also one of the founding Black families of Coloma. The family land was taken when those three brothers did not want to sell — Jonathan Burgess’ grandfather Rufus M. Burgess Jr. and his two brothers Louis Marion Eugene Burgess and Edgar (Tod) Milton Burgess.

Not all of the family land was acquired through eminent domain. The state purchased some of the other Burgess family land through real estate transactions. Some of the other parcels went from the Burgess family to other private landowners - not the state. That includes the lot on which the Grange Hall - a privately-owned community space within park boundaries - now sits, at the corner of Highway 49 and Mt. Murphy Road. Jonathan and Matthew Burgess' great-grandmother, listed in the deed agreement as Josephine P. Burgess, sold that to J.H. Gallager [sic] in 1901 for $25. That had been the site of the Burgess family blacksmith shop until Rufus M. Burgess died in 1900.

While historical documents show the Burgess family did own land in Coloma, exactly how many acres they owned is in dispute. However, the Burgess family says — historical documents alone don’t tell the full story, and not all the documents are available to them right now.

“Some tell us that, ‘Well, you need to be 100% correct. You need to be factual.’ But how do you do that when primary documents have been distorted?” Dr. Tonia Burgess said.

She and Jonathan Burgess said they believe some of the early maps of Coloma purposely left off the ownership of land by Black families.

The Burgess family now wants to reclaim all land that they say was unfairly taken from them — including the parcels taken through eminent domain — and they’re clear about how they want to do it.

"I don't want to move people off of their lands,” Jonathan Burgess said. “We would be just as wrong today if we kick people off the land, regardless of how they got it."

The family said they would also like to see their history better represented in educational materials throughout the park.

“I think the presence of the Burgess name needs to be more apparent here in this park,” Dr. Tonia Burgess said. 

Barry Smith is the superintendent of California State Parks’ Gold Fields Division. ABC10 asked him about the family’s request for more visibility within the park — and their efforts to reclaim the land.

“What I can help somebody with is, is if there's a story that needs to be told or would like to be told, I have no problem listening to that and coming up with a solution and maybe expanding those stories,” Smith said, “but I can't speak upon the, you know, the potential reparations or (Jonathan Burgess’) ask of that. That's beyond my scope.”

In 2020, California State Parks launched their “Reexamining Our Past Initiative,” which is taking a critical look “at contested place names, monuments, and interpretation” and seeing if a change is needed.

As part of that work, California State Parks told ABC10 News, interpretive panels have been developed to acknowledge the contributions of early African American settlers in Coloma - including the Burgess family. Those panels, as well as other work done to acknowledge of Coloma's founding Black families, can be seen HERE.

"California State Parks has been working with the Burgess Family and other descendants of the gold rush settler families to actively listen to their stories, share information between parties, and expand interpretation of their families’ history in the park programs and exhibits," a California State Parks spokesperson told ABC10.

As for the reclaiming of land — there’s not currently a process for that.

The Burgesses are working with Where is My Land, a non-profit that helps Black families reclaim land unfairly taken from them. Kavon Ward is the co-founder.

“I feel fired up. I feel optimistic,” she said, at the conclusion of Saturday’s tour of former Burgess family land in Coloma. “I feel, you know, like they’re going to get their land back. They’re going to get restitution, and I’m grateful to be a part of this.”

Ward helped spearhead the successful effort in 2021 to return land to the descendants of a Black Southern California couple, whose land was taken from them through eminent domain in 1924. That land, in the Los Angeles County city of Manhattan Beach, is called Bruce’s Beach.

RELATED: Gov. Newsom signs bill that returns land to Black couple's heirs

As for next steps in the Burgess family’s efforts, Ward said she would like to see a state law that establishes a process through which families like the Burgesses can make the case to reclaim their land.

For family member Adrian Siwady-Mejia, Saturday’s family gathering on what used to be family land was an emotional one.

“I have my son, I have my grandson, I have my twin brother, my auntie, my cousins,” she said with tears in her eyes after crossing the historic Coloma bridge. “I know everybody! You know what I mean? This is my family.”

To tell his family's history — and teach kids about the existence of Black pioneers during the California Gold Rush — Jonathan Burgess has recently published a children's book called Gold Rush Burgess Descendants.

DISPUTE OVER THE CHURCH

The Burgesses believe some of the land once owned by their family includes the lot where the historic Emmanuel church stands, on Church Street in Coloma.

However, California State Parks disputes that.

"Research conducted to date has not found documentation that the property where the Emmanuel Church resides was previously owned by the Burgess Family," a California State Parks spokesperson told ABC10 News. "The records do show the Burgess family owned property next to a different church known as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church that is no longer standing."

However, records show the Burgess family did own land, elsewhere, on which another church stood. A deed agreement ABC10 obtained from the El Dorado County Recorder-Clerk shows that in 1879, a man listed as Geo. H. Ingham sold lot 3, block 7 in Coloma, which is listed as containing the "African Church," to R. M. Burgess for "the sum of Ten Dollars."

According to historical maps of Coloma, that lot is located in an area along Highway 49 where CA State Parks garages and housing now stands.

California State Parks published information on its website, laying out its explanation of the ownership of the church on lot 3, block 7 - which is no longer standing - and the structure on Church Street, which is standing but in disrepair.

The Burgess family disputes the park's assessment and says their family once owned the land on which the Church Street church stands.

"State Parks looks forward to continuing its engagement with the Burgess family, Tribal Nations, historians and scholars, subject matter experts, community members, stakeholders and the public to discuss specific topics related to all stories within the Coloma Valley," a California State Parks spokesperson told ABC10 News.

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Watch: California Task Force on Reparations preparing to release first report

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