California Families Seeking $2 Billion After Being Forced to Relocate

Lawrance W. McFarland spent his childhood on a Native American reserve in Palm Springs, which he described as a “little world of its own,” despite its proximity to the city’s most popular attractions and filming locations.

Former New Yorker currently residing in Mississippi retiree recalls seeing Section 14’s diverse, close-knit community’s homes torn down and burned to the ground. “We thought they were just cleaning up some of the old houses,” he said.

McFarland, his mother, and his younger brother were forced out of their home and into temporary housing before finally relocating to Cabazon, a small town located about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of Palm Springs.

In 2021, the Palm Springs city council will apologize to former residents for the city’s role in the forced relocation of numerous Black and Mexican American families from the area in the 1960s. However, the previous residents argue that this is insufficient.

Families Displaced From California Neighborhood
Families Displaced From California Neighborhood

They claim the city should pay them almost $2.3 billion in compensation for the harm they suffered as a result of being forced to leave their homes. Each family would need about $1.2 million to do that. The figure was discussed at a meeting on Sunday attended by experts like Cheryl Grills, who is researching reparations solutions for African Americans on behalf of the state.

The Palm Springs endeavor is part of a larger movement by Black families to seek restitution from local and state governments for the harms they have suffered as a result of discriminatory laws that have persisted for centuries, long after slavery was abolished.

The state of California has established a task committee to consider reparations for past wrongs, such as the use of eminent domain to take land from Black homeowners and the practice of redlining to limit the availability of neighborhoods to Black families.

Officials in Los Angeles County agreed last year to return eminent domain-seizured land in Manhattan Beach to a Black family whose ancestors had the land taken by the city in the 1920s. For $20 million, the family sold the land back to the county.

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Amy Blaisdell, a spokesperson for the city of Palm Springs, said in an email that city officials want to contact with a “reparations consultant” to determine if and how to compensate the families who were forced to relocate. This issue could be put to a vote by the council later this month.

Approximately 45,000 people call this city, which is roughly 110 miles (177 kilometers) east of Los Angeles, home. The area is mostly recognized as a desert resort community, with a number of golf courses and high-end hotels.

The families are investigating potential legal remedies as well. Their Los Angeles attorney, Areva Martin, filed a tort action against the city in the month of November, claiming that city officials had engaged bulldozer contractors and dispatched fire crews to burn down residences.

Martin stated that in response, city officials pledged they would collaborate with previous inhabitants and their descendants to find a solution. “There’s no evidence of the tremendous contributions they made to the city,” she said.

According to economist and dean of California State University, Los Angeles’s College of Ethnic Studies Julianne Malveaux, the $2.3 billion sum compensates for the upheaval experienced by 2,000 families that were forced to relocate.

Former Palm Springs mayor and current city council member Lisa Middleton has spoken out about the city’s responsibility in the eviction of Section 14 residents. “Our history includes some wonderful moments for which we have every right to be proud,” she said at a meeting.

“But it also includes some moments for which we have every reason to be remorseful, to learn from those mistakes and to make sure that we do not pass those mistakes onto another generation.” Renee Brown, associate curator and archivist at the Palm Springs Historical Society, explained that the story of displacement in Section 14 is more nuanced than many might think.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians owns a portion of the land in Section 14. Over the course of more than a decade, Brown said, the city assisted the tribe in clearing land in Section 14 so that it could be leased to developers.

The city could never have gone on that land and done anything,” she said, without “tribal permission.” There was silence from the tribe when they were asked for comment. The tort suit likens the incident to the violence that killed as many as 300 people in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street neighborhood more than a century ago.

There were no fatalities associated with the relocation of families from Section 14. A lawsuit was filed against the city of Tulsa by three people who survived the mass shooting there. A bill to make it easier for survivors and descendants to obtain compensation was introduced in the United States Congress in 2021, but it was never given a hearing.

Pearl Devers, a Palmdale native, and her family once made their home in Section 14. She was a driving force behind the formation of a group that meets regularly to discuss past experiences and future plans for the area. Her father, a carpenter, supposedly worked on the construction of numerous houses in Section 14.

She reflected on the community’s closeness, recalling how her neighbors were like a “second set of parents” to her and her brother. She could smell the smoke and see the flames until her mother told her they had to go. “We just felt like we were running from being burned out,” she said.

Devers’s brother Alvin Taylor suggested that city officials should consult with evictees and their families before settling on a reparations plan. “An apology is not enough,” Taylor insisted. Sophie Austin is an intern with the Statehouse News Initiative at the Associated Press and Report for America.

The nonprofit organization Report for America sends journalists in local newsrooms to cover stories that aren’t getting enough attention. Austin can be followed on Twitter as @sophieadanna.

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