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February 13, 2022

Reparations for Black Americans gains slow momentum following BLM

The Black Lives Matter protests two years ago stirred considerable renewed interest in reparations for Black Americans to help ameliorate past and continuing harms.

Earlier last year, the U.S. House of Representatives moved forward legislation to establish a commission to study reparation proposals. While there has since been little movement in the bill, advocates at the American Bar Association Virtual Midyear Meeting said that other compensation efforts are moving ahead.

Panelists during the program “Restoring Taken African American Land, Reclamation or Reparations,” sponsored by the ABA Section of State and Local Government Law on Feb. 11, discussed a couple of hopeful signs.

Just months earlier, the descendants of Black property owners whose Manhattan Beach, California, beachfront land was seized by the government in 1924 under eminent domain, finally got their land back nearly100 years later.

Thanks to advocates who lobbied on behalf of the family of Charles and Willa Bruce, California State Sen. Steven Bradford got involved to author SB 796, which was signed into law in September, clearing the way for the return of the deed to the Bruce family.

A member of California’s Task Force to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans, Bradford said the land transfer should be completed by spring.

The Bruces’ beach property was once a thriving resort spot that served Black Americans, but racist outcries led the city to seize the land back then for a public park, which was never built.

The experience of the Bruce family is not unique, said Katharine Kinsman, editor at State and Local Law News in Santa Ynez, California, and moderator for the discussion. In 1910, ownership of farmland by Black Americans was at 14%, she said. That number is now even smaller, reduced to about half of 1%.

U.S. government discriminatory practices are among reasons for the loss of land, which negated the growth of an inheritance structure for the descendants of Black landowners and contributed to the widely known economic wealth gap between white and Black households, she said.

The gap has also considerably widened because of “general housing and lending discrimination through restrictive covenants, redlining and other lending practices,” Kinsman said.

The victory of the Bruce family is just a small step toward addressing the wrongs of the past, but it has invigorated interest from others with property losses due to racist practices.

Bradford is still working through some complications for the Bruces. “Our biggest challenge right now is making sure that we deal with the tax implications of that property, because at today's value it's worth $75 million,” he said. “The family would lose it immediately just based on being able to afford to pay taxes.”

Bradford said he’s working to make sure the property is returned at a fair value. “It makes no sense to return the property and they lose it immediately, simply because they can't afford the tax obligation on the property.”

Bradford said the return of Bruce’s Beach “speaks volumes” to how important this is to similar situations around the country.

“I said this would be an example of what reparations could look like, truly it's atonement for that which was stolen,” Bradford said.

Encouraged by the Bruce victory, Bradford has set his sights to “right the wrongs” in other California towns. He said his next priority is Allensworth, a once thriving Black community established in 1908 that was destroyed because of “hatred.”  Bradford said the economic revenue there dried up because water to the land was cut off, affecting the viability of farms and eventually sealing the fate of the town when its train stop was removed.

Beyond the work in the Golden State, panelists said another effort to compensate Black Americans for past wrongs is brewing.

Last year Rep. Henry C. “Hank” Johnson Jr. of Georgia introduced HR 3466, "Tulsa Greenwood Massacre Claims Accountability Act,” to address what Johnson calls “the largest and single most egregious racial crime ever perpetrated on American soil.”

The act would open the federal courts for survivors and their descendants of the massacre in Oklahoma for a period of five years after the passage of the legislation to allow claims to be litigated.

Back in 1921, a white mob attacked, looted and burned to the ground the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was one of the wealthiest Black communities in the country and known as the Black Wall Street.

The end result of the massacre was that people were killed; homes, businesses and churches were burned to the ground; survivors were placed in internment camps and their land “ended up in the hands of white folks,” Johnson said.

“I think what’s so critical about the Tulsa race massacre is that it represents such a clear line to the need for reparations in this country, not just for the victims of the Tulsa massacre and their descendants, but the descendants of the hundreds of other race massacres that occurred in this country after slavery.”

To date, the bill does not have a single Republican supporter, but the idea is gaining “traction and momentum,” Johnson said.

“Reparations is ultimately about respect and reconciliation and the hope is that one day all Americans can work together toward a more just future,” Johnson said.

Also on the panel was Michael Jenkins, partner at Best Best & Krieger LLP and a member of Bruce's Beach Task Force.