By Lil Kalish, CalMatters
Beverly Moore recalls feeling a wave of relief when her family rented a house in Richmond, California after their prior house burned down in the late 1950s.
The one-story wooden house at 502 Enterprise Ave. soon became part of a close-knit Black community. There was a porch and a den filled with books. Moore remembers her mom tending to their fig and pear trees with water from their well. Her mother grew collard greens that she traded with neighbors for fresh-caught fish.
Moore held jobs through her teen years and after graduating from Cal State Fresno, she bought that house for her mother in 1980, relieving her from a lifetime of renting.
“It was a privilege to buy our home for my mom; it was something she was unable to do,” Moore said recently.
But their homeownership was short-lived.
In 1993 the city of Richmond seized the home through eminent domain to make way for a drainage system linked to the Richmond Parkway, which connects the city with a bridge into Marin County.
The Moore house was the only home on the block that was demolished.
Eminent domain is when a government takes private property for public use, often to construct roads, highways, schools or for some other public purpose. By law the government is required to provide property owners with “just compensation.”
For decades Black families have borne the brunt of these land grabs, with many like Moore saying they had little or no recourse. Eminent domain still poses barriers to Black homeownership today, contributing to the wealth gap.
Often local governments justified these actions by declaring areas “blighted,” a word advocates say became synonymous with low-income, under-resourced neighborhoods.
“California was at the forefront of this kind of abuse,” said Bob McNamara, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, a national libertarian public interest law firm.
“For a long time California treated the concept of blighted property as basically synonymous with coveted property. It was blighted if they wanted it.”
A study of more than 2,532 “blight” projects nationwide found the projects displaced more than 1 million Black Americans from 1949 to 1973. Those were the years the Federal Housing Act first authorized cities to use eminent domain to clear “blighted neighborhoods,” according to the Institute for Justice, authors of the study.
Black people were 12% of the population but two-thirds of those displaced.
“It changed the whole dynamic of everybody’s life,” Moore said of her family’s experience. “We never had that place to come back to, to land, without that support.”
Today Moore, a retired mental health case manager living in Fairfield, believes she has a chance to one day call that land home again.
Last year she reached out to Where Is My Land, an organization that helps Black families across the country regain land taken through eminent domain, fraudulent wills, or other means.
Nearly 500 families have contacted Where Is My Land since the organization launched last summer, said founder Kavon Ward, an activist and poet in Los Angeles.
Hundreds sought help
Demand for the group’s services has been “overwhelming,” she said, adding she is encouraged so many have contacted her.
“I’m happy that there’s hope where there wasn’t,” she said, adding Where Is My Land must be strategic about moving cases forward. “I need there to be realistic expectations.”
For now, Ward said, the group’s three staff members are “taking it slow … we can’t go as fast as people are expecting us to unless they want to donate millions of dollars.”
The for-profit organization says it provides advocacy, research and media consulting and charges between $35 a session to $3,333 for the full package of services.
The hundreds seeking Where Is My Land’s help span the United States, Ward said, with most requests coming from the South and the East Coast. There are 40 active cases, including seven in California, Ward said.
“All of (the cases) are racially motivated,” Ward said, “Eminent domain was used in a lot of them, but also just racist white people running people off the land … There’s fraud and oil companies taking land and getting away with it. We have courts involved with the theft of it … and municipalities and states not doing anything about it, despite seeing that the families have proven evidence that the land belongs to them.”
In California, Where is My Land is working with seven families who lost property to municipalities in Santa Monica, Hayward, Richmond, Coloma, Palm Springs, Canyon and Napa, Ward said. The team is gathering documents and testimony and working with law firms, though Ward wouldn’t be specific about their strategy, saying the organization faces steep opposition.
“I am grateful that more and more people are educating themselves and are ready to make amends,” she said. “But at the same time, there are just as many people who are not and who are looking at this attempt to get land back as a huge threat and will do whatever they can to stop the movement.”
Where is My Land grew out of a local effort to help a Black family in Manhattan Beach regain ownership of a small park called Bruce’s Beach in Los Angeles County.
In the early 1900s, Bruce’s Beach was a haven for Black families who wanted to swim in the Pacific Ocean but were blocked from most other beaches and pools in the county. Originally owned by Willa and Charles Bruce, the beach was a resort with a restaurant and dance hall.
The city of Manhattan Beach seized the property in 1927, claiming it for a public park. But the spot remained undeveloped for decades. The city deeded it to the state, which transferred it to the county, which put a lifeguard station on it.
Now surrounding the park are multi-million dollar luxury homes with ocean views.
“Can you imagine what that land would be worth?” Ward said. “Can you imagine how wealthy that family could have been?”
Before 2020, Ward said, she barely knew the history of Bruce’s Beach. After the national protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd, she held a Juneteenth picnic at Bruce’s Beach where two members of the Bruce family attended.
“I got so upset,” said Ward, 41. “I live in this city where Black people were essentially co-founders and I had no idea.”
Ward began advocating for the return of the land to the Bruces. She spent hours testifying at city council meetings and before the California Coastal Commission about the unjust history of eminent domain, while facing pushback from residents, including some who called the Bruces opportunists and claimed there was no systemic racism in Manhattan Beach.
Separately state Sen. Steven Bradford — a Democrat from San Pedro who sits on the state’s reparations task force — had begun drafting Senate Bill 796, which would allow the county to return the land to the Bruces.
Legislators unanimously passed the bill, and in September 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed it. L.A. County, while publicly admitting the original land grab was motivated by racial prejudice, deeded the land back to the Bruce family in what many said was a rare case of a government reversing a multimillion-dollar eminent domain action.
“It is well documented that this move was a racially motivated attempt to drive out the successful Black business and its patrons,” the Board of Supervisors’ motion reads.
Recently the county signed an agreement with Bruce descendants to continue leasing the property for $413,000 a year for two years. Afterward the county could buy it from the family for a price “not to exceed” $20 million.
The fight to return the beach met with some legal resistance. Joseph Ryan, a Palos Verdes resident and retired attorney, filed a lawsuit arguing that the land transfer would constitute “a gift” of public funds and therefore is unconstitutional. The Los Angeles Superior Court rejected Ryan’s suit last April, finding the return of land is not a gift.
In an email to CalMatters, he disputed the history of the eminent domain seizure, and referred to his prior statements in which he called the story of injustice a “myth.”
Making it right
Ward said the property’s return to the Bruces is a sign of progress.
“It’s the first time in this frickin’ country, in this world, that Black people are treated with enough respect for this country to say, ‘You know, what we did, this, it was wrong. We’re going to do what we can to make it right,’” Ward said.
Ward’s advocacy, along with Bradford’s first-of-its-kind legislation, put the issue of Black land dispossession on a national stage. Ward said the campaign was a moment of “perfect alignment” of political will among people in local, state and national political spheres.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all model for any of it,” Ward said. “A lot of it is case-by-case strategy.”
Today her organization pushes for property transfers either legislatively or through the courts, along with drumming up public support.
Families submit claims to the organization’s website and the team’s lead researcher, Kamala Miller, reviews them. A strong case, Miller said, is one with robust documentation of ownership by a family — such as property deeds or demolition notices — or historical evidence of eminent domain in local newspapers or city archives.
Miller, who is a licensed attorney in Washington D.C., said cases like the Bruces’ and the Moores’ — involving land seized for public use and which remains unused — have better shots at transfers than cases where private parties seize land.
“Those are more likely to get a listening ear” than when somebody lives on the property, Miller said.