Watch CBS News

Local Family Works To Restore Generational Legacy By Reclaiming Lost Land In Coloma

COLOMA (CBS13) — In an effort to restore a generational legacy, a local family is asking for restitution after discovering their ancestors once owned land in Coloma that is now in possession of the state.

Nestled on the American River is the tiny town of Coloma, known for its Gold Rush history, but there is a piece of the story one family says is missing.

"I think about how land has been lost," Jonathan Burgess said. "I think about how secrets have never been revealed."

Burgess has spent years researching the area, and he claims his great grandfather Rufus Burgess, buried in Pioneer Cemetery, owned 80 acres of land, including Emmanuel Church, which is still standing today.

"What our family knows is that this is a building that once we owned, and as far as I'm concerned still own because we have the deed to it," Burgess said.

The chained-up chapel was the first African American church in the region. It now sits in the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.

"Once we can tell the truth about what happened, we can restore what once was," Burgess said.

A deed provided by Burgess from 1879 shows the land was bought by his family.

California's Parks Department said records show the family owned the lot next to a different church identified on the 1873 El Dorado County Assessors Map as "African Church" instead. According, to the state the African Church, also referred to as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Emmanuel were located on different properties.

"Further scholarly research is warranted to better understand the historical sequence of property ownership, the various religious congregations that held services and conducted events at the church, as well as how other town buildings were used for services in the early decades of Coloma's founding," said California State Parks Information Officer Adeline Yee.

The state claims land once owned by the Burgess family was eventually sold to the state.

"Through historic research, State Parks has confirmed that portions of land within Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma were owned by the Burgess family," Yee explained. "Much of the land was purchased by the state of California through eminent domain and real estate transactions between the state of California and the Burgess family. As it relates to the Emmanuel Church, research conducted to date has not found documentation that the property where the Emmanuel Church resides was previously owned by the Burgess Family."

Burgess claims the African Church was later renamed Emmanuel and are one in the same.

"My family was here in 1849 and we have nothing to show for it today," Burgess said. "Except a fraudulent map on file that says we only owned eight acres."

Kavon Ward is a co-founder of Where Is My Land, an organization that advocates on behalf of Black families to reclaim lost land.

"I think this is the time that people are realizing now more than ever that we will not go away, we will not shut up," Ward said. "We will not stop demanding reparations."

Last year, Ward successfully helped return ownership of Bruce's Beach in Los Angeles. Her efforts prompted a state law specific to the Bruce family, making it possible.

Ward hopes she can do the same for the Burgess family.

"I would like to see statewide policy that allows for all Black people who have had their land stolen or their restitution paid for," she said.

It's a family's missing legacy that Burgess hopes will soon be restored.

"Just as much as it is about reclaiming, it's as much as telling a truthful history so that we as a nation can finally heal," he said.

Burgess says after three years of talks with the state's park department, no progress has been made. He's hoping the Governor's Office will investigate.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.