Like most of America, the California city of Palm Springs has a dark racial history. Now its city council is discussing a potential reparations plan for Black families, and other non-white residents, who were forcefully evicted from their homes in the 1950s and 1960s.
“City of Palm Springs staff drove bulldozers that took down people’s homes. We cannot erase our role in what happened,” Mayor Pro Tem Lisa Middleton said at a council meeting, according to KESQ Channel 3 News.
Middleton was referencing a decision by Palm Springs’ former Mayor Frank Bobert to not only forcefully evict Black residents from Section 14 but also bulldoze, destroy and burn down over 200 of their homes.
“We want to see our families compensated,” said Deiter Crawford, whose grandmother was a resident of Section 14 that lost the land and home she bought and built in the 1960s. “We want to actually get a check and get a payment from the property that we lost and the properties that were destroyed.”
The land was actually owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, but at the time they were restricted by the city’s government from having full autonomy over it. Without the ability to grant leases beyond 5, and later 25 years, the tribe began leasing land to Black residents and other people of color in Section 14.
It was the only place they could afford, according to a 1968 report by the Attorney General. “The average minority person could not afford to live in any other area of Palm Springs; and, de facto racial segregation was prevalent in Palm Springs as in other parts of California,” the report stated.
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Eventually, it became a bustling community. “Back in 1941, two-thirds of the population of Palm Springs lived on the western half of Section 14,” Agua Caliente Cultural Museum Executive Director Michael Hammond told the Desert Sun in 2015.
“There were trailer camps, there were wood yards, there was a café, there was a church, there was even a golf driving range, right on the corner of Ramon and Indian,” Hammond continued. “The people who lived here, though, were African American, Mexican American and tribal members, with some Anglos.”
However, Bobert had a different perspective. Instead of celebrating the ingenuity of the tribe and residents for building their own homes, running their own pipelines and digging their own septic tanks, Bobert frowned upon Section 14.
“If you think of the value of the land and think of the kind of junk there, it’s just scandalous,” Bobert said at the time. The city wanted the land to develop it the way they saw fit.
Although, Palm Springs has already issued a formal apology for their role in the forced evictions and property destruction; they are considering two additional approaches to making amends. One is a financial settlement like one would receive in a lawsuit and the other will focus less on economic redress and “more on the need to make things right.”
Crawford said the apology is not enough and reparations in the form of financial compensation are the only thing that can even begin to atone for what they’ve lost.
“A home today in Palm Springs goes for over $1 million on average, so our families essentially lost generational wealth that we will never be able to recoup,” Crawford said. “Hopefully I’ll see it before my lifetime is up. Until we actually receive the money, it’s all just talk.”
It is a sentiment the Attorney General’s 1968 report reflected also. “The city of Palm Springs not only disregarded the residents of Section 14 as property owners, taxpayers and voters; Palm Springs ignored that the residents of Section 14 were human beings,” the report said.