Civic Solutions: The Section 14 Survivors Group Plans to Do More Public Outreach in 2023

Civic Solutions: The Section 14 Survivors Group Plans to Do More Public Outreach in 2023

Some homes were burned by the city during the effort to clear Section 14. Photo courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society

In the last half of 2022, the city of Palm Springs finally took some steps toward progress in the movement to secure reparations for Black residents.

In November, the Section 14 Survivors group refiled a notice to the city of Palm Springs detailing more specifics about how residents and their descendants were harmed by the city’s razing of homes in a one-square-mile area during the 1950s and 1960s. The group secured new legal counsel and started a nationwide push to get the word out about its efforts.

This year, the group’s efforts are broadening to include more community conversations and outreach. Civil rights attorney Areva Martin, who began working with the Section 14 Survivors group late last summer, said there’s more foundational work to be done outside of the government and legal processes.

“This is history, and we’re trying to capture it, and it hasn’t been captured in this way,” she said.

In February, the group plans multiple events in conjunction with the Palm Springs Black History Committee to commemorate Black History Month. In addition to participating in the annual parade and meeting with clergy, the group will host a public testimonial forum where survivors—some for the first time—will share their recollections of their homes and experiences living on Section 14.

Not only is this a way for the survivors to process their own healing around what happened to their families; it adds new perspective to the historical record, Martin said.

“There are so many people who have heard or read or may have misconceptions about what the Section 14 community was,” Martin said. “We’ve heard very pejorative terms used to describe that community, and we want people to be disabused of any misconceptions they may have about the people that lived there.”

The Section 14 Survivors group organized following increasing discussions in the last two years regarding the city’s role in removing communities of color from the one-square-mile area known as Section 14 in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, city policies restricted people of color from living in certain parts of the city. The area—on reservation land belonging to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians—was home to many people of color who worked in the city’s hospitality industry, as well as carpenters, laborers and domestic workers who helped fuel the city’s rise. Some residents ran their own businesses, and some built their homes themselves.

The city took over the land in pursuit of commercial enterprises, resulting in the dislocation of residents and destruction of property. Many of Palm Springs’ Black residents moved to the neighborhood now known as Desert Highland-Gateway Estates, in the northern portion of the city.

The monetary damages for the destruction, based on estimates from economist Julianne Malveaux, could range from $400 million to $2 billion.

The city formally issued an apology for its actions in September 2021, about a half-century after the California attorney general referred to the city’s actions as a “city-engineered holocaust.” Otherwise, little action was taken until late 2022 amid the push from the Section 14 Survivors group, when the city issued a request for proposals for a firm to help develop a reparations program. A contract could be awarded in the coming weeks.

The city formally issued an apology for its actions in September 2021, about a half-century after the California attorney general referred to the city’s actions as a “city-engineered holocaust.”

Martin said having survivors speak their truth may also help the broader community understand why the reparations effort is under way.

“I think it’s very easy for people to think that they are against something when they have just read or heard one side of a story, or been fed one narrative. But hopefully, when people hear the truth, when they hear these oral histories, it will soften hearts, and change minds, and bring people together,” she said.

Martin said another major goal for the first half of 2023 is locating more survivors and descendants. On this front, she hopes to see awareness spread beyond Palm Springs, given how many people may have left the area.

These efforts started with a successful Los Angeles press conference in November. Right now, the group has contact information for around 600 survivors and descendants, Martin said. But given the size of the affected area, there could be thousands more, Martin said.

“We’ve had people reaching out to us, saying, ‘Oh, I’ve heard about the story I saw on social media,’ or, ‘I saw an interview on ABC,’” Martin said. “So you know, that’s a part of this effort to continue to nationalize the story so that we can reach more people who may have been impacted.”

What’s happening in Palm Springs could reverberate throughout the nation. Martin is also in touch with the state’s Reparations Task Force and other civil rights attorneys working on similar issues across the country.

“The (reparations) movement is picking up steam and gaining traction in all parts of our state and throughout our nation,” she said.

In January 2021, the city of Evanston, Ill., instituted a housing-assistance program that stemmed from a reparations program to address historical discrimination against Black residents. The city of San Francisco has a commission working on reparations efforts, as does Asheville, N.C.

But every city’s story is different, and each push will take its own uncharted course through courts, city governments and community conversations. The work is far from over, and it’s far from easy, but Martin said it’s essential to achieve justice.

“There are forces throughout our state and country that would rather we hide and deny and whitewash and distort that history,” she said. “And that’s why it’s so important that we not allow those voices to ever win, or to ever become the prevailing voices, because if we don’t acknowledge our history, we are doomed to repeat it.”

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