Black Californians are waging a major fight to have land stolen from their ancestors returned to their families. One face included in the fight is that of Yolanda Tylu Owen. She uncovered the truth about land owned by her great-great-great-grandfather and how it was likely taken away.
Speaking to NBC News, Owens said she found a total of four deeds in her great-great-great-grandfather’s name. To her surprise, the land was also located in Napa Valley, California.
Owen’s discovery of her family’s land connects directly to the centuries-long history of Black people having their land stolen. This practice of acquiring land from Black landowners happened nationwide. Land was taken through acts of violence, frivolous litigation, or simply by forcing owners off their property.
Attempts to take land from Black families continue to this day. One recent case includes a 93-year-old woman in South Carolina who claims a developer is attempting to force her to sell land that has been in her family since the mid-1880s.
California specifically benefited from stealing land from Native Americans in its expansion in the mid-1800s. California Governor Gavin Newsom released a formal apology for the actions of the state against Natives back in 2019. However, Native Americans demanded more actions be taken to rectify the financial and social implications over centuries caused by the land theft. This echoes the calls of the Black Californians fighting for the return of the land owned by their ancestors and the larger conversation around reparations.
“There are not a whole lot of stories like this, because the priority of enslaved Blacks who were brought to California was to get away,” writer Jean Pfaelzer told NBC News. “These men were brought out, but their families were still held hostage on the plantations. So it was much more about finding jobs or starting a business so they could make enough money to buy their families.”
“But there were some bold, ambitious Black people who did buy land. And in many cases their land was taken away from them, often in heartbreaking ways.”
Owens believes the only solution to reclaim her family’s land is to take the fight on by herself.
“No one’s going to do it for us,” Owens said.
She is not alone, though, with the NBC News piece following an additional three Black families currently fighting to have their California land returned. These families join numerous Black families nationwide currently navigating the same legal battle.
Many of these families remain inspired to keep fighting for their family land based on success stories like that of the descendants of Willa and Charles Bruce. The Bruce family once owned Bruce’s Beach, a resort for Black families located in Manhattan Beach. The land was seized by California officials in 1924. But following a court battle that started in 2021, the Bruce family successfully had their land returned to them in 2022.