Descendants fight for reparations after Palm Springs razed neighborhood in ’60s

Pearl Devers was just 12 years old when she says her childhood home was forcibly taken by the city of Palm Springs, California, in the 1960s.

“The home that my father built — it was burned, bulldozed over by the city fire department,” Devers told ABC News.

“There’s not a hint or a trace that we ever existed here. Not an ounce. That’s the painful part,” she continued.

As many as 1,000 residents – mostly working-class people of color – lost their homes during this time, they say, with little to no warning. A state attorney general’s report called what happened, “a city-engineered Holocaust.”

And for decades, it was Palm Springs’ “best kept secret,” Devers said. That is, “until now.”

Devers is currently part of a group of residents whose homes were taken and whose descendants are now fighting for reparations. It comes as the national debate rages over what, if anything, should be done to pay for America’s sins against communities of color.

In the 1950s, Dieter Crawford’s family came to Palm Springs from Texas and Mississippi.

“Part of the Black migration. You know, ‘Go west, young man. Go west.’ That rings true to most of the families that relocated out here,” Crawford said.

Most of these residents settled into a 1 square-mile tract of tribal land known as Section 14 – prime real estate near downtown Palm Springs. The land was owned by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

“They were the only community willing to allow Black and brown families to live on their land,” said Areva Martin, an attorney representing some who lived on Section 14 and their descendants.

“The irony was, for a lot of these families, they were escaping the Jim Crow South only to find that some of the same Jim Crow laws and policies were very much prevalent in Palm Springs,” Martin said.

City documents from that era refer to “substandard housing conditions” on Section 14 and paint a portrait of Palm Springs’ desire to “clean up” the land.

But Crawford is doubtful of this claim, telling ABC News, “How can we build Palm Springs and not have our own homes nice?”

Then, when a federal law passed in 1959 expanding the length of leases on tribal land to 99 years, Section 14 suddenly became attractive real estate to developers.

“Section 14, as a part of the city’s grander plan, has been commercially developed. There’s been hotels, spas, casino, convention center, condominiums,” Martin said.

According to state documents, “In 1956, the city of Palm Springs approached the conservator with a plan to raze Section 14…the city would then clear the land, using city funds.”

When asked if her family received any relocation assistance or any compensation from the city, Devers said, “Nothing. My mother became a single mom. And my father succumbed to alcohol, could not handle it. The strong-willed man began to drink until he died.”

Palm Springs formally apologized for its role in the forced evictions in 2021 and began discussing the possibility of a reparations program. In 2022, the city removed the statue of Frank Bogert, the mayor during that period.

But financial support has yet to come.

The city declined an interview request. In a statement, they said, “The City of Palm Springs has apologized for the action taken toward those affected by the Section 14 displacement. The City has an obligation, not only to those who were displaced, but also to its residents, businesses and taxpayers, to thoroughly investigate the history as it develops remedial programs that are fair to everyone.”

The statement went on to summarize various steps the city says they have taken since 2020 to “address the Section 14 displacement,” such as holding listening sessions, adopting a resolution formally apologizing for the city’s role in the forced evictions and issuing “a request for proposals for reparations program consultant services.”

In August, the city put out a request for proposals to develop affordable housing for an area in northern Palm Springs where many former Section 14 residents now reside, according to the statement.

Last year, Martin filed a tort claim on behalf of the Section 14 survivors, placing an estimated monetary value of up to $2 billion in harm.

Meanwhile, across the country, in Evanston, Illinois, Robin Rue Simmons knows what it takes to make reparations come to fruition. She led such efforts in the city, which became the first in the nation and has become a model for other cities considering reparation programs.

But the program, implemented in 2021, has come under scrutiny for what some see as a slow rollout. Initially the program called for $25,000 housing vouchers for ancestors and descendants who survived racist redlining and housing discrimination in the city.

In January 2022, the Evanston City Council held a lottery drawing to announce the first 16 out of 140 approved ancestors to receive the vouchers.

But the number of recipients stalled at 16 for more than a year.

“We’ve had to learn a lot, a lot along the way. There were no models,” Simmons said.

“There was a stall in getting the revenue. We pivoted to add an additional revenue source, and so now we have more funding coming in,” she said.

To date, the city has distributed $2.7 million to 107 people. Total funding for the program has also grown from $10 million to $20 million and people can now choose a cash benefit option instead of a housing voucher if they wish.

Back in Palm Springs, Crawford is part of the Section 14 Survivors Group, a group that was founded by Pearl Devers. Crawford was born long after his ancestors’ homes were destroyed, but emphasizes the lasting effect it has had on future generations.

“The generational trauma that was passed down to us, as well as the generational wealth that we lost,” Crawford said.

Attorney Martin continues to negotiate with the city on behalf of the Section 14 Survivors Group.

“When this is done, and I have every reason to believe it will be done, it will be history-making,” she said.

ABC News’ Lisa Zobel, Stephanie Fasano and Emilie de Sainte Maresville contributed to this report.

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