In the tranquil beauty of Napa Valley, a story of generational wealth stolen from Black families emerges from historical archives. Much like the tragic events of the Tulsa Massacre, this story of the violent acquisition and theft of land and wealth that legally belonged to Black communities that were destroyed and had their wealth stripped from them and their families is another confirmation of the injustice perpetrated on Black families.
After nine months of meticulous research, Yolanda Tylu Owens discovered her family’s untold story. Edward Hatton, her great-great-great-grandfather, was once a landowner in the wine-rich Napa Valley. Ms. Owens’ discovery is a stark reminder of the plunder of Black wealth, underscoring the need for reparations – a subject currently under discussion by the State of California Reparations Task Force and other jurisdictions.
California’s founding involved the often-violent acquisition and theft of land from Native people. Although it was not officially a slave state, Californians brought enslaved Africans into the state to toil in the mines and fields. Unlike slave states, many enslaved Africans could buy their freedom and land. Like the situation in slave states, however, many had it taken away from them violently, mirroring the tragedy that befell the prosperous Black community of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921.
The story of Mr. Edward Hatton echoes this narrative. As a formerly enslaved person and a 49er, he came to Napa in the mid-1850s. During his tenure, Mr. Hatton became a respected figure in Northern California, owning three prime real estate lots in downtown Napa and 209 acres in the nearby mountains. Nevertheless, California authorities did nothing to prohibit or reverse the theft of his land.
“Are we not as intelligent as any class of the community, and are we not taxed as well as others? Why this distinction? I think it is time we should be doing something for ourselves,” Edward Hatton wrote in a letter to a local newspaper in 1867. His descendants now seek to reclaim this stolen wealth.
Regaining control of their ancestors’ lands is a matter of principle and justice for these families.
Mr. Hatton’s story is not unique. Other Black families, like the Blue and Burgess families, are grappling with similar legacies of seized land and lost generational wealth. Mr. Daniel Blue, a formerly enslaved person turned entrepreneur, owned vast properties in Sacramento. Jon Burgess discovered that his ancestor, Rufus Burgess, one of the state’s first gold miners, had his 420-acre property unjustly seized by the city using eminent domain.
As the California reparations task force prepares to submit its recommendations, the stolen land’s potential worth is just part of the equation. Regaining control of their ancestors’ lands is a matter of principle and justice for these families. They yearn to rectify the deep-seated injustices that robbed them of their wealth, culture, and history.
The land reversion could set a precedent, as seen in the case of Bruce’s Beach in Southern California, where Los Angeles County returned the land unlawfully seized from a Black couple, Charles and Willa Bruce, back to their family. While the scenarios may not be identical, it brings hope to these descendants as they await California’s bold steps towards reparations.
“No one’s going to do it for us,” Owens said. To Owens and many others, their mission is clear: it’s their ancestors’ stolen land, and they want it back. The narrative is part of the broader context of America’s struggle to right the wrongs of systemic racial injustices, making reparations an urgent and necessary path toward healing and justice.