Reckoning with reparations: What some Black Californians want

There is an unsavory truth about California's history — the Golden State bears the stain of slavery and its evils are tied to the modern-day suffering of Black residents.

The lingering effects of slavery were policies, like Black Codes, Jim Crow laws and redlining, that kept the dynamics of the institution in place. The repercussions can be seen in everything from higher levels of incarceration to lower average income.

Many Black Californians believe that the government is long overdue in repairing the harms that kept them and their decedents from living without fear of being wrongfully prosecuted, retaining property and building wealth. 

A government attempt to possibly atone for the past is underway. California's Reparations Task Force is finalizing a list of proposals that go to state lawmakers on July 1 to consider for reparations legislation. San Francisco is also debating, separately, whether to provide reparations to Black residents.

For many Black people in California, this dark history is something they have personally experienced, not learned about through a textbook.

Lynette Mackey, 63, is a San Francisco native. She long remembers the seizure of her childhood home from the Fillmore in 1975, during the city's Urban Renewal phase.

"This building is exactly the way it was when I grew up. The only thing they did is they did a new paint job," Mackey said while glancing over the Victorian style home that sits on Eddy Street. "These are the stairs I played on every day."

Mackey looked back on memories of life in the Fillmore, a historically Black neighborhood also known as the Harlem of the West where musical giants like John Coltrane and Billie Holiday played. 

Mackey said her grandfather owned the two-flat property that was home to 13 people at one point. 

"We were on the top. My grandmother and grandfather on the bottom," Mackey recalled. "We came in through the backdoors, so the doors were always open."

Those doors were forcibly shut after the city of San Francisco condemned the home despite her grandfather's pleas to bring it up to code. She believes the city's denial was simply racist.

"He fought until his death," Mackey said. "Once he passed away, redevelopment said their was no other option we had to give it up."

San Francisco paid $26,000 for the home and gave the displaced family a certificate of preference, which was supposed to give them priority in city-sponsored housing lotteries.

Mackey said her family was told the property would be torn down.

"That was not the case. The building is still standing. People are still living here," said Mackey.

She said after the property was renovated, the city offered to sell it back to the family for $500,000.

"A ridiculous amount. We couldn't afford that," she explained.

Mackey currently lives in subsidized housing with her grandchildren and homeownership is a distant dream.

"My grandfather and my mother always said you'll always have a home. Now we don't always have that home," said Mackey. 

UC Berkeley professor and California Reparations Task Force member Dr. Jovan Scott Lewis, said the only way to atone for the legacy of slavery is through repair — reparations, which isn't about a handout, but an outstanding debt.

"We are not recommending to give money to African-Americans, we are recommending to return money to African-Americans," Lewis said.

He explained further, "when you try to build a highway system, you have to demolish neighborhoods and homes in order to build those highways. And what we found is that the majority of those homes were in African-American communities."

He said in many cases Black homeowners, like Mackey's family, did not receive fair dollar amounts on homes seized through eminent domain and redevelopment in the 60s and 70s.

"They as a result lost intergenerational wealth that property, and especially in a state like California, would have developed," said Lewis.

Mackey hopes for reparations in her lifetime, through investment funds that support Black homeownership.

"Where I'm able to actually purchase a home and have a home to leave my kids," she said.

California's exploration of reparations hasn't borne any fruit yet, like cash payments. But the chair of the reparations task force committee says it gives Black residents control over their own futures.

"We've never had a collective agency to determine for ourselves what we want our communities to look like," said chair, Kamilah Moore. "It (reparations) restores the idea of self-determination for our community."

Damien Posey, affectionately known around his Bayview neighborhood as Uncle Damien, agrees. 

"I love my community with all my heart," he said boastfully. "That's why I'm working as hard as I am."

Though he admits, living in his community was rough.

"We were struggling. I remember standing in the welfare lines, you know getting that brick of cheese and powdered eggs," Posey recalled. 

With a young mother and an absent father, he stepped into adulthood early.

"I took it upon myself to try to support my family and help out, which lead me to make some bad decisions, in and out of juvenile hall."

Then came the bloodshed. 

"I was shot when I was 12 years old and then four other times throughout my young years, he said. 

Posey also had his share of legal troubles and served 10 years on a gun violation. But now he is making the most of his second chance at life by uplifting his community. Six years ago, he started US 4 US, a youth violence prevention program.

"Young people deserve a safe space, a nonjudgmental space where they can come get some support, love, a snack, and de-stress," he shared. 

However, he needs help and with a shoestring budget. Posey said reparations would give the future generation of Black children advantages he didn't have.

"I do this all on my own. I don't get no support, no funding," he said. "It's all on Uncle Damien."

Posey said he gets community donations from time to time, but reparations would help him expand his outreach. 

"This center would be a lot bigger," he said with a chuckle. "Getting a bigger space, a van. I don't have a van right now. I'm borrowing a van to move the kids around."

For Mackey, she leans on faith that state reparations won't end in betrayal, and is committed to finding San Franciscans pushed from their homes during the redevelopment era through the Find my Certificate of Preference.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.