Palm Springs Residents Demand Reparations after the City forcibly Evicted them and Destroyed their Homes nearly 60 years ago.
Courtesy of Palm Springs Public Library
In the early 1930's, the main available living area for working people of Palm Springs was Indian land adjacent to the downtown business area of the city. Known as Section 14 of the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation.
Whether it was constructing the buildings and infrastructure or filling the service jobs that kept the resorts humming, the Latino, African American, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino residents of Palm Springs served as the backbone of the resort industry at the beginning of the 20th century. Rental opportunities off the reservation were not offered and deed restrictions prevented the purchase of land. De facto racial residential segregation was prevalent in Palm Springs, as in other parts of California.
When these tenancies first were created and for many years after, the leases of the land from the Indians were limited by federal law to a five-year duration.
Under the tenancy created on the reservation land and approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the tenant leased the land from the Bureau for a stated price and was then permitted to build or relocate a dwelling place upon that piece of land. The lease further provided that the tenant owned the dwelling place in which he resided and was free at any time to remove the dwelling place from the land. Homes on the Indian land were equipped with utilities and the majority were built under permits issued by the City Building Department. City Building Inspectors passed on the buildings while they were under construction. Homeowners also paid taxes to Riverside county, based on the value of their residences. House values ranged from $1,000 to $8,000.
First Baptist Church of Palm Springs was founded in 1944. Services were initially conducted in a tent. Around 1948, a 130-seat church was built on Section 14. A parsonage was built in 1948.
In 1959, new federal law distributed the Indian held land in Palm Springs to individual members of the Agua Caliente tribe. It also provided for 99-year leases on Indian property, rather than the traditional short-term leases. When the new 99-year leases became available, the City of Palm Springs and various real estate developers became interested in the commercial development of Section 14.
Section 14 lay in the heart of Palm Springs and became an area of interest for developers in 1959 when Indian land became available for long-term leases.
There was a wide range of structures in Section 14, from shacks to trailers to homes built in compliance with the standard building code. Originally, the city planned to use abatement laws to clear Section 14, but conflicting jurisdiction between the city and the Bureau of Indian Affairs frustrated this scheme.
In 1951, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved a city abatement program and eviction notices were served to the residents of Section 14. In her oral history, former Section 14 resident Ivy Pellum Wilson remembers city officials meeting with the residents and telling them of their plans to redevelop the area. Some families elected to move before they were forced to leave. After receiving numerous complaints from employers and residents, a six-month moratorium on evictions was imposed in 1953.
Most displaced African American residents from Section 14 moved to Banning, Beaumont, or West Garnet (about 10 miles west of Palm Springs). At least one former Section 14 resident moved her house from the reservation to a lot in West Garnet. Displaced residents often maintained their construction or service jobs in Palm Springs and made the daily commute.
The Palm Springs Filipino community was affected by the housing crisis as well. When resorts closed that provided housing for workers, many relocated to Banning or Cathedral City; those with means relocated to the tracts on the east side of the city.
Displaced Latino residents moved to Banning, San Bernardino, and Riverside. At least 32 Latino families saved for a down payment or pooled their resources and bought homes in the Veteran’s Tract on the eastern edge of the city; others moved to the Dream Homes development in Cathedral City. Racial restrictions, however, prohibited purchase by African Americans in these tracts.
Residents who remained on Section 14 endured more than a decade of forced removals and clearances. Destruction of the condemned homes began in 1956. Evicted families were often taken in by other residents of Section 14, resulting in the doubling and tripling of occupants in the houses left on the reservation. The 1959 ruling that Native American land could be available for long-term leasing made Section 14 development opportunities even more attractive.
The same 1959 law providing for the long-term leases and individual distribution of the Indian land also provided for conservators to protect the individual Indians' interests.
In 1964, the City of Palm Springs approached the conservators with a plan to raze Section 14. The city proposed that the Indians (through their conservators) terminate the leases or rentals of the land. The city would then clear the land, using city funds. Indian owners were to execute permits to the city to clear the land and then give their tenants 30-day eviction notices.
The final clearance of Section 14 began in October of 1966, approximately one month after the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, a watershed event in race relations felt throughout the country. What had been a tightly knit, racially-diverse community for more than 30 years was now scattered throughout the valley area.
The 1968 Attorney General's report states, "The city paid little attention to the 30-day requirements set forth in the eviction notices and operated its own demolition plan solely based on receipt of the destruction permits executed by the conservators. Exploring the actions of the Indian conservators, the report states that, "The conservators in many instances executed the eviction notices without making a full disclosure to their Indian wards who were leasing the land." It continues, "Many of the Indians were induced to execute various documents by statements of the conservators that they could lease the land at higher rentals to commercial enterprises. To date, the land cleared in Section 14 has not been leased and stands vacant."
The city contracted with private operators to knock down the dwellings in Section 14. The debris was then burned by the city fire department in a controlled fire.
According to the Attorney General's report, homeowners who leased lots in Section 14 saw their homes destroyed without notice and their personal property burned. About 1000 people were involved in the eviction and destruction.
The resort city of Palm Springs was charged with "a classic study in civic disregard for the rights of minority citizens."
The report concludes, Perhaps the most conclusive evidence of the city 's attitude is the fact that the City of Palm Springs kept no official records of the persons displaced and the residences destroyed in Section 14 and could offer no evidence of any attempt at determining that each homeowner and resident had been properly served with eviction notices. The City of Palm Springs not only disregarded the residents of Section 14 as property-owners, taxpayers, and voters; Palm Springs ignored that the residents of Section 14 were human beings.
Documented in the AG’s report were instances of homes valued from $3400 to $8000 which were destroyed by the city without notice to the owners of the impending destruction.
Homer Manning, a janitor and member of the City Human Relations Council who rented a piece of land and constructed a home in 1955 that he later converted into a two-unit apartment building with a city permit valued at $8,000 was informed by his tenant that his building was about to be demolished.
Mr. Moses Clinton said that his house occupied by his son Harl, was destroyed without his knowledge while his son was at work. Harl Clinton's personal belongings, along with a stove, refrigerator, furniture, and an air conditioner, were either destroyed or taken from the house.
Mr.James Goree said that his house valued at $3,400 and occupied by his sister was destroyed without notice.
Mr. R. L. Lucas, a seventy-seven year old man, received a notice to vacate several dwellings which he owned. He did not believe the notices. The city destroyed five dwellings owned by Mr. Lucas and valued at $5,100. Mr. Lucas also states that he lost four water tanks, four stoves, four refrigerators, six air conditioners, fifteen beds, and fifteen mattresses. Mr. Lucas depended on a total rental of $460.00 per month from these units for his support.
Mrs. Van Williams received an eviction notice, but disregarded it and took a trip to Los Angeles. When she returned, her house valued at $7,500 and all her personal possessions had been destroyed. She had built the home in 1944 and had been a resident of Palm Springs since 1933.
Similarly destroyed was the house of an elderly neighbor, Mrs. Spilletti, who died following her eviction.
The report linked the destruction of Section 14 to federal accusations of misconduct by conservators for the Agua Caliente Indians.
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Beginning on the Agua Caliente Indian Reservation Section 14. This tour will introduce you to Black pioneers of our city. See the works of renowned architect Paul R. Williams. Learn about land developer Lawrence Crossley. Tour concludes at Desert Highland Gateway Estates - Palm Springs’ only predominantly Black Neighborhood