Over the years when I’ve spent time at the resort area of Palm Springs, California—with its shimmering Walk of Stars, luxury spas and wellness retreats, I could not have imagined the dark secret hidden beneath them. The glamour, wealth, and pristine vistas of the place that boasts about 300 days of sunshine a year have—until now—covered up a dark history of racist violence and theft perpetrated by our own government.
But now the secret is out, and I have come full circle. I went from enjoying the views and solitude of Palm Springs, oblivious to its brutal history, to serving as lead council representing the survivors whose lives were destroyed by the city.
The first cracks in the artifice came after the murder of George Floyd, when a wave of racial reckoning brought to light the ugly truths about Tulsa, Oklahoma. Stories of the violent destruction of that thriving Black neighborhood gained national attention—and lit the flame of outrage that allowed others, including the victims of the Palm Springs' Section 14 atrocity—to bravely come forward with their own hidden traumas.
The true history of Palm Springs is that in the early 1900s, the city enacted racially restrictive covenants preventing Blacks and Latinos from living in communities near its white residents. The minority population was relegated to a single square mile of town referred to as Section 14. Alongside their Indigenous neighbors, they built a vibrant, close-knit community—one that the city soon decided it wanted for its own purposes, for lucrative commercial development.
City leaders didn’t bother trying to purchase the land from the Black and Brown people who had built their homes and lives there. Instead, they decided to simply burn it all down. The city and its agents ultimately destroyed the personal property and belongings of 1,000 or more residents.
The individual stories are difficult to hear. I have met and interviewed Section 14 survivors and descendants, and I’ve witnessed the traumatic injuries that continue to fester and ache, because these families were also robbed of any opportunity to address their trauma and to heal. A preliminary harm assessment estimates the losses to be upwards to $2 billion dollars.
When we held a press conference to shed light on the hidden history of Section 14, the presence of a 94-year-old woman who survived the atrocity reminded us all of the resilience of Black women even in the face of brutality.
I have seen a lot in my lifetime, but the stories of the Section 14 Survivors have again changed the way I view the world around me. Throughout much of my adult life, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time studying and observing majority-white communities. I have never once witnessed any of those upscale white neighborhood being targeted by the government and upended for the cause of “urban renewal.” Atrocities like Section 14—which the California Attorney General’s office described as a “City-engineered holocaust”—are reserved for Black and Brown communities.
Visitors to the Palm Springs of today don’t visualize a thriving Black community. In fact, we don’t think of Black people living there at all. Because it’s not just their homes, property, churches and stores that were wiped away—it was the history of their very presence. The erasure is profound, and the ripple effects last for generation after generation.
It’s a very American story—because it is the story of the wealth gap in America.
Reparations won’t wash away the sins of oppression and theft entwined with this country’s history of racial discrimination, restrictive covenants and the endemic racialized trauma that is a very intentional consequence of those practices.
But ensuring that reparations are made is the least we can do to begin to right the wrongs—and we begin by uncovering, hearing and honoring the stories.
Areva Martin is an award-winning civil rights attorney, a Harvard law school graduate and the founding principal of Martin & Martin, LLP, one of Los Angeles’ premier African American female-owned law firms. The lead attorney for the hundreds of Section 14 survivors and descendants, a media personality and bestselling author, Areva is writing a book about race and the wealth gap in America.