Opinion: Reparations begin at home

I knew that we lived on unceded Native American land. I also knew about racist housing covenants that excluded people of color.

When my wife and I bought our 1911 home in the Berkeley Hills we were thrilled to own a classic piece of California. It was the first one designed by a minor architect, Carr Jones, who’d recently graduated from UC Berkeley and built this home for his widowed mother in the new “Arlington Heights” neighborhood. It has a stunning view of the bay and Mount Tamalpais and was the first home built at the end of a road bordering Blackberry Creek. Shaded by laurels and oaks, that watershed had changed little in thousands of years.

My uncle Robert Heizer, a distinguished UC Berkeley anthropologist, had lived nearby. We look across the bay toward the Mill Valley home my parents built in 1948. I can see Alcatraz, the site of the history-making Indian occupation from 1969 to 1971.

But the 19th century French radical Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was right: “Property is theft.”

What’s to be done when property ownership comes with a legacy of exclusion and racism? Is any sort of redemption possible? Current historical reckoning has demanded more listening and more action. One way to honor communities injured by injustice is reparations.

I knew that we lived on unceded Native American land. I also knew about racist housing covenants that excluded people of color from owning homes in certain communities. I’d written about one of Kaiser Permanente’s first Black physicians, Dr. DeWitt Augustus Buckingham, whose mid-1940s struggle to break the housing color barrier near the Claremont Hotel was a landmark step in our nation’s movement toward racial equality. Closer to home, I also knew about the notorious racist deed language used by real estate development firms in the 1920s. Scholars such as Marc Weiss and Maya Tulip Lorey have noted that the Mason-McDuffie Company, along with the Berkeley Planning Commission and civic leaders, used covenants to maintain property values and structural segregation. 

Not my home, I thought: It was built in a subdivision a decade before all that bad stuff. I was wrong.

Digging into our title history, I found a photocopy of the handwritten cursive deed of sale between J. H. Spring, Celina D. Spring, and Nancy A. Jones. Dated May 16, 1911, it stated:

“If, prior to the first of January 1930, any persons of African, Asiatic or Mongolian descent shall be allowed to purchase, own or lease said real property, or any part thereof, then this conveyance shall be and become void and the entire estate, title and interest in said premises hereby conveyed and created shall forthwith cease and terminate, and the title in and to said premises shall thereupon at once revert to and vest in the parties of the first part…” 

The language goes on: “If violated, the deed gives the sellers the right to re-enter said premises and remove and expel the violators.” 

Whoa. That is almost identical to the legal boilerplate used years later by Mason-McDuffie. 

The man behind our development, and nearby Thousand Oaks, was the “Fruitvale capitalist” John Henry Spring, who was about to build a palatial residence nearby. Spring’s construction company had already antagonized the Northeast Berkeley neighborhood over blasting at his rock quarry, so he’d moved on to high-end housing subdivisions. 

Spring’s exclusionary backdrop to my own home was deeply troubling, and a restorative path forward wasn’t clear. But that changed when the news broke this year that Indigenous Humboldt County Wiyot ancestral grave remains stolen in 1953 would be returned. As Tony Platt notes in Grave Matters, Heizer excoriated the Anglo genocide of native Californians and supported the repatriation of remains. Writing in 1974, my uncle noted: “It is now time for American archaeologists to listen to the survivors of the people they profess to be so interested in ….” 

Before Spain, Mexico, and the United States occupied this part of the earth, those living here believed they did not “own” the land; they belonged to it. So, we began this year with a financial commitment to the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. Led by East Bay urban Indigenous women, it supports that community through cultural revitalization and land restoration. For hundreds of generations, the Lisjan Ohlone people have lived on this land, yet lack federal tribal recognition. Access to traditional ceremonial grounds and land appropriate for multi-day events is a huge hurdle, and we believe the land trust is a small step toward making things right. 

We’re sure that Uncle Robert would approve. 

Lincoln Cushing is an archivist and author who documents, catalogs, and disseminates oppositional political culture of the late 20th century.