SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Jonathan Burgess wanted to know more about his ancestor who established their family roots in California some 170 years ago: Rufus Burgess, who came to the state as an enslaved man in the Gold Rush era.
Over three years of research, the modern-day Burgess uncovered a history of entrepreneurial pioneer. His ancestor won his freedom from him, launched his own businesses in Northern California, and bought property that now is part of a state park.
Burgess is sharing that history today through a new children’s book that he hopes will illustrate an important piece of Black history and also contribute to California’s debate about reparations.
“We have to begin to tell our stories, especially when we are descendants and have those oral narratives that have existed in families for years,” Burgess said.
Many Californians don’t associate their state with enslavement. It came into the union in 1850 as a free state, meaning one that did not permit enslavement. Yet the Burgess family shows that history is more complex, with a number of enslaved people coming to California prior to statehood.
A reparations committee created by a 2020 state law is holding monthly meetings to weigh whether and how California could offer compensation to Black families whose ancestors experienced enslavement or who suffered from discriminatory policies.
Burgess has been an active participant in those discussions and shared his testimony during reparation committee meetings.
“My family and I are descendants prepared to have that conversation,” Burgess said. “Now we can move forward and talk about everything else, but it’s important that we see the foundation (of California).”
Burgess, an entrepreneur himself, authored “Gold Rush: Burgess Descendants” a children’s book that unveils the story of Rufus, his great-grandfather going back five generations.
NBC News journalist and best-selling author, Curtis Bunn said the book was a “worthwhile little-known history lesson that should be widely known.”
Burgess spoke with historians in addition to researching different forms of literature—such as articles, autobiographies, and other books—to investigate his families’ heritage.
Burgess wants to share stories that document Black people’s creativity, resilience, brilliance, and strength, uncovering the histories that were left incomplete, hidden, or altered.
Rufus M. Burgess was born into enslavement in Mecklenburg, Virginia, sold to an enslaver in Kentucky, and eventually migrated west to California with another enslaver during the Gold Rush era, where he worked for his freedom.
Rufus became a successful entrepreneur once he gained his freedom.
He owned property in Coloma and operated many businesses such as a blacksmith shop, an orchard garden, and mining for gold among other ventures.
The state of California acquired the land in the late 1940s, and it is now part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in El Dorado County.
The Burgess family is asking for recognition and the return of their land. They want payment for the destruction of their orchard garden and the manipulation of maps downsizing Black families’ land to a fraction of what it was.
The California Department of Parks and Recreation in recent years has added interpretive panels describing Black families who owned property at what became Marshall Gold Discovery Park State Historic Park. It also is reviewing records detailing condemnation hearings that preceded the state’s seizure of the Burgess property.
As he continues to peel back layers of his family’s history, Burgess is drawing attention to the importance of reparations for Black families who can trace their lineage to enslavement or other forms of systemic oppression.
The family artifacts that inspired the book are just one example.
He uses the children’s book as published proof in the discussion for granting forms of reparations.
“It lays the foundation as to why there is a need as a whole for the foundational Black families (to be made whole) with some form of repair separate from this land claim, and restitution for what was taken and destroyed from the land,” said Burgess.
The California Reparations Task Force began meeting in June 2021, to discuss and propose a form of reparations for African Americans, but particularly for those who have traced their lineage to enslavement in the United States.
The Burgess family, 170 years later, continue to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit through the endeavors of Jonathan and his twin brother, Matthew, who own a food service business called The Burgess Brothers.
They provide food from recipes that have been passed down from generations traced to their great-grandfather, Rufus.