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Descendants of Black entrepreneur call on Santa Monica to return family's land

If every corner in Los Angeles County has a story, then the tale of one property at Ocean Avenue and Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica has been buried underneath the Viceroy Hotel for decades.

“I’ve gone through a journey of emotions since learning about this,” said Milana Davis. “For a very long time, I didn’t know about it.”

The land where the Viceroy stands today is owned by the City of Santa Monica, which collects rent from the hotel as part of a long-term lease agreement; but how the city came to own the land is now being revisited. 

“I’ve gone through disbelief at what occurred and what happened to him and what he endured,” Davis said.

Prior to the city’s ownership, the property was owned by Silas White, a Black entrepreneur and Davis’ uncle, who purchased the site in 1957.

White purchased the land and the former Elks Lodge building that sat on it, just two blocks from the beach, with hopes of turning the space into the Ebony Beach Club, a place where the local Black community could come together and socialize during a time when such establishments were few and far between.

One year later, the city took the property through eminent domain and within a few years, demolished the building.

“They claim that the reason they took it was because it was needed for a public parking lot,” Davis explained, “But eight years after they took it from him, it was suddenly found to be the perfect spot for a first-class four-star hotel.”

Silas died in 1962, just four years after the city took his land and his dream, and the story of what happened was almost lost to the sands of time.

“We were all silent about it, and Milana even lived with my mom for a while and she mentioned that my mother never said anything about it,” said Connie White, Silas’ daughter. 

White, 90, lives in Northern California, but she is now part of a concerted effort to get the City of Santa Monica to return the land to the family. 

“He wanted it to be a haven for Black and also brown people, and people of color, period, where they could go and relax and enjoy themselves,” White said. 

While the story of what happened went unspoken for decades, the family recently caught wind of what happened thanks to the organization Where Is My Land?

The group was founded by Kavon Ward and is aimed at identifying cases of land theft of Black landowners across the country. Ward started the group after launching Justice for Bruce’s Beach, which successfully lobbied Los Angeles County to return the beachfront property to the Bruce family, which had its land taken away by the City of Manhattan Beach through eminent domain in the 1920s.

“We don’t want apologies. We don’t want another plaque,” said Ward, who is now focusing her efforts on the White family’s case. “And if you do provide that, we want that in conjunction with true justice, which is a land return and compensation for decades of wealth lost.”

Recently, Ward and the White family sat down with Santa Monica City Manager David White, as well as Councilwoman Caroline Torosis — the only one of seven city council members to attend the meeting.

Torosis said the city is working on adopting a citywide equity plan, which includes exploring models for restitution and reparations, but so far it’s unclear how support exists on the council with regards to returning the land to the White family.

“If we really do pride ourselves on being a progressive city, we need to take a hard look at our history,” Torosis said. “We know that this process is not simple, but I think it’s clear that we must figure out what we could do, and to me, reparations means returning the land.”

The issue was recently brought up at the city council meeting, as the family continues to have dialogue with other city council members.

In a statement, the City of Santa Monica said in part:

“Santa Monica hears and acknowledges the voices on this topic in the community and is actively seeking appropriate and realistic remedies. We know that for those who have been wronged by the city’s past discriminatory practices, justice can’t come soon enough, and we take what we’ve learned from the families and individuals who have been harmed by these acts very seriously. We are a better city because of their continued attention to these issues and we are committed to getting this right.”

While the city did not acknowledge the White’s case specifically in their response to NBC4’s story, Connie White said she believes justice must be served.

“Something tangible and meaningful has to be presented in order for us to feel some form of justice in this,” she said.

Davis said she expects action, not words.

“The City of Santa Monica has proclaimed in many spaces that they apologize to the Black community,” Davis said. “I’m just wondering what’s behind the words? Is there intention? Will there be action? Because it’s warranted.”

Source: NBC Los Angeles

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