COLOMA, Calif. (KTXL) — Stepping into the Emmanuel Church in Coloma for the first time, which his great-grandfather, Rufus M. Burgess once owned, Jonathan Burgess looked up at the ceiling and sighed.
“To think that kids were educated in this church, little African-American kids, and our family had something to do with it,” Burgess said.
At the age of 23, Rufus M. Burgess and his mother, both enslaved at the time, were brought to California.
They traveled by wagon train and were set free once they arrived in Coloma.
“For all the little kids that are African-American, even white kids and Asian kids. There was a huge Chinese population here. It shows unity,” said Burgess. “And to be able to display that history, is phenomenal and so for the Burgess family, we’re grateful. We’ll be more grateful when the state of California comes and reconciles.”
Burgess says his family learned from original documents provided to them by past state historians, who confirmed that Rufus had purchased the church, which became the first African-American church in the region, and that Rufus’ father – also named Rufus – was a landowner as well.
“To know that our great-great grandfather came over as a slave, was eventually freed, but worked and gained something that a lot of families fortunately were able to keep, which was a significant amount of wealth and land. It brings about pride,” Burgess said.
For Burgess, that pride is accompanied by sadness.
He claims the state is aware that Rufus had owned the church, and that they should recognize it as being last owned by the Burgesses.
There is no outward recognition about the family, or that it was even at one time a Black church.
The sign outside the church doors, mentions that it was built in 1855, and considered the oldest Episcopal church building in the state.
“Tell me that this is, in fact, the African church. And yet I meet with state park officials again and they tell me the church was some place else. That’s disturbing,” Burgess said.
Jonathan’s great-grandmother died in 1921, he says, the same year the Methodists acquired the church and made major repairs.
“So how it fell into the hands of the Methodist. It was never sold from the Burgess family,” Burgess said.
Goldfield District Chief Ranger Barry Smith says the Burgess family came to them with information the state wasn’t aware of, and that historians are gathering data to investigate.
“There’s a bigger picture and we realize, this is not only where gold was discovered, but this is where diversity came into California,” said Smith.
Rufus was also a blacksmith, Burgess said. He owned and operated a shop for many years.
A sign inside the blacksmith shop recognizes it as being the first blacksmith shop in Coloma, which the family says was operated by Rufus.
“When people say the Burgesses in California, we are a huge part of California history, the fact that our great-great grandfather was a blacksmith,” Burgess said.
Burgess wants kids who visit the historic sites in Coloma, to know that Black people were not just laborers, but landowners too.
Burgess also says land in the area were once sprawling orchards owned by Rufus, and wants them to be renamed as the Burgess Orchards.
Burgess said, Rufus’ descendants today, are not seeking to get the land back. They simply want Rufus and the Burgess Family to be recognized.
The African American Gold Rush Association, has been filed with the state as a non-profit. It will share inclusive, diverse and equitable gold rush history.
Burgess visited Rufus’ grave.
“This is great-great granddaddy,” Burgess said. “Nelson was his slave name. Nelson Bell.”
Burgess reflects on Rufus.
“That’s really what it’s all about. My mom always said, he was such an important figure, not only him, but recognizing him for what they did.”