by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Homestead’s purpose statement is short and succinct: creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles. The aim is to bring out for our visitors stories of that history from 1830 to 1930 so that they can go out and share the good word. Crucial to that goal is collaboration and community building and we strive whenever possible and feasible to work with other people and organizations in the region for the common goal of sharing the area’s history.
Almost two weeks ago, Jackie Broxton, the executive director of the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation, affiliated with the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, got in touch concerning research the foundation was supporting regarding Mason and other African-Americans who were founders, nearly 150 years ago, of the First AME Church. Kevin Waite, who is doing research on local black history and was corresponding with me some months ago, made the connection between Jackie and the Foundation.
One project she is working on is a conversation play set in the aftermath of the horrendous Chinese Massacre of October 1871 and which includes Mason, former governor Pío Pico, Miguel Leonis, early African-American resident Lewis G. Green, and a Chinese waiter. The play is still in development, but it will examine many fascinating elements of race/ethnicity and the community at a remarkable and potent time in the history of the City of Angels.
Further conversation with Jackie concerned others who worked with Mason in the founding of the church. Over the last week, some research in newspapers and public records has unearthed some material about the men who collaborated with Mason to establish the First AME. This post summarizes what was found as it exemplifies what can be so fascinating about the search for historical information, especially for people who were marginalized, discriminated against, and denied the opportunities the dominant population had. Yet, there was resilience, resolve and risk that these men, and Mason, displayed and took as they sought to advance the lives of themselves and their community.
Among those figures of whom relatively little information was found was Samuel Johns, also known as Jones, who appeared in the 1870 federal census as a 22-year old native of Virginia and a barber with $540 of self-declared personal property. The other resident of the household was a 19-year old white saddler’s apprentice named Fred Lasseval. The two were enumerated with others between the Lanfranco brothers, John and Matthew, who owned a two-story brick business building at 76 Main Street and this was perhaps were Johns/Jones lived and worked.
Three years later, “Sam. Jones” operated a “tonsorial palace” which, in a 12 October 1873 advertisement in the Los Angeles Herald, offered hot and cold baths, showers, and shaves and the address was, in fact, 78 Main Street, which was the Lanfranco Block. Below Jones’ ad, by the way, was “Prof. Green’s Barber Shop where “hair cutting, shaving and shampooing will be performed in the best style of the tonsorial art.” This was operated by Lewis G. Green, who has been profiled in this blog, and who was another early black resident of Los Angeles. Green’s parlor was in the Temple Block, owned by F.P.F. Temple, who also employed Green to be the janitor for the Temple and Workman bank, situated in the same complex of buildings.
There was a third barber’s advertisement in that paper, that of George Reinecke, but, two months later, at the end of 1873, a merger had occurred with Reinecke and Jones combining forces to form the “Clarendon Shaving Palace and Bath Rooms.” The ad even informed patrons that “the two leading barber shops of the city [Green aside!] have consolidated, and are now at Mr. Reinecke’s old stand, which was just been thoroughly refitted and furnished in the most superb manner.”
The business was in what had just been renamed the Clarendon Hotel, but was long famed locally as the Bella Union, which opened as a single-story adobe hostelry in the 1840s, had a saloon that was a hotbed of Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War years and of violence, including a notorious shootout in 1865 between Robert Carlisle of the Chino Ranch and the brothers Frank and Houston King of El Monte.
While it is not known how long the partnership, undoubtedly a rarity with a white owner and a black partner, lasted, but, in June 1877, Jones petitioned the city council “to re-locate a boot black stand in front of his barber shop.” The matter was referred to the police committee, which handled business-related issues, but nothing was located as to approval or denial of the request. Unfortunately, nothing was found of Johns/Jones after that date.
Oscar Smith was another early African-American arrival in the City of Angels and was counted in the 1860 federal census in his own household as a 35-year old laborer from Mississippi. His next-door neighbor was John Ballard and family, Ballard being covered in this blog because of his tax assessment listing three years later as “Workman’s John,” meaning he worked for William Workman at Rancho La Puente for a short time. Ballard went on to homestead property in the Santa Monica Mountains as the post discusses.
Notably, there is a separate listing in the same census for an Oscar Smith, who was shown as 49 years of age, a native of Virginia, and a laborer. He, however, lived in the same house as a 35-year old California Indian, Juan Jose. Adjacent was the family of Daniel and Sarah Jefferson, another early black family in the town. It does appear, however, that the two Oscar Smiths were different people, given the significant differences in age and birthplaces.
On the same census page as the Virginia-born Oscar Smith and the Jeffersons was George Smith, identified as a 33-year old ship caulker from the District of Columbia and who declared his personal property at $500. George resided with Samuel Lamson, a 52-year old mariner (sailor) originally from Virginia and an 18-year old Indian woman known only as Melania.
Notably, in the 1870 census, George Smith was enumerated as a 38-year old native of the District of Columbia who worked as a teamster and had a considerable increase in his assets, possessing $1000 in real property and double that in personal effects. Yet, his race was listed as white, though he was unquestionably the same George Smith from 1860, even if the ages don’t quite match up—in census listings they frequently do not, for whatever reasons.
There was another George Smith in town at the time, but he was a white ex-Confederate colonel and a prominent lawyer who went by George H. Smith. Notably, the George Smith we are concerned with was a veteran of the Mexican-American War and was a member of a local veterans organization (Green was said to be a sailor with American forces during the war).
The Los Angeles Express of 22 June 1874 noted that, at a meeting of the “Veterans of the Mexican War,” nine new members were inducted, including Myron Norton, who went on to be a prominent figure in Gold Rush San Francisco, a delegate to the first constitutional convention in 1849, and a noted Los Angeles lawyer and judge, and Smith. For Independence Day celebrations in 1875 and 1877, the organization participated in the parade and Smith was listed as among those involved.
There was a reference to him in 1878 as a bondsman in a case involving the prosecution of two men for “keeping a house of ill-fame,” that is, a brothel. He was referred to in the article as “George Smith (colored)” perhaps to be distinguished from George H. Smith. Eight years later, the Los Angeles Times briefly covered a fight between two black men at a saloon and one was identified as “George Smith,” but it is not known if it is the same man.
The last two men on Jackie’s list of First AME Church founders were Jeremiah Redding and John Hall, of whom more was found than the others. Redding appears in the 1860 census as a 37-year old native of New York and a laborer, residing in the home of María German de Lugo, the young widow of the very prominent rancher Antonio María Lugo, who died earlier in the year. In the adjacent household was John Brannigan, his Indian wife”Sora”, and their two young children. Brannigan, his children, and Redding are noted as “mulattos” as census enumerators had a choice of indicating “B” for black or “M” for mulatto.
Redding could not be located in the 1870 census in Los Angeles, suggesting he’d left town for a time, but he was a founder of the First AME church two years later and, in 1875, he appears in several interesting references in newspapers in town. In March, he was deeded the interest of multiple parties in a lot on the Mott Tract on Bunker Hill, where gleaming skyscrapers housing major banks, accounting houses, and law firms are today. That July, Redding participated in the opening sale of lots in the new town of Santa Monica, acquiring at least two lots, including a pricey business one for $450, the costliest on the block (there are also a number of lots sold to “G. Smith,” though it is not known if it was the white lawyer or the black teamster.)
On 25 August, there was a mass meeting of black residents of Los Angeles “to determine upon the course they should pursue in the present political campaign,” meaning the county elections held on 1 September. J. Fletcher Jordan (given as “Gordon”) was named president of the confab, while Redding was designated the secretary. The two were elected to an executive committee with Philip Pearson, George Van Buren, and Green, though it was added that because Green did not appear for the meeting, he was dropped from the committee.
A month later, a new advertisement in the Express promoted the “Barnum Restaurant and Chop House,” situated at 36 Main Street and owned by Redding and Horatio Marteen, a native of Jamaica. Marketed as “open day and night” and providing “game every day” and the usual “the best the market affords,” the establishment also promoted its French cooks and boasted that “the caterer-in-chief is an old Mississippi-river Steward,” meaning on river boats plying that famous watercourse, this perhaps being Marteen. There were also private rooms for ladies and “the best wines, liquors and cigars” on hand.
Ads for the restaurant continued through early October and then stopped. This was probably a reflection of both the competitive nature of that business and the fact that the local economy took a tumble after late August, just when the mass meeting of black residents occurred, when a statewide panic took place. Just before the Barnum closed, so did the Temple and Workman bank and both did not survive the hard times.
Notably, there is a well-known photograph of the Plaza area taken from the Pico House hotel and looking to the north, including the venerable Plaza Church, a small part of the west end of the Plaza and buildings and streets heading northward. At the center is a single-story adobe, where, at the west end, is a sign reading “Barnum Restaurant,” while “Chop House” is painted on the wall. Though the USC Libraries dates the photo as circa 1880, it is unquestionably from 1875 when the restaurant had its short-lived existence.
In June 1876, Jordan, the mass meeting president, and Redding took out an ad in the Express announcing that they had “a lucrative business” to sell. They didn’t name what it was but stated that it was “well established” and had “everything on hand” with “no capital required.” This “splendid opportunity to make money” was being offered at “below half cost” because the two men “are going away.”
In August, the same paper published a public notice of a “Constable’s Sale,” involving a judgment against Redding, Jordan and Charles Owens, the latter from another well-known early black family in the city, for lots in Santa Monica acquired at that opening sale the previous year. If Redding did leave Los Angeles during these tough time, he soon returned, because at the beginning of 1879, a probate notice was published in the Express from Owens and George Bailey, who became executors of Redding’s estate, which was wrapped up by July.
Finally, there is John Hall, of whom more information was found than the other founders of the church. In the 1870 census, Hall, a Missouri native and laborer with $2000 in real property, and his family, including wife Mary and three young children, were counted at their home at Fourth and Hill streets. We can roughly date the family’s arrival in Los Angeles because the eldest, son Jacob, was listed as being born in Mexico (some sources suggest it was New Mexico), about 1865 or 1866, while son John was born in California two years later. A daughter joined the family recently, though the age is shown as “1/12” of a year, but another column shows the month as May even as the census was taken in mid-August.
1870 also brought Hall to a prominent place in black Los Angeles history for being, along with Lewis Green, one of the first African-Americans to be registered to vote. Though the county clerk, Thomas Mott, denied the effort and Judge Ygnacio Sepulveda agreed. A law passed by Congress shortly afterward, however, forced officials to grant the registration, first to Green and then to Hall and others.
Residing with the Halls was Caroline Burton, a 30-year old from Pennsylvania, who advertised in local papers for her dressmaking enterprise, making her one of the very few black women to run a business in Los Angeles. Living next door to the Halls was the German-born Joseph Kurtz, long a prominent doctor in the City of Angels, and who owned the lot on which the original First AME church was established. In March 1874, it was reported that Hall was building a $1,200 frame house, but the location was not given. His neighbor Kurtz was also constructing a new residence at that time.
During the 1870s and 1880s, Hall acquired other property and interests. In 1874, when the new town of San Fernando was developed along the recently built Southern Pacific railroad line, the founder, Charles Maclay, sold two lots to Hall, who was also said to have bought property where Toluca Lake and North Hollywood are now. The following year, Hall had a stable at Agricultural Park, now Exposition Park. Speaking of horses, Hall sued in 1881 over a matter involving equines and details of which were not located, but the defendants were actually the animals—this was apparently because blacks could not sue whites and so this resort was implemented and Hall did secure a judgment, though whether he collected is another matter.
In late 1876, prominent banker Isaias W. Hellman sold Hall a lot in Bell’s Addition, near today’s Staples Center. Seven years later, he bought property in the Bellevue Terrace tract near today’s Central Public Library. Hall had interests in the aforementioned Mott Tract (developed by the county clerk’s brother, Stephen) on or near Bunker Hill and the Huber Tract on 8th Street between Flower and Figueroa (then Grasshopper Street.)
In the 1880 census, the Halls were in the “Ballona” township, which was outside the westerly limits of Los Angeles nor far west of downtown. Another source from 1883 mentioned that the family lived on the “Pico road” or Pico Boulevard four miles from city hall, that being the Market House built by Jonathan Temple in 1859 and which is now the site of today’s city hall. The family had grown to six sons and a daughter Anna, who lived to be 108 years old, though there was another youngster, a two-year old. His race, however, was shown as white, and his story is a remarkable one.
On 11 January 1878, the Herald reported that
A few mornings ago John Hall, a colored man who lives on the Santa Monica road [Pico Boulevard], on going to his door found a basket containing a white infant seemingly but a few days old. Pinned to the child’s clothes was a note asking Hall to keep the child and raise it.
The report also stated that Hall subsequently received another note that clothes for the child would be available at the Wells Fargo express office in town. A few days later, the Express reported that Hall visited and confirmed the story of the abandoned child, though he added that the part about the clothes was untrue and that he and his wife were entirely responsible for caring for the infant.
The article continued that “As Mrs. Hall has a young child of her own, she was better prepared to entertain the young stranger, probably, than the average foster-parent.” A neighbor told Hall that a man approached him to ask where Hall lived and then left. The article concluded
Mr. Hall seems very proud of his charge and promises that it shall receive just as good care as if it could were it to be reared in the house of Congress.
In the 1880 census, the two-year old’s name was listed as Moses, bestowed that for an obvious reason, and he was raised by the Halls. In the mid-1890s, Moses D. Hall lived next door to them on 6th Street between Flower and Figueroa and worked as a clerk. He married in 1896 and had a son, while working as a wrapper in a dry goods store when the 1900 census was taken.
Later, Moses got into real estate and seems to have done well for himself, though there was a divorce that made some news in the early 1910s. He lived until 1954 and, at his death, his father’s name was listed as Hall, but his mother’s as Walker, even though Mrs. Hall’s maiden name was Edwards. The story is striking and perhaps unique in terms of a black family raising a white child at that period in Los Angeles history.
In 1900, Hall was enumerated in the census in San Fernando township, but was farming at what was then known as Toluca, now where Toluca Lake and North Hollywood are today. He died there on 12 March 1903 and his obituary in the Los Angeles Times was headed with “Prosperous Negro.”
The paper, however, claimed that, because he “at one time owned acreage in the vicinity of Sixth and Figueroa streets,” this property “would have made him immensely wealthy if retained till the city spread out in that direction.” Of course, that assessment was made with plenty of hindsight, but the obituary concluded with, “he sold out to good advantage as it was, some years ago.”
These explorations in to early black history in Los Angeles are, admittedly, cursory and surface-level to a significant extent, but they provide, even so, some remarkable evidence of the diverse lives, earnest efforts, and varying degrees of success of African-Americans confronting tremendous odds in a society that marginalized them. As our collaboration with the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation evolves, we hope to be able to add to our store of knowledge about the pioneers of that community.