by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Poring recently through the large collection of artifacts donated by the estate of the late Josette Temple revealed a badly water-stained, but still very readable invitation, sent to Walter P. Temple, to join the Santa Clara Hunting Club, formed at the Rancho Santa Clara in Baja California, México in early 1921. The invitation, written in Spanish, stated that the institution was “established to stimulate friendly relations, among the nationals of Mexico and North America” but, while that could be seen as connections between whites in the latter and Mexicans in the former, it was actually more diverse and interesting than that.
Of the nine board of directors listed on the document five of them were Latinos, including Ricardo Romero, a member of México’s congress; David Zarate, who served several times as mayor of Ensenada, the coastal city in Baja California; A.V. Alderete, whose affiliation was not given; and Juan B. Uribe, a lawyer who long practiced at Ensenada (in the early 20th century, he was one of three attorneys in town, along with Francisco P. Ramirez, former teen publisher of Los Angeles’ first Spanish-language newspaper, El Clamor Público, and a lawyer who fled to Baja in the 1870s after being accused of embezzlement.)
There are pencil check marks next to Uribe’s name and profession, suggesting that he was personally known to Temple, and that title is shown as “Mexican Attorney, San Diego,” indicative of his working in the border city to represent Americans and others in affairs in Baja. How he got to know Temple is unknown, but it does seem as he was the conduit between the oil and real estate developer, who had an interest in hunting, and the club.
Of the other four names, it would be assumed on first glance that the quarter were all white men, with one of them, Robert P. Fite, shown as “Business Manager, Inglewood, Cal.;” two others, Theodore W. Troy and Robert W. Head, as president and treasurer, respectively, of the “Lower Cal. Mex. Land Dev. Co.;” and the last as “Los Angeles Attorney,” Hugh E. Macbeth. A bit of research, however, found that only Fite was white and that the other trio were Black residents of Los Angeles with Macbeth an especially important and notable figure in that community for decades, while their involvement in a colonization scheme in Baja, lasting about a decade from 1917 to around 1927, is a little-known, but fascinating, element of our regional history.
Almost nothing could be found about the club, aside from a short article in the 17 March 1921 edition of the Los Angeles Express, which stated that “business men of Lower California have invited their Southern California neighbors to join hand in hand in the membership” of the entity, which was said to have an option on 23,000 acres “known to be one of the world’s finest hunting grounds” on the ranchos Santa Clara and Vallecitos, situated southeast of Tijuana and northeast of Ensenada and some eight hours’ drive from Los Angeles.
The piece went on to claim that “deer, quail, duck and other species of game are in abundance” and, importantly, “are not restricted to limit,” as would be the case in California, while it was also said to be “possible to avoid short [hunting] seasons.” Readers were advised to contact Fite at an Inglewood address for more information about membership, a partial list of which was included. Among those shown were Los Angeles Mayor Meredith P. Snyder, District Attorney Thomas Lee Woolwine, the directors of the club, several Inglewood residents, and nine San Gabriel Valley men.
Fite, who was a highly decorated veteran of World War I, came to Los Angeles after the war with some renown for his battlefield exploits, which included being gassed, in France and became a well-known automobile dealer in the Angel City for about a decade, selling for Ford, Chevrolet and Star (a brand under former General Motors head, William Durant.) He was connected to the club because of his association with Macbeth, but later went insane, perhaps because of his wartime experiences, and died in an institution in 1935.
Theodore W. Troy was born in Cincinnati to parents born in Virginia and his father was a bank teller, indicating that the family was probably in the middle class. By the mid-1890s, Troy was in Los Angeles were he ran the Santa Fe Feed Yard, which also sold wood and coal from its location across Central Avenue from where the Japanese American National Museum is today and which was the first Black neighborhood of size in the Angel City in the late 19th century.
Troy later worked as a mail carrier before opening a second hand furniture store, which expanded to selling new product, from a location on San Pedro and 11th streets, as the African-American community moved southward. He was also, by 1910, heavily involved in mining and was a major figure in the “Colored Young Men’s Christian Association,” segregated, of course, from the national organization.
Robert W. Head was a native of Kentucky and was a chauffeur and gardener in Los Angeles during the early 20th century. One of the few references to him outside of his involvement with the Baja California project was that he was a director in 1912 in a manufacturing company, while in the late Twenties he was associated with Macbeth in the Willis Petroleum Company, one of the earliest Black-owned oil production firms with an interest in lands near Piru and Fillmore, not far from the African-American summer retreat of Val Verde.
With respect to Macbeth, he was born in 1884 in Charleston, South Carolina, the oldest of the eight children of Susan Houston and Arthur L. Macbeth, a photographer of long-standing in that city. After attending the Avery Institute in his hometown, Macbeth went to the famous Fisk University in Nashville, graduating in 1905, and then took the three-year law course (as did Thomas W. Temple II of the Homestead two decades later) at Harvard University. After earning his degree, Macbeth moved to Baltimore to run the city’s African-American newspaper, the Times. Five years later, he moved, as many Blacks were doing at the time, to Los Angeles and hung his shingle as an attorney in a downtown office.
He quickly made a mark in the Angel City’s African-American community, becoming a popular orator including a speech on the efforts of Black abolitionists at a Lincoln’s Birthday event at the Wesley Chapel in February 1914, not long after his resettlement in the city. He was very active in the Methodist Church including being the only Black representative at church conventions, regionally and nationally and was the lay secretary for churches “of every name and color” in Los Angeles County.
By fall 1915, he’d achieved enough of a stature that the African-American newspaper, the California Eagle, offered a tribute, quoting Booker T. Washington, a model for Macbeth, about the best Black men commanding the respect of the best white men, stating “during his short residence here his strong personality has placed him as one of the strong men” in the local Black community and added that “he receives the respect and confidence of all the officials of this state” and “is capable of applying the same for the uplift of his people.”
He was the founding president of the All-American League, which held its first convention on Washington’s Birthday in 1916 and which advertised as providing a means that “for the first time in the history of this State the Colored Citizen will take stock of opportunities for his race in California, and seek by intelligent means to better the condition of American Citizenship.” Macbeth, as a practicing Methodist, was strong for Prohibition and served on a Dry Campaign Federation advisory committee in the years leading to the passage of the constitutional amendment in 1919.
He spoke in Pomona in March 1916, observing that there were 25,000 African-Americans in Los Angeles County and that “these people have been under the political rule of one of the most corrupt and saloon ridden rings which California has known,” but the fight against “social clubs” was one in which he was a devoted foot-soldier. Macbeth was allied with Progressive Republicans like Hiram Johnson, a governor and senator, Woolwine and others and was often looked to by white candidates to secure Black support at election time.
In its 6 October 1917 edition, the Eagle briefly noted that Macbeth and his wife Edwina Mayer (the couple lost a three-year old daughter when she was hit by a car while on an outing to Santa Monica Canyon and had one son, Hugh, Jr.) returned from a ten-day jaunt on business to Ensenada. Macbeth provided “a glowing account of their reception by the citizens of the Mexican Republic” and added that former Angel City denizen, James Littlejohn, “is in the forefront of business, with a bright future” in Baja California.
Historian Laura Hooton, who has written on the work of Littlejohn, Macbeth and others in Baja, noted that Littlejohn was hired in 1917 by Esteban Cantú, Baja governor, to build a road connecting Ensenada to Calexico, the border town on the California side. Littlejohn had experience with railroads in Guatemala and then linked up with Macbeth on a scheme for colonization on lands in two ranches, Vallecitos and Santa Clara, comprising over 20,000 acres, along the road’s corridor.
Colonization in northwestern México from Los Angeles dated back to the 1850s when Latinos, distressed by the conditions after the American seizure of California, looked to establish settlements south of the border. By the Teens, Blacks like Littlejohn and Macbeth who migrated to the Angel City thinking that it offered more opportunity and less racism than in other parts of the United States, notably the South, but finding the situation to be less than advertised or thought, began to look to these areas, as well.
Moreover, there was a renewed national interest among African-Americans for colonies outside the county, such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and its “Back to Africa” project specific to Liberia, a colony established in the 1820s by slaves from the United States. Another important element were the worsening acts of violence committed against Blacks by whites throughout the country, including lynchings in the South and race riots in Chicago, East St. Louis and Tulsa, among others.
In late January 1918, the Lower California Mexican Land Development Company was incorporated with capital stock of a quarter million dollars and its founders including mortician Andrew J. Roberts, John R. Scott, Littlejohn, Head, Troy and Macbeth. By the summer, the Eagle proclaimed, in its edition of 20 July, that,
Without doubt the most notable event in history in the life of the colored people of America, during the past week, was the trip of inspection into Lower California made by the committee of San Joaquin Valley . . . [and] upon the insistence of President Theo W. Troy [of what we’ll call the LCMLDC] and Attorney Hugh E. Macbeth, who accompanied the party to Lower California, the committee was taken to other parts of the Vallecitos ranch and then over to the famous Santa Clara ranch, where they were shown so much that their eyes and legs became almost paralyzed in their effort to see and cover the various sections and small valleys contained in these two wonderful properties.
As Hooton has observed, earlier in the Teens, studies were undertaken to show the agricultural potential of this section of Baja was large because of purported adequate groundwater and the lessening need to advanced irrigation. Later, there were claims of valuable oil and mineral deposits in that area, as well—Troy and Macbeth, for example, formed a mining company in late 1917, though it is not clear if the firm was looking to prospect in that area or not.
A full-page spread in the Eagle from the end of March 1918 was titled “Launch Big Drive for Lower California Land” calling the project “the real solution to the future progress of a people who have heretofore neglected to grasp the opportunities at hand” to become producers, not just consumers. The LCMLDC was lauded as having a “far-seeing vision, [and which] has delved deep and sure and presents a marvelous opportunity for the Negroes of this country to procure the richest land possible.”
With its proximity to Ensenada and its port and to San Diego, the paper trumpeted the idea that here was “the chance for a man or woman who wants independence, who wants to be the SOVEREIGN OF HIS OWN LABOR, WHO WANTS TO BE REALLY FREE!” It was stated that the firm intended to begin cultivated the land prior to settlement by owners, including the establishment of nurseries, stores, dairies, incubators for raising chickens. Water was said to be “abundant” and tapped from a mere four to about thirty-five feet in the table while there were purportedly plenty of natural springs, as well.
It was added that anything that could be raised in Southern California could be so done at Santa Clara and Vallecitos; that fish and other seafood on the Pacific and Gulf sides were double the stock in Southern California; that copper, and that gems, gold and silver were ready to be extracted. The proprietors of the LCMLDC “expect to make these ranches the show places of the Pacific Coast. Notably, it was reported that a Russian colony was located about 20 miles south and that it leased 4,000 acres of Vallecitos for wheat farming and the 1917 crop there sold for not far under $60,000, something reported “to show the exceptional opportunity offered the Colored people.”
The piece asserted that the firm’s owners “have spared neither pains nor expense to convince themselves” of the vast potential of the colony and guaranteed the valid title that was said to be unconditional. A “monster meeting” was to be held at the aforementioned Wesley Chapel with stereoview images and sales of land ready to be commenced in what was pitched as “truly the dawn of a new day will be at hand.”
An ad April 1918 called the colonization project, “The Negroes’ Opportunity” and that farmland could be purchased for a mere $20 an acre, a tenth of local prices. Littlejohn was living in the area and was soon joined by Troy’s brother Claudius and his family. The 19 July 1919 edition of the Eagle quoted Macbeth discussing the desire of the Mexican government to encourage immigration to “that great, though struggling Republic” and that the Minister of the Interior told him that México “desires immigrants who respect her country sufficiently to help build it up”
In the issue of 23 August, the paper claimed that barriers against white Americans in Baja did not apply to Blacks and that African-Americans from San Diego used to jibe at the “well meaning but hapless bunch” working on the colony. Moreover, it was announced that Macbeth was finalizing arrangements “for the transfer of the legal title to the famous Santa Clara Valley” and that actual and prospective investors were to accompany him and LCMLDC officials to Baja to take official possession of the land.
In its 28 October 1919 issue, the Los Angeles Express reported that Macbeth oversaw the purchase for $80,000 of 10,000 acres of land “from private owners with the consent of the Mexican government,” though the headline specified the property was owned by none other than Governor Cantú. Notably, it was added that a provision was that an equal number of Mexicans and Blacks were to own tracts and that colonists were to be experienced farmers who could not afford the higher prices of land in the U.S.
Yet, news was rather scarce until something of a reboot took place by fall 1921, following establishment of the hunting club, and which was significant enough for the Los Angeles Times to take notice and, in its edition of 16 October, to title its article, “Plan Little Liberia in Mexico,” in a nod to the Garvey/UNIA project in northwest Africa. The paper noted that Macbeth announced a plan “to place at least 200 families of industrious Negroes on a big block of agricultural land . . . and permit them to acquire possession of their farms on long-term payments.” The young African-American architect Paul Williams was hired to draw plans for the project.
Macbeth continued that the company “has already sent several families to ‘Little Liberia’ . . . and an active campaign for colonists will be made during the next six months.” Noting that the land was purchased in 1918, the article went on to observe that the reconstituted plan was to have buyers take on 40-acre or larger tracts while the lawyer claimed that the water supply “seems inexhaustible” and such crops, beyond wheat, as walnuts, citrus and deciduous fruits, potatoes, melons, and alfalfa would thrive, as would raising livestock.
It was added that, the following spring, a national tour would be undertaken to promote the project, including the showing of motion pictures of the ranches, with Macbeth stating,
It is not our purpose to establish this colony as a retreat for poverty-stricken negroes. The country is raw and undeveloped, and it will take cracker-jack farmers to bring out the best that is in it, but there are wonderful opportunities hidden there for the man who has a little livestock and a little machinery and a great deal of determination . . . The colony we are establishing will give the negro the opportunity he has been looking for. It has been demonstrated that the colored man is the only American who mixes harmoniously with the natives of Mexico.
The lawyer went on to tell the Times that the scheme could actually be a way for white American capital to make further inroads in México and that the LCMLDC had an option for an additional 100,000 acres and believed that there could be 20,000 people in the colony within a decade. He concluded by suggesting that as Los Angeles would become the Chicago of the west coast, “Lower California will eventually be the bread basket of Los Angeles.” This is why, he averred, he was putting so much work in the scheme and that “it appeals to me as being a wonderful opportunity for colored people.”
Hooton, however, noted that there were a few enormous problems that arose, including the overexpansive boosting and overly rosy projections for the project; drought in the early Twenties that belied that claims of abundant water; and the constant change in Mexican politics that led to a reversal of the immigration policies touted earlier. There was a glimmer of hope for the LCMLDC when it attracted the attention of wealthy African-Americans, including descendants of Creek Indian slaves, in Oklahoma, though Hooton observed that the arrangement was a way for these capitalists to seek other, more promising opportunities in Mexican oil, which was becoming (though the efforts of the likes of Los Angeles tycoon Edward L. Doheny and others) an increasingly promising field of development for American capital, if not for the broader interests of the Mexican people.
Soon, the Oklahoma connection, which included several of its contingent taking over the officers’ roles in the company, was severed. It was not until 1927 when a trio of disgruntled investors, including Claudius Troy, issued a long series of articles titled “War Declared on Lower California Mexican Land and Development Company” accusing Macbeth particularly of all manner of unethical and illegal behavior and actions. There were investigations by the county district attorney’s office and the Los Angeles Bar Association, but no actions against the lawyer were taken.
The LCMLDC and its colony project faded away, but Macbeth went on to become a very prominent Los Angeles legal figure. He represented such well-known African-Americans as actor Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry), Eagle publishers Charlotta and Joseph Bass against a slander suit filed by the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Slaughter family whose resort in Manhattan Beach was subject to harassment just after the Bruce family was forced out of its seaside property, as well as African-American swimmer Elizabeth Catley, arrested for merely being in the ocean.
Later, he represented Japanese-American families who were interned in World War II concentration camps as well as argued against the Alien Land Law, in effect for nearly 40 years, and hired a young Japanese-American female attorney, the first in California, to work in his law firm after the war—Chiyoko Sakamoto (1912-1994) became a partner by 1948 and later ran her own firm in Little Tokyo. Macbeth died in 1956 and, despite the Baja California debacle, is duly remembered for all he achieved in his four decades in Los Angeles. His son, Hugh, Jr., a graduate of UCLA and then the law school at UC Berkeley, was also a member of his father’s firm working to assist Japanese-American clients and became a judge. He died in September 2019 not long after celebrating his 100th birthday.
It is always gratifying when an artifact in the Museum’s collection, innocuous-looking as it may be on the surface, winds up having a backstory that is of real regional import and significance. This is certainly the case with this badly-stained, but significant, object with its connection to Baja California, where Walter Temple later had business interests and resided for several years after he left the Homestead in 1930, and to local African-American history.