by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The series of posts in this blog under the title of “The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles County” and comprising of reviews of census listings of African-Americans from the censuses of 1850, 1852 (the only California state census enumeration), 1860, 1870, and 1880 were developed as a result of my work with The Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation and specifically its “The Long Road to Freedom” project, which studies the era in which Biddy Mason (1818-1891) lived, including nearly four decades in Los Angeles when she was a prominent figure in the Black community.
The effort to develop a database of those African-American residents of the county in these several censuses is intended to provide some demographic information, as well as highlight stories of some of the Blacks who lived in our region that otherwise have not been told or have been only touched upon.
Anyone who does intensive research with censuses knows that these have several flaws. For one, it is generally the case that these enumerations are undercounted; that is, there are often many people who were missed for whatever reasons (not being at home, not having a consistent or steady residence, being unwilling to be counted, etc.) Additionally, the information captured may also be inaccurate with respect to age, birthplaces and, in some instances, the listing of the race of the person. Another nagging problem for researchers are misspellings of first and last names.
These are just some of the pitfalls that can be encountered when doing census research, but, all that said, poring through these handwritten sheets, difficult as it can be, especially if there is fading, missing portions (a major problem with the 1852 state census), or if the handwriting can be challenging to read, can be truly fascinating. This is particularly so in reflection on the humanity of those listed on the forms as well as historically important for understanding a community at large and, in the case of this endeavor, a population that, like other underrepresented groups including Latinos and Asians, has almost always been left out of the larger historical record.
Because Biddy Mason died in 1891 and also because almost all of the 1890 census, including the entirety of the local enumeration, was lost to a fire, it was decided to take on the task of expanding the database to include the 1900 count. This is a somewhat daunting enterprise, especially when it is understood that the numbers for the previous censuses are:
With 1900, however, we find that, in Pasadena alone, there were 223 African-American residents, while there are almost 400 more in all areas of the county outside of Los Angeles. Within the Angel City, however, that number more than quadruples, so, the work is just that exponentially more involved.
So, while the effort is much more intensive, the hope is that the results will be more than worth the hours scanning sheets, capturing information (including sorting out errors, anomalies, and other issues), and developing a database that, as part of the “The Long Road to Freedom” initiative may be of service to others conducting research on the African-American community of Los Angeles during the last half of the 19th century.
This first post is something of an introduction with the second one, coming next week, getting into more detail about some of those who were enumerated in the outlying regions of the county; basically, outside of Los Angeles. It is hoped that, by the end of this month, we can get to the City of Los Angeles portions of the census, but we’ll have to see how progress goes and, if it is not possible, we can always return at a later date to complete the discussion.
One immediate point to note is that, between 1880 and 1900, on a general level, the population of the city leaped from around 11,000 to well north of 100,000, while the county total jumped from over 33,300 to 170,000 (we do know, by the way, that these totals for 1890, despite the loss of the detail, were not far above 50,000 in the city and 101,000 in the county.)
A major period of growth was during the Boom of the Eighties, occurring mainly during the administration of Los Angeles Mayor William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, in 1887-1888. A significant trajectory in the Black populace of the region also took place during the boomtime, as the 1890 census showed that there were over 1,800 African-Americans in the county.
Despite a national depression that burst forth in 1893 and several years of regional drought, growth continued to be very impressive during that last decade of the 19th century in what has often been called the “Gilded Age.” The Black community increased by around 1,000 during the “Gay Nineties,” another common name for that period, and was approaching 3,000 countywide.
To give an idea of just how dramatic African-American migration was afterward, the total for 1910 was nearly 9,500, while a decade later it was almost 18,000 and, in 1930, well north of 46,000. This represented part of The Great Migration of some 6 million Blacks from the southern United States to the northern, midwestern and western portions of the country.
It is also important to note that, racism, while less overt and dangerous than in the South, was very clearly present in greater Los Angeles and increasingly codified through, to just give a couple of examples, “restrictive covenants” that limited where African-Americans and other people of color could live, as well as limited access to specifically narrowed stretches of public beaches or use of community swimming pools to defined days, after which the water was drained and the pools refilled.
In Los Angeles, areas of black settlement by the end of the 19th century included what later became Little Tokyo, as well as areas to the south along Central Avenue and eastward in the industrial section bordering the Los Angeles River. As the 20th century progressed, expansion moved into South and South-Central Los Angeles, but, when the 1900 census was taken, the African-American community was mostly within the downtown area in and around Central Avenue.
As for outlying areas focused on in this post, there were some 20 townships and cities that were delineated in that enumeration, including: Azusa, Burbank, Cahuenga, Downey, El Monte, Florence, Fruitland, Long Beach, Los Nietos, Newhall, Pasadena City, Pasadena Township, Redondo, Rowland, San Fernando, San Gabriel, San José, San Pedro, Santa Monica, South Pasadena and Wilmington.
Most may be easily recognizable, but a few likely are not, so that Cahuenga would be the Hollywood area; Fruitland being Vernon and areas southeast of downtown Los Angeles; Los Nietos being along the San Gabriel River between Downey and Whittier and surrounding areas; Newhall is modern Santa Clarita; Rowland is the La Puente Valley and nearby locales; and San José encompasses the eastern extremity of the county in and around Pomona.
As for the population numbers of Blacks in these areas, here’s what was found:
El Monte: 100
Long Beach: 18
Los Nietos: 5
Pasadena City: 223
Pasadena Township: 28
San Fernando: 5
San Gabriel: 29
San José: 27
San Pedro/Wilmington: 13
Santa Monica: 59
South Pasadena: 21
More than a third of the 620 African-Americans outside of Los Angeles were in Pasadena and 16% were in El Monte. In fact, the San Gabriel Valley accounted for almost 72% of the Black population in the outlying areas, with 14% south of the Angel City, almost 11.5% west of the metropolis, and just 2.7% north of LA.
With respect to identified gender, males were 51.5% and females 48.5% of the population. Age breakdowns were: 0-17—38.5%; 18-35—25.8%; 36-64—31.5%; 65 and over—2.9%; and those of unknown age were 1.3%. Also tabulated were birthplaces and it was found that almost 60% were from Southern states (these defined as those that were formerly slaveholding states), while only 13% hailed from the North, and close to 27% were from California—notably almost all of these were children and young adults, reflective of that major migration since the mid-1880s. There were a handful of persons (fourteen) from outside the United States, including Canada, Denmark, the West Indies, Panama and other locales.
Again, there were some instances in which mistakes and misidentifications were made. The most striking example was in Long Beach, where the enumerator decided that Latinos were to be listed as Black and there were dozens of such examples there. This also happened at Redondo, where Latinos and, in one case, a Hawaiian, were denoted as Black, while Mike Thompson, age 17, was shown as being born in México, as were his parents, but the name suggested the possibility of the family having escaped slavery, perhaps from Texas, to our southern neighbor, which did occur, so he was included in the count for this project.
In a few cases, an African-American person was listed as white and, Ancestry.com, which was accessed for the records, sometimes erroneously listed white people as Black or did not account for the fact, that in isolated examples, a person was crossed out on a sheet because of being counted elsewhere. In one notable instance, a group of African-Americans living in the Pasadena Township hailed from North and South Carolina, but the person responsible for their migrating to the area was left off the census roll entirely—this is a story for the next post!
Strangest of all is that, somehow, Ancestry.com aggregated several pages of census sheets of people in the Philippines, recently seized as an American possession during the Spanish-American War of 1898, sailors aboard the U.S.S. Lancaster, and a Philadelphia resident, and included them among the Black population of Los Angeles County. So, when a search is made for all African-Americans in the county in the 1900 census, the total amount is shown as nearly 3,200, but there are roughly a few hundred (included the misidentified Hawaiians, Latinos and whites, as noted above) that have to be excised from the list.
So, we’ll return next week with part two of this post and look at select examples of Black residents of the areas within Los Angeles County that are outside of the city. Please join us then as we continue with “The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles County” series.