The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles County: The Counting of African Americans in the 1900 Federal Census, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Continuing with this post on the enumeration of Black residents of Los Angeles County in the 1900 federal census, with the focus on those counted outside of the city of Los Angeles, we look at some of the 620 persons who lived in townships and cities beyond that burgeoning metropolis. In doing so, we get beyond the statistics and shine a little light on some of the African-Americans residing in the region at a time when that community was almost completely marginalized when it came to conditions at the time and what has remained in the historical record.

As noted in part one, there were about twenty townships and precincts outside of the Angel City when the census was taken, with about a third of them having just a handful of Black residents in them. Half of the total comprised jurisdiction where the population ranged from a dozen to about thirty. Santa Monica had nearly 60 African-Americans in its township, while El Monte had 100, leaving the city of Pasadena with just over 220, or a little over 35% of the total.

The enumeration in the Fruitland Township, where Vernon is today southeast of downtown Los Angeles, included the interracial couple of William and Sallie Beck.

It was also noted that 60% of all Black denizens of these areas were from Southern states, 13% from the North, and a little more than a quarter, almost all children (reflecting recent migration to the county), from California. Only seven persons were born outside the country, including 17-year old Mike Thompson, who resided at Redondo and who was born in México as were his parents—suggestive of the possibility that the Thompson family left the U.S., maybe after Emancipation and the Civil War for our southern neighbor.

At Santa Monica, Artesmes Aguira (Aguirre) was listed as being from the South American nation of Peru, as were his parents, and, while it is certainly possible that this was a mistaken assignation of race—for example, in Long Beach, dozens of Latinos were marked down as Black—it is also possible that he was from the large community of Afro-Peruvians in that county bordering the Pacific. Also in the coastal city were members of the Moxley family, born in Canada, and this might have been a variation of young Thompson’s experience with respect to African-Americans migrating to our northern neighbor seeking better opportunities.

At San Pedro in the Wilmington Township were Mary and Carl Carlson, she from Alabama and he from Finaland, and Leanna Dikensen, from Texas, and her son Karl Brown with Charley Brown, who hailed from Sweden.

In Long Beach, Matilda Watkins, neé Haslett, was shown as having a father born in Georgia and a mother in Nevada, and it was found that, in 1880, she was listed as Indian as she was an eight-year old servant from a family in Fresno. It can only be assumed that her father was Black and her mother an Indian. In the fifth precinct of Pasadena, Florence Weimer resided with her mother, a native of North Carolina, and her step-father, but her last name reflected her father’s birthplace of Germany. Similarly, in the Crown City’s seventh precinct, John Oakman had a father who hailed from Scotland.

There were a few mixed marriages, an extremely rare occurrence at the time. At Fruitland, where the industrial city of Vernon is today, just outside Los Angeles city limits, William Beck, a 54-year old farmer who was from Tennessee, was married to a white woman named Sallie. She was born in Georgia, but her parents were Irish and German. The Becks resided in Evansville, Indiana after they wed and it is to be wondered whether they came west for health reasons, better economic opportunity or if they were hoping for more acceptance.

Frank Johnson, who was a coachman, was the sole African-American resident on Santa Catalina Island in 1900.

In the Wilmington Township, which included San Pedro, and where the burgeoning Port of Los Angeles was situated, 25-year old Mary Carlson, who hailed from Alabama, was married to 40-year old Carl, a native of Finland who came to the United States in 1886. Leanna Dikensen, who was 23 and born in Texas, was married to 45-year old Charley Brown, who left his native Sweden to come to America in 1880. The couple had a year-old son named Karl. It should be noted that there was a fair-size Scandinavian community in the area reflective of the diverse ethnic population more likely to be found near harbors and ports than elsewhere in a given location.

There were also some examples of African-Americans living as boarders with white people, such as the case at Santa Monica where Tom W. Sampson, a 50-year-old house painter, who was born in California—this, in itself, was rare and, given that he was born during the Gold Rush and his father was listed as being from Massachusetts and his mother from North Carolina, it would be interesting to know his story. Unfortunately, nothing further could be found about him. In any case, in the same house, but counted as a separate household, were a mother and daughter, Virginia and Leta Winn.

George and Jane Ashbridge ran their namesake hotel and barbershop at Newhall, now part of Santa Clarita.

At Burbank, Texas native Elijah M. Stiles, a 28-year-old day laborer, boarded with Jennie V. King and her daughter Iphigenia. Meanwhile, at Long Beach, Dell Pennington, a 42-year old cook who came from Louisiana, was residing with Lucie Hosier, a young woman from France, but it is not stated that he was a servant, but, rather, a boarder.

As noted with Tom Sampson, sometimes nothing can be found of a person outside of their listing in a single census and this holds true for the only African-American resident of Santa Catalina Island in 1900. Frank Johnson was born in California in June 1865, just after the end of the Civil War, and he was working as a coachman on the island, but whether he worked for someone residing there, served the tourist trade, or both just isn’t known.

The family of John and Mary Hall were the only Black residents in the San Fernando township in 1900.

Speaking of far-flung areas of the county, there were just seven Black residents of the area embraced by Newhall and the Antelope Valley and four of them resided together at the former. George and Jane Ashbridge, with their 13-year old son George, Jr., were the proprietors of a hotel bearing their name. Actually, Jane specifically was identified in the census as a “Hotel Keeper” while her husband was listed as a barber, as was 32-year-old Walter R. Boddy, almost certainly George’s partner, while Lorance Wilson, age 25 and a laborer, was a boarder.

The very comprehensive website features a photo of Railroad Avenue in Newhall in 1890 or 1891 and among the handful of buildings in the rural area, including a store, school, oil company office, is the two-story Ashbridge Hotel. The page states “we don’t know much about it” before clarifying “OK, we don’t actually know anything about it” and then observing “we need to figure it out one of these days.” A comment was recently left by a certain blogger adding what is known about the Ashbridges from the census, so at least the photo can be matched with some information about who were almost certainly among the first, if not the earliest, Black residents of what is now Santa Clarita.

13-year-old Mary Shirrel resided with Francisco and Francisca Cota in the La Puente Valley within the Rowland Township.

To the south at San Fernando township, which embraced most of the large valley of that name, there were just five African-American residents, these being members of the Hall family. A post here on the 1880 census listings of Black denizens of the county mentioned that John and Mary Hall, with their children, were then living in the La Ballona Township, which stretched west of Los Angeles to the Pacific, though they were residing not far outside city limits. Included with the family, and listed as their “ward”, was a white 2-year old named Moses, who’d been left on their doorstep. In 1900, none of the Halls’ eight children, nor Moses, were living with them, but three grandchildren were.

Another area with few African-American residents was the eastern San Gabriel Valley and the Rowland Township, covering what is now Rowland Heights, Hacienda Heights, Diamond Bar, Walnut, La Puente and nearby areas, included two 13-year old children, Mary Shirrel and Thomas Delious. Mary resided with Francisco and Francisca Cota, but nothing else could be found about her other than this census, which shows that she was born in California, her father was from Africa and her mother’s birthplace was unknown. Thomas, who came from North Carolina as did his parents, lived with Andres and Adelaide (whose mother was Australia and father Latino) Yorba, a prominent name in Orange County, but, again, this was the only information located about him. The mystery of how these teens, almost certainly orphans, wound up in the La Puente Valley remains.

Minnie Smart, who recently secured a divorce from husband William on the ground of desertion, resided with her seven children on a farm in the Florence Township where Figueroa Street and Florence Avenue meet in South Los Angeles.

The Florence Township is where South Los Angeles is now, but was well outside the Angel City limits at the time. There was only one African-American family there in 1900 and this was headed by 30-year old Minnie (Burr) Smart, who was divorced at the beginning of the year from William R. Smart on the ground of desertion, but managed a farm at Figueroa Street and Florence Avenue while raising her five children, ages 2-13.

To add to the drama, Minnie was arrested in 1895 for assaulting a white woman that she charged was “consorting” with her husband, though the charge was dismissed. In 1914, it appears that Minnie, who in the census four years prior was shown as employed doing housework, was a maid in Boyle Heights when she was involved in an assault case involving her employer and that woman’s aunt. Minnie remained in Boyle Heights, where a substantial black community lived, residing just south of Evergreen Cemetery until her death in 1926.

Sylvia Nichols was long well-known in Pasadena, where she was recorded at age 85 in the 1900 census.

Among the eldest Black residents of the county in 1900 were Sylvia Nichols (spelled “Nicalls” in the census), age 85, who lived on Green Street in Pasadena. Known, as was often the case with elderly African-American women who were domestic servants, as “Aunt Sylvia,” she was featured in an 1891 newspaper article about her throwing an “old-fashioned Kentucky dinner” for prominent Crown City residents like naturalist Dr. Charles F. Holder and his wife and Holder’s fellow Tournament of Roses founder, Dr. Frederick F. Rowland and his spouse, among others. It was reported that “plantation hymns and songs” were sung to the accompaniment of an organ in Nichols’ modest home, acquired for her, it was said, by former employers.

In 1898-1899, Nichols returned to Kentucky and visited one of the white children she raised as a slave on a plantation, though the Los Angeles Times article discussing the trip used extensive “dialect” in its quotations of her story and focused on the kind of humor enjoyed by so many white people that denigrated Nichols in so doing. In early 1903, the paper reported that Pasadena residents were subscribing funds to assist in building a new and still very basic residence for her on the Green Street lot. Two years later, the Los Angeles Express reported that Nichols died in “her tiny shanty in the arroyo” with Holder’s wife with her at the end and arranging for her funeral—she was reported to be between 95 and 100, though the census listing indicated she was 90.

Los Angeles Express, 21 April 1905.

Older than Nichols was Julia Oliver, who resided in the Cahuenga Township near what became Hollywood and also outside Los Angeles city limits in 1900. The Virginia native was listed as being 97 years old, though she did not know her month and year of birth according to the enumerator, and lived with her granddaughter Mary Stovall and her seven children. At the end of July 1906, the Los Angeles Record recorded that, with Stovall having recently died, “Aunt Julia,” said to be 110 (103 according to the census listing) rapidly declined and passed away at “the little vine-covered cottage at Sunset and Georgia streets. Dr. Rilla Hay, a rare woman physician in the Angel City at the time, consulted with her patient and noted that she’d been as strong as someone 40 years younger until her daughter’s passing.

Also of note was the Carnahan family of Pasadena’s first precinct with a 1956 newspaper article noting that Silas and Cynthia Carnahan left San Angelo, Texas for the Crown City during the Boom of the 1880s. Silas had a blacksmith shop and was a founder of the city’s First African Methodist Episcopal Church, while their children included gifted singers and musicians. Lastly, in the Monrovia township, where it was noted that there were many Black residents who hailed from or had origins in South Carolina, there was the remarkable story of the African-American community there, told by Pasadena City College history professor Susie Ling.

Julia Oliver, enumerated at the Cahuenga Township with her daughter and her family, was listed as 97 years old.

Specifically, Ling wrote, John Fisher, a blacksmith, came to this area in 1875 and was employed by the prominent capitalist and rancher Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, whose intersection with the Workman and Temple family has been detailed extensively in this blog. Baldwin sent Fisher back to the Carolinas to recruit emigrants to settle on his vast domain and, as Ling noted, the 1900 census included this large continent of transplants. The professor also referred to seven men on Baldwin’s Rancho Santa Anita and the census shows that this included a trio of hostlers (those who cared for horses) and a pair of jockeys as part of Baldwin’s famous racehorse-breeding operation.

Notably, the man responsible for bringing these employees to Santa Anita, former jockey, including in the 1884 Kentucky Derby, Dow Williams, was recorded in the census as a white man. Williams came to the Baldwin stables in 1886 as a caretaker and assistant horse trainer, but became the head within several years. After a brief stint operating his own stable, Williams returned to working with Baldwin and, after the latter’s death in 1909, was a trainer for the well-known Ed Corrigan. With his health failing, Williams worked for the Los Angeles city school district and, in 1921, settled in Santa Ana, where he was the attendant at the city’s Elks Club until his death almost twenty years later.

Los Angeles Record, 30 July 1906.

It is one thing to scan census sheets and record names, ages, occupation, birthplaces and the like, but quite another to be able to find what can be located of the people enumerated and their lives. This part of the 1900 census post and the counting of the county’s African-American population has, hopefully, provided some true human interest in the rapidly growing Black community of our region and we hope to share more of the story soon.

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