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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This fourth and final part of a post covering the enumeration of Black residents of Los Angeles County in the 1900 federal census looks at just a few of the over 2,100 African-Americans counted in the city of Los Angeles as the 19th century came to a close. The reason for undertaking this endeavor was because, as a collaborator on “The Long Road to Freedom” project undertaken by The Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation and which focuses on the life and times of the remarkable Biddy Mason (1818-1891), research was conducted on African-Americans in Los Angeles during the period when she was in the city. This included a look at the censuses from 1850 to 1900 along with newspapers and other sources.

As was the case generally, the vast majority of Black residents of Los Angeles County during that half-century lived in obscurity, but their marginalization, along with other people of color, principally Asians and Latinos, was such that very few of them were able to be anything other than laborers, servants, housewives and so on, so that involvement in the professions, politics, economic development and other fields was extremely limited.

The 1900 federal census sheet for the fourth ward of Los Angeles listing, towards the bottom, 6-year old “Paul William,” an orphan actually named Paul Revere Williams, who went on to be one of the most prominent architects in the city during much of the 20th century.

Perusing all those enumeration sheets and seeing names of people with their gender, ages, places of birth and occupations, there was frequent wondering at what their lives were like. Sometimes there were hints of struggle and tragedy, whether this was the recording of widowhood or how many children were born and how many survived—this latter was recorded in 1900, but not prior or afterward. Either by noting a profession that was not of the norm or by seeing what “Suggested Records” would show or by looking elsewhere for information, including newspapers such as the Black-owned California Eagle, there were occasional pathways for more information.

Those roads, however, were necessarily traveled only briefly in most cases because of the limits of time and scope, with this latter being basically a demographic compilation of data on the county’s African-American population. A notes column in the Excel spreadsheet, however, for the census information does have at least some record of examples that can be pursued later and there is a great deal of work that can be done in the future to flesh out the lives of the people who are, in that document, largely data points (name, gender, age, birthplace, occupation). The data, on its own, is useful, but the stories of those who are listed will, hopefully, be further searched and shared—whoever may carry on that work.

The sixth ward sheet enumerating the family (see the darkened letters “B” for Black) of Frederick Roberts, who went on to be first African-American to serve in the California Assembly among other accomplishments in business.

So, while there were well over 2,000 people whose information was recorded in the database, this post will only share information about a very small fraction, but with the idea that there ma be more information and stories to come. Perhaps the best-known of all of those counted in 1900 was then six-year old orphan raised by Charles and Emily Clarkson (though he was listed as a “boarder.)

The youngster was recorded as “Paul William,” but he was actually Paul Revere Williams (1894-1980,” one of the great Los Angeles architects of the 20th century and who was so widely regarded by the elite of the Hollywood film industry that he was known as the “architect to the stars.” He was just four when he was orphaned and the Clarksons were his foster parents. They recognized and nurtured his immense talents, which led to his receiving his architectural license in 1921, followed the next year by his opening a practice. In 1923, he was the first African-American architect to be a member of the American Institute of Architects and his legendary career has been well-chronicled.

The seventh ward listing, towards the top under the gap of three lines, of John J. Neimore, the publisher of the California Eagle newspaper, an institution of long-standing in the Angel City’s African-American community.

Another vital figure in the Black community of Los Angeles in the 20th century was Frederick M. Roberts (1879-1952). The oldest of three children (the family came to Los Angeles in the mid-1880s), Roberts’ father, Andrew, was a transfer wagon driver in 1900 and his mother Ellen Hemings was the granddaughter of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings—it has been recorded that Ellen Hemings Roberts had red hair and blue eyes like Jefferson. In 1905, Andrew Roberts, who was college educated, founded a mortuary with his children, with Frederick eventually becoming its president.

Frederick attended the University of Southern California and studied pre-law at Colorado College, where he graduated. He edited a newspaper in Colorado and, for 36 years, ran the New Age paper in Los Angeles. A Republican, he won a seat in the California Assembly in 1918 becoming the first African-American to do so and he served for sixteen years until he lost his seat to Augustus F. Hawkins, a Democrat and another major Black political figure in Los Angeles. Roberts was a trailblazer for African-Americans in the political world of the Angel City.

Gustavus Wickliffe was an early Black attorney in Los Angeles. Los Angeles Express, 2 June 1921.

John J. Neimore (1862-1912) was another pioneer, in this instance in the world of newspapers. The native of Texas was just a teenager when he established the California Owl. Arriving in Los Angeles during the ferment of the great Boom of the 1880s, he was a day laborer until he could save enough money to found the California Eagle in 1892. For twenty years, much of it with the assistance of his wife, Ida, he ran this foundational source of information for African-Americans in the Angel City until his death in 1912, at which time he was succeeded by Charlotta Spears Bass, who may be considered an inheritor of Biddy Mason’s legacy as a leading Black woman in Los Angeles.

Another prominent professional was Gustavus Wickliffe (1869-1921), who was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He graduated in 1890 from the Spencerian Business School in Washington, D.C., where he also served in the National Guard, and followed this three years later by getting his degree from the law school at Howard University. In March 1894, Wickliffe came to Los Angeles and was admitted to the bar, with his obituary stating he was the first Black lawyer to achieve this distinction in California. In 1901, he left his practice after securing a position as a clerk for the federal Board of Harbor Commissioners in San Francisco, where he served for seven years. He returned to the Angel City and practiced law until his death.

One of the first African-American physicians in Los Angeles was Melvin E. Sykes. Los Angeles Times, 6 August 1901.

One of only two African-American doctor recorded on the 1900 census in Los Angeles was Melvin E. Sykes (1864-1915), who hailed from Alabama. The 35-year old roomed with a white family on Broadway and 2nd Street and appears to have recently settled in town, the earliest located reference to him coming in a real estate listing in September 1898. Sykes frequently advertised his services as a physician, with his specialties being blood and skin diseases, in at least two offices over his career, the first being at the aforementioned location and the other at Spring and 1st streets over the German-American Savings Bank.

When the doctor died of cancer in 1915, Wickliffe wrote an obituary, reproduced in Douglas Flamming’s excellent book Bound for Freedom, in which he stated,

When a history is written of the part that colored men took in building up this western country, Dr. Sykes’ struggles will stand out to encourage young men of the Race to go as pioneers into a country where they can by their own efforts build a foundation upon which will arise a condition that will be a hope and fulfillment to us all.

The other listed physician was Elmer E. Barr (1867-1901), who was born in Mattoon, in southern Illinois about halfway between Indianapolis and St. Louis. The son of a barber and housewife, Barr graduated from the Rush Medical College of Chicago in 1893 specializing in gynecology, being the second Black graduate of that well-known institution, the first having completed study there nearly a half-century before.

The seventh ward enumeration of physician Elmer E. Barr, who came to Los Angeles from Chicago because of tuberculosis and, while he resumed his practice, died of the disease the following year at just age 33.

Barr, however, contracted tuberculosis, a very common pulmonary disease of the period, and, as so many others did, rushed to Los Angeles to try and recover his health. He was joined by his wife Katharine and only child Elmer, Jr. and, as stated in his obituary “he improved so materially here that he resu[m]ed the practice of his profession, but overworked, and broke down a few weeks ago.”

There were at least a few Black Civil War veterans recorded in the census, including Abraham/Abram Cleag (1841-1908), who was born on a plantation of that name in Tennessee. In July 1864, he enlisted and served in a heavy artillery regiment. In 1904, Cleag moved to Long Beach, where he was the janitor at City Hall and where he succumbed to a heart attack while on the job. An obituary in that city’s Press-Telegram noted his birth name was “Hearse,” but he adopted the name of the owners of the plantation where he was born, and that he lived in Texas before settling in Los Angeles. Abram Reed (1843-1919) was also a Tennessee native who served in the heavy artillery regiment, but he deserted at Little Rock, Arkansas after six months at the end of 1863, though the reason is not yet known.

A record of Abram Cleag’s Civil War service in Tennessee.

John Belt, a 72-year old detective whose birthplace was listed as New York state. His 1909 obituary, which noted that he was a breeder of bloodhounds in East Los Angeles (Lincoln Heights), stated that he was born into slavery and was once an overseer of slaves in Cuba, as well as a veteran of the war. Belt was also among the few African-Americans in the Angel City who had an interracial marriage, his wife, Catherine, being an Irish emigrant of 1860.

Other interracial couples in Los Angeles included Margaret Busch and her husband Ed; William Sparks and his wife Ollie; William R. Smart, whose family was in Los Angeles for years prior to 1900, and his spouse Libbie; Susan Gradnego and her husband, Arthur, a native of Italy; John Davis and his wife Maggie; Elias Lee and his spouse Gussie, who was German and Mexican; and Isaac Hall and his wife Lydia. One wonders at what resistance they met from society at large, as well as from family and friends, but, as our society becomes increasingly mixed, we can appreciate the challenges they must have encountered.

A brief note of the acquittal on a rape charge in the second trial of Robert W. Stewart, who, in 1889, was one of the first two Black officers in the Los Angeles Police Department. Los Angeles Record, 2 January 1901. He was not readmitted to the force, however, though he was posthumously reinstated two years ago.

There was one notable omission to the ranks of Black residents of Los Angeles in 1900 and this was only learned when doing some digging around for information on Melvin Sykes. Robert W. Stewart (1850-1931) was one of the first two African-American officers in the Los Angeles Police Department, having been hired with Joseph H. Green in 1889. Green, however, was dismissed the following year as reductions in personnel during the bust that inevitably followed the Boom of the Eighties, while Stewart remained on the force for over a decade.

Born into slavery in Kentucky, Stewart came to Los Angeles in 1885 and his hiring with the LAPD made news outside the Angel City as well as within it. His career, however, abruptly ended just prior to the taking of the census when, on 9 May 1900, he was accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year old white teenage girl, Grace Cunningham. Dr. Sykes was one of those who stood as sureties for the officer’s bail and the legal proceedings took over seven months, including two trials. The first resulted in a hung jury with a 7-5 tally for acquittal, while the second resulted in Stewart’s being found not guilty. Despite this (there was no police officers’ union in those days), he was not allowed to rejoin the force, though he was posthumously reinstated in March 2021—an enormous amount of research on Officer Stewart can be found on the Previous Los Angeles blog.

Towards the lower part of this seventh ward sheet is listed Philadelphia Arbaugh, who was said to be 108 years old and with a birth month and year of February 1792!

There are some other notable listings in the census, though further searching did not find much more than what was shown on the sheets. For example, there were a dozen African-American children who were inmates of the Los Angeles Orphans’ Home in today’s Chinatown at the corner of Yale and Alpine streets. Another institution, the Florence Home for troubled young women, opened in 1893 and situated on East 17th Street at San Pedro Street where Interstate 10 goes through downtown today, had a two-year old boy known only as Hildred as a resident.

At the Los Angeles Orphans’ Asylum in Boyle Heights, the sole Black child there was five-year old Eva Greenfield, who, sadly, was still there when the 1910 census was taken, though nothing was found about here subsequently. In the Los Angeles County hospital on Mission Drive in the Ninth Ward, there were four African-American inmates and two employees. There were also Black employees at St. Vincent’s College, which is now Loyola Marymount University and, as noted above, African-American janitors worked at city and county facilities, such as the court house and jail.

The listing, in the ninth ward at Boyle Heights, near the bottom of the sheet, of 5-year old Eva Greenfield at the Los Angeles Orphans’ Asylum.

There were quite a number of domestics, servants, coachmen and other workers for well-to-do Los Angeles residents, including Hancock Banning; Isaac Van Nuys; William H. Perry; William F. Botsford; William Garland; former sheriff James C. Kays; attorney, judge, city council member and United States Senator John D. Works; lawyer James H. Shankland; city water department counsel William B. Matthews and some Latinos like Mariana Coronel, the Botiller family, and a chemist and assayer Richard Perez, while the daughter and grandson of Biddy Mason, Ellen Huddleston and Robert C. Owens, had an Black servant in their household.

While those profiled here are just a small fraction of the 2,144 African-Americans found in the 1900 federal census for the city of Los Angeles, it is hoped that telling some of their stories helps bring a more humanized and personalized perspective about the Black community in the Angel City as the 19th century came to an end. There is, of course, much work to be done on the history of African-Americans during that period, but this modest contribution may help better understand it.

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