The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles County, 1850-1900, Presentation Preview

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As part of the Juneteenth celebration, the Homestead will be hosting a talk tomorrow, The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles County, 1850-1900: Biddy Mason and the African-American Community, featuring Biddy Mason Foundation Executive Director Jackie Broxton and me reviewing some of the history of the African-American community in the region during the 19th century.

Jackie will discuss aspects of the amazing life of Mason, who was born into slavery in Georgia, sold at least a few times, walked to Utah with her recently Mormon-convert owner and other fellow slaves, and then walked to greater Los Angeles to join the Mormon settlement at San Bernardino.

The listings of barber Peter Biggs and a woman only known as Julia in the 1850 census (actually taken early the next year because of California’s recent admission to the Union) at Los Angeles.

In early 1856, she sued for her freedom and, in the District Court at Los Angeles before Judge Benjamin I. Hayes, she succeeded, despite a great deal of manipulation to stymie her efforts. During a life of nearly four decades in the Angel City, she raised a family, worked as a midwife, amassed an impressive portfolio in real estate, helped found the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, and was a leader in the emerging Black community.

Based on a series posts that appeared in this blog earlier this year and last year, my contribution will be to focus on what census records, flawed as they are, tell us about the development of the African-American populace of Los Angeles. Beyond the numbers, however, are the names, ages, places of birth and occupations of people seeking to find a way, against barriers, obstacles, institutionalized racism, de-facto segregation and more, to provide for themselves and their families and to build up their community.

The listing in the 1852 state census, the only of its type ever conducted, of slaves brought to Los Angeles County by Mormons from Utah, including, at line 29, Biddy Mason.

What the presentation will aim to do is show examples of census listings from the 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 and 1900 federal enumerations and the sole state census from 1852 and supplement these with newspaper articles and advertisements and other sources to provide a perspective of how Black Angelenos lived in this region during the 19th century.

Hopefully, it will give attendees a sense that, while a small community until a surge in population brought their numbers to nearly 3,000 by the start of the 20th century, African-Americans in greater Los Angeles lived lives worth telling and remembering, despite being kept largely on the margins of local society.

Los Angeles Star, 1 February 1855.

It bears repeating that, among the 44 pobladores who settled Los Angeles in 1781 as a remote outpost of the decaying Spanish empire, a large number were of mixed ethncity, including African. Nearly four decades later, in 1818, Thomas Fisher, a Black American, arrived, strangely enough, as a sailor on a pirate ship under the flag of what became Argentina and led by a French captain.

During or shortly after the Mexican-American War, one or two African-Americans who served in the United States military, settled in Los Angeles, including Peter Biggs and Lewis G. Green, both of whom became “tonsorial artists,” that is, barbers. While Biggs was murdered in 1869, he and Green were also leaders in their nascent community. When the Temple and Workman bank opened in 1871, Green also worked as its janitor, an occupation he continued in his later years.

The 1860 census listing, at El Monte, of Benjamin, Sally and Cassandra Bullard.

The Owens family was another early pillar of the Black community in Los Angeles and its patriarch, Robert, who once owned a stable with John Hall, another early African-American resident, also had a presence in the San Gabriel Mountains above what became Pasadena and where El Prieto (referring to his skin color) Canyon is today. The son of Robert and his wife Winnie, Charles, married Biddy Mason’s daughter, and the extended family had great influence among the Black population of the Angel City for many years.

Another early family of note was that of John and Amanda Ballard, who arrived in this area in the 1850s. For a time, they lived in El Monte and, in the early 1860s, John appears to have been an employee of William Workman, as an 1863 tax assessment listing below Workman shows “Workman’s John,” a “F.M. of C.,” of “Free Male of Color.” Later, however, the Ballards secured a homestead on public land in the Santa Monica Mountains.

[Los Angeles] Semi-Weekly Southern News, 30 August 1861.

Other than Biddy Mason, it is hard to find many stories of depth and detail about African-American women in greater Los Angeles, but Caroline C. Burton, a native of Pennsylvania who arrived here in the late 1860s, is a rare example of a business owner among Black females. For close to a quarter-century, until her death in 1891, she owned a hairdressing establishment, for which she sometimes traveled to places like San Francisco, to secure materials and equipment.

After the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, African-American males had to force the Los Angeles County clerk to register them to vote by filing a lawsuit, this done under the name of Lewis Green (his attorney was future judge and University of Southern California founder Robert M. Widney and the presiding judge was prominent Californio, Ygnacio Sepúlveda). The effort, even if predestined by the constitutional mandate of the amendment, which was passed during Reconstruction and angered a great many of the hordes of white Southern sympathizers who supported the Confederates during the recent Civil War, was a landmark for the Black community.

Star, 25 September 1869.

So, too, were the celebrations of the passage of that amendment and of the Emancipation proclamation, the slow but steady efforts for better education for African-American children, and the growth of the First A.M.E. another Black churches. Other attempts to establish businesses continued during these early years, including other barber shops (like that of Samuel Jones,) restaurants like the Barnum Restaurant and Chop House (located on the north end of the Plaza and owned by Horatio Marteen and Jeremiah Redding), and social and other clubs, including the Temple Guards militia and Republican Party associations.

Yet, there were instances in which racists in the community reacted with inflammatory oratory and occasional violence in attempts to keep Black Angelenos from exercising their rights. It is notable to read Governor Henry H. Haight’s letter to Los Angeles resident Andrew A. Boyle (an Irish native long resident in Texas and New Orleans and whose son-in-law, William H. Workman, was raised in a Missouri household with slaves) in 1867, in which Reconstruction policies were lambasted:

The people of California love their free institutions too much to surrender them to the control of Chinese and Negroes, and they love their country and the union too well to countenance a policy which in seeking to elevate the African to a level with the white race and give the former the political control of ten states must inevitably end in a conflict between the blacks and the whites and in the destruction of the government.

In fact, even though California entered the Union in 1850 with a constitution passed nearly a year prior which banner slavery, this was nowhere near to any notion of equality, but to prevent what was considered unfair labor competition. In greater Los Angeles, there were many, as noted above, supported the Confederate cause and even a proposal to create a new state of Colorado in the southern portion of California.

[Los Angeles] Semi-Weekly News, 1 October 1867.

One nauseating example of violence and media coverage that essentially condoned it came in 1871 when the Los Angeles News, part-owned by El Monte’s Andrew Jackson King, a native and a passionate supporter of the South, gleefully noted that “a Fifteen Amendment, ignorant of the place in which his lines had fallen, went about putting on airs and indulging in the insolence natural to a ward of the nation.”

It was claimed that this unidentified African-American insulted a local (El Monte was almost exclusively white and predominantly comprised of former Southerners and notorious for its racist and violent tendencies) and “received a sound thrashing.” If this wasn’t enough, the paper (King?) decided to conclude the short report with this retort,

The Monte isn’t a good place yet for saucy negroes: in fact it needs Ku Klux legislation badly as its people are not only adverse to being domineered over by negroes, but also good democrats [the small D may not have been intentional].

While it was certainly not the case that this sentiment was universal in greater Los Angeles, it clearly existed to the degree that no one could assume that the lives of African-Americans were not often at risk given instances like this. There were newspaper accounts that described the pride, and, it needs to be emphasized, the patriotism, exhibited by Black Angelenos when they celebrated emancipation, the passage of the 15th Amendment, or organized for political participation.

Los Angeles News, 29 June 1871.

In 1874, the Los Angeles Express went into some detail talking about the “colored school” in the city and observed that, while there were only sixteen students, they, with the aid of their “painstaking teacher,” Mrs. Baker, “had unquestionably striven hard to make proper use of the advantages afforded them.” After readings of poems before the superintendent of schools, Dr. William T. Lucky, the paper commented, “as indications of the character of the taste for reading being formed by these children, the incident is not unworthy of notice.”

The students were also praised for geography recitations which “would have done credit to any class in any school,” while “they were prompt and correct also in their answers in arithmetic” and “sang a familiar melody in correct time and with much expression.” While we well know that proper resources and support can mean that virtually any pupil, no matter who they are, can succeed in obtaining a good education, it was widely believed by whites that African-Americans did not have the intellectual ability to succeed, save a few cases deemed anomalous.

The enumeration of Ann Peppers, daughter of Biddy Mason, and her six children. Sadly, her husband, Manuel and son Manuel, Jr. were in frequent legal trouble during the last half of the 19th century.

It is notable that the report ended with,

Dr. Lucky made a brief address, urging upon the parents of the children present the necessity and importance of regular and systematic attendance on the part of the children, and reminded them that they [school officials] had placed at their disposal, the same advantages that were accorded to others.

It was, of course, totally not the case that Black schoolchildren, nor did Latino and Asian pupils, received the same level of opportunity in resources and instruction that whites did. Still, it is heartening to read accounts like this, especially following the horrible treatment of the unnamed African-American in El Monte just a few years prior.

Los Angeles Express, 10 June 1874.

If this brief preview has whetted your appetite to know more about The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles County during the last half of the 19th century, please join us tomorrow at the Homestead at 2 p.m. to hear more about Biddy Mason and her contemporaries. Jackie and I will be happy to see you there and to share some of our information about the African-American community during that remarkable era.

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