Santa Cruz County History - Cultural Diversity

To Know My Name: A Chronological History of African Americans in Santa Cruz County
by Phil Reader

In Memoriam for Helen Weston,
from her friends, The Phil Reader family



Sailors of African ancestry

were crew members aboard most of the vessels which explored the coast of California during the 17th and 18th centuries.

Negro trappers and adventurers

like Allen Light and Jim Beckwourth, tramped about Santa Cruz county decades before any white Americans found their way to the area.

Oscar T. Jackson

a young African American from Watsonville traveled around the world with all of the leading Black Minstrel troupes. During the 1880s, he performed before the royal courts of Europe.

London Nelson, [a.k.a Louden Nelson]

an ex-slave from Tennessee, left his entire estate "to the children of Santa Cruz" and this generous bequest made it possible to reopen the local schools after they had been allowed to close.

Ida B. Wells

one of the founders of the NAACP, and a leading figure in Black history, could be found with her family on the streets of Santa Cruz during the early 1890s.

Daniel Rodgers

a Negro 49er from Arkansas, won his own freedom from an unscrupulous master and led a wagon train of ex-slaves to Watsonville where they established a large, vigorous Black community.

Irva Bowen

became the first African American to be elected to office when she won a seat on the Board of Trustees for the Santa Cruz City Schools in 1978.


Americans of African lineage are a people whose historical legacy is of one bondage. Men and women stolen from their homes, stripped of their human rights, enslaved, embruted and subjected to every imaginable form of exploitation. Yet under these most undesirable of circumstances, they have not only persevered, but expanded as a social, economic and cultural group.

At the very same time, however, assimilation into the "mainstream" of American life has been slow and fraught with difficulty--that is even if assimilation is a desirable goal in the first place. For this, the reasons are many and varied, and would require a voluminous amount of space to elucidate upon. But for the purposes of this study, suffice it to say quite simply that all to often, African Americans have found themselves the subject of racial and economic prejudice.

Throughout the two hundred year history of Santa Cruz County, however, African Americans are, without question, the invisible minority. Until recently their numbers were always comparatively small, and this, in a strange way, may very well have been a boon. Racism has always been a basic component in the socio-economic makeup of this community, but it has been the more visible minorities which have born the brunt of this mindless prejudice.

Even a cursory examination of local history will reveal the reoccurring cycle of "scapegoatism" which has long plagued the non-white citizens of the region. It began at the very advent of colonization during the 18th century, when the Spanish moved into the area establishing Missions and Pueblos for the duel purposes of economic gain and religious conversion.

They found living here, a migratory stone age people whom they immediately subjugated, forced them into a settled way of life and replaced their natural religion with Christianity. The padres looked upon these "Indians" as simple-minded children; controlling every aspect of their lives. In time, the ravages of European diseases, such as Small Pox and Syphilis, drastically reduced their number and those few that did survive, were forced into positions of servitude upon the cattle ranchos which dotted the area during the first half of the l9th century.

Next, it was the Spanish-speaking native born "Californios", who were to find themselves subjected to the intolerance and bigotry which so often is unleashed upon a conquered people. Following the American take over of California in 1848, there occurred a twenty-five year period of intense Hispanophobia during which the vast majority of the land found its way into the hands of the aggressive Yankees -- most in a dubious manner. It was a time marked by countless incidents of mob violence taking the form of beatings, murders and lynchings.

On the heels of this came a highly organized attempt to rid the region of Chinese. The slogan of the day was "The Chinese Must Go." and it can be found splashed across the pages of area newspapers during the l870s and 1880s. A wave of anti-Oriental hysteria swept the state and gave rise to the Workingman's Party and the ratification of a new state constitution denying suffrage to any native of China. Riots in the Chinatown districts of most towns became common place and, in 1879, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Throughout the remainder of the century one minority group after another became the subject of this cycle of racism. These periods of oppression normally coincided with fluctuations in the economic scale. The anger and frustration at a system which brought about "hard times" were, all together too often, taken out on an innocent scapegoat, usually one of a different color or creed.

At the turn of the 20th Century and World War I, following wave after wave of European immigration, intense feelings of anti-foreignism and tendency towards isolation surfaced in America. The Great War, and the patriotic zeal which accompanied it, created the need for a new set of scapegoats and they were found in these newcomers with their strange languages, customs and ideas. Anyone espousing a so called "anti-American" ideology was suspect i.e. Trade Unionist, Socialist, or Anarchists.

However, racism in California hit it's peak at the beginning of World War II, when hundreds of thousands of west coast Japanese were disposed of their homes and personal property, and sent to Internment Camps in isolated areas. Even today, the repression continues with a new wave of anti-Latino feelings as expressed in the passage of the controversial Proposition 187 in 1994.

Throughout every one of these epochs of our local history, there was an African American presence in Santa Cruz County, but because of their small number, they were spared the intensity of the racial hatred experienced by other minority groups; no beatings, lynchings, or forced relocations. But this is not to say that the settlement of black pioneers in the Monterey Bay region was not without incident.

During the 19th century, the Watsonville school system was segregated for a long period of time and between the World Wars, Negro tourists were barred from hotels and auto camps in Santa Cruz. When the 54th Coast Artillery Company was stationed at Lighthouse field in 1942, numerous local businesses refused to serve the members of this all colored unit. In the decades following the Second World War, many of the new African American families moving into the area found housing difficult to obtain and on several occasions, white residents attempted to block the integration of their neighborhoods, sometimes resorting to arson. The only employment available to colored workers were in low paying service industries, including that of a barber, shoe shiner, or general laborer. So even here in Santa Cruz County, with it's reputation for tolerance, the path of progress for citizens of African descent has not always been smooth.

Viewed as a whole, however, there is a singular thread of success and accomplishment which runs through the history of various African American communities which have existed in our region.

During the final decades of the 19th century, sizable Negro settlements could be found in the Watsonville and Hollister areas. Both were vibrant and long lasting communities, which contributed much to the general populace. In some areas the race was represented by lone individuals, or single families.

There were Black sailors serving aboard the vessels that prowled the Pacific Ocean on voyages of discovery. Trappers and explorers like Allen Light and Jim Beckwourth were solitary men, who usually shunned the company of other men and saw the country while most of it was still quite new and unnamed.

But it was the gold rush of 1849, that great wave of western migration, that brought a generation of African American pioneers to California. They came from both the North and the South, and were both free men and slaves. Many of them brought their families and, unlike their white counterpart, a surprising number of unattached females could be found in the groups. One noble lady, Miss Julia Cole, of the Gilmore Colony, was 104 years of age when she made the journey across the plains.

Once these intrepid pioneers established themselves in the Monterey Bay area, they went on to leave their mark on local history. Much has been said and written about London Nelson, the Carolina born ex-slave, who, through a generous bequeath, saved the floundering Santa Cruz School District. In Watsonville, Jim Brodis, a runaway slave, has made the history books and even had a street named in his honor.

Nobel Prize winning author John Steinbeck drew upon members of the local Black community as inspiration for characters in several of his major works. Crooks, the Black hired man in Of Mice And Men is patterned after Ishmael Williams, a club-footed teamster from the San Benito Valley. Steinbeck fondly remembered the Strother Cooper family as part of a section on civil rights activists in one of his later works, Travels With Charley.

But beyond these few examples, the history of local African Americans has remained relatively unexplored. Virtually unmentioned in the annals of the Monterey Bay area is the fact that Ida B. Wells, one of the major figures in U.S. Black history, spent a large amount of time in Santa Cruz visiting with her family at their home on River Street during the 1890s. Also unheralded is the story of the first three Black graduates from local schools, all of whom went on to become the editors of large circulation newspapers.

This long hidden history is laced with stories of bravery and courage under the most adverse circumstances. Life under frontier conditions in early day California was difficult enough even for the relatively well-educated whites from the Northern and New England states. But add to this the double burden of slavery and discrimination and it is easy to see the outstanding quality of men and women who made up the pioneer African American communities along Monterey Bay.

What follows is an abbreviated chronological outline of the major events and people in this fascinating history. It is intended merely as a guideline for further research and story development, and like all history, it is ongoing. But, at the very least, it can be a starting place which will no doubt lead the diligent researcher to more interesting vistas and horizons.

>>To Know My Name, Part 2.

Copyright 1995 Phil Reader. Reproduced with the permission of the author. Photographs courtesy of Phil Reader.

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African Americans, racism


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