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History

Wed, Oct 31, 2018

Marla Novo

Marla Novo - Archives & Collections Catalyst

To Know My Name: A History of African Americans in Santa Cruz County

Phil Reader was a treasured local historian. His research revealed the stories of marginalized people and communities. He inspired the theme of MAH’s recent publication, Do You Know My Name? Phil was “a champion of the working stiffs, those who were born, lived, and died out on the edges.” (from the book’s preface by another local historian, Sandy Lydon)

This morning I spoke with Phil’s widow, Lorraine. She will donate a large part of Phil’s research to the MAH archives. What follows is an excerpt of Phil Reader’s writings from 1995. Let’s not forget their names.

-Marla Novo, Collections Catalyst

Americans of African lineage are a people whose historical legacy is of bondage. Men and women stolen from their homes, stripped of their human rights, enslaved, imbruted 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.

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.

Throughout every epoch 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 relocation. 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 African American 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 African American 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 its 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 African American 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.

Jim Brodis obituary, Evening Sentinel, July 5, 1906

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.