One of the most impactful ways we come to know about places is through the stories we tell about them. Discover how Black people in rural California have been remembered — and forgotten — in the stories and landmarks that tell the beginnings of the Golden State.
Photo Credit: Farmhand and horse standing next to a shed, c. 1908. Courtesy: Roberts Family Papers, African American Museum and Library at Oakland.
Music Credits for Episode 2: “Strange Persons” by Kicksta; “Petit Gennevilliers (Celesta”) by MagnusMoone; “inward” and “Le Vulcain” by HansTroost. Tribe of Noise licensing information can be found here: prosearch.tribeofnoise.com/pages/terms
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Transcript We Are Not Strangers Here Episode 2
“Hidden Roots: Uncovering the Legacies of African American Homesteaders in California”
Caroline Collins (Narrator): Communities in California have deep connections to the places around them. The landscape – mountains, valleys, rivers, ocean -has often dictated where people have settled and how they’ve lived. Communities even go so far as to define themselves by these places. In these cases, they tie their identities to geographic locations through the names they give them and the landmarks they establish.
But, in order to do all of that, people and communities have to come to know a place first. They may visit a place or look at pictures of it. They might learn about its past. All sorts of things that, in many ways, shape how we all understand who belongs in a place, and who doesn’t. And that’s important–especially if it’s a place you call home.
Ryan Ballard: We have always felt we belonged–my family’s been here for a while and, and I’ve always known that.
Caroline Collins: One of the most impactful ways we come to know about places is through the stories we tell about them. Often, we call those stories history. And that history holds power.
Susan Anderson: In the United States, we have master narratives that we all learn whether they’re accurate or not.
Caroline Collins: California’s master narrative revolves around a set of traditional stories about gold-mining 49ers, Spanish missionaries, and westward moving homesteaders. It’s a powerful state mythology that’s generally focused on White male pioneers.
But this focus ignores the long presence of Black settlers within California. So in this episode, we’re going to discuss one way early African American rural settlers have been written out of state history: through how we acknowledge California’s landscape. And so–
Susan Anderson: Let’s put first things first. If we’re going to look at history, let’s actually look at history.
(Cal Ag Roots Theme Music, upbeat jazz hip-hop fusion)
Caroline Collins: I’m Caroline Collins and this is the Cal Ag Roots podcast. Cal Ag Roots is unearthing stories about important moments in the history of California farming to shed light on current issues in agriculture. This is the second episode in our We Are Not Strangers Here series. This series, which draws its name from writer Ravi Howard, highlights hidden histories of African Americans who have shaped California’s food and farming culture from early statehood to the present.
This six-part series is also connected to a traveling exhibit with the same name. The exhibit was originally designed to travel throughout California–we printed big, beautiful banners full of all kinds of photos from the archives that accompany the stories we’re telling. But then, the pandemic happened. And so, now we’re digitally reconceiving the We Are Not Strangers Here exhibit so that people can still enjoy it even during the pandemic. It’s not up yet, but we’re working on it. Please check out www.agroots.org for updates.
(Cal Ag Roots Theme Music ends)
PART ONE: HIDDEN ROOTS
Caroline Collins: The natural world is often associated with a sense of timelessness. Which, geologically speaking, makes sense. It can take hundreds of thousands of years for a mountain range to form. And some rivers have been slicing through the earth, forming canyons and throughways, for millions of years.
So, it’s no wonder that when people want to tie themselves to a place, one way they go about it is by connecting themselves to the landscape in how they name it and the stories they tell about it. Stories that often describe who arrived to a piece of the natural world and when–in other words, origin stories that create a sense of rootedness.
And California is no different. Throughout its colonial history, folks in power have named and renamed geographic places and features in manners that provide official versions of state history–regardless of accuracy.
So, to learn more about all of this, we talked to California historian Susan Anderson, our podcast’s primary History Advisor and the History Curator of the California African American Museum. We asked her about the significance of these origin stories–especially as they relate to Black folks in the Golden State.
Susan Anderson: You know, for me telling the stories about African Americans in rural California and urban California too is part of the importance is to reframe.
Caroline Collins: That’s because when the story of Black people in California gets told, there’s a prevailing framework that often shapes its narrative. But that framework doesn’t provide the full picture.
Susan Anderson: There is this just generally accepted framework about migration.
Caroline Collins: And not just any migration. The Great Migration–when between 1915 and 1960, five million Black Americans left the South.
Susan Anderson: –because that’s what we’re saying when we say migration.
Caroline Collins: At first, the majority of these migrants settled in Northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York. However, later waves of migrants increasingly headed West, choosing to start new lives in Portland and Seattle and urban centers across California like San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles.
Susan Anderson: So that’s the big narrative.
Caroline Collins: And while The Great Migration is certainly an important part of California history, it doesn’t fully represent the origins of Black people in the Golden State.
Susan Anderson: Black Americans and people of African descent have been in the state of California before White Americans lived here in any number
Caroline Collins: In fact, Black people have been in California since the onset of Spanish colonization in the 16th century.
(Slow tempo orchestral folk music)
African sailors and interpreters, both enslaved and free, first arrived in California with Spanish conquistadors. And by the 18th century, they were part of the original settlers, or pobladores, who established cities like Los Angeles, San Diego, Monterey, and San Jose. For instance, in 1781, half of the pobladores that founded the present-day city of Los Angeles were of African descent, and some were of full Black ancestry. And by 1790, one in five California residents was Afro-Latino according to the National Park Service.
The offspring of these settlers would come to be known as Californios–the native born Spanish-speaking descendents of the original Spanish colonists and soldiers in Alta California. And they were mostly of mixed Indigenous and/or African descent.
These mixed-race Californios, like Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California, became the state’s economic and political elite after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821.
But it’s also important to note that not all 19th century Black settlers in the Mexican state of Alta California were born there. Some immigrated from the United States becoming naturalized citizens of Mexico before California became a U.S. state.
And thousands of Black settlers also came to California later in the 19th century as gold seekers, homesteaders, ranchers, and farmers–all decades before The Great Migration ever began.
But these stories are too often excluded from California’s master narrative.
Susan Anderson: We’re working on accomplishing just bringing to light, this long standing presence and involvement in, in rural life and in California on the part of African Americans.
Caroline Collins: Because, in many ways, these stories have to do with questions of belonging in the state.
Susan Anderson: At a certain point, the question is, when do you stop arriving? When are you actually there? And when can you look at the world from the point of view of someone who is rooted in a place like California
Caroline Collins: Despite being left out of some official histories, many Black families in the state recognize and cherish their long-standing presence.
Ryan Ballard: My name is Ryan Ballard and I am from Los Angeles and my father’s from Los Angeles and my grandfather from Los Angeles and my great grandfather was from Los Angeles.
Caroline Collins: If you couldn’t tell, Ryan Ballard doesn’t feel like a stranger in California.
Ryan Ballard: You know, I look like a true Angeleno, a true Californian because I’m here. And many lines before me were here.
Caroline Collins: Generational lines that each make up an important part of the Ballard’s family story.
Ryan was the youngest of six children born to older parents, and he grew up surrounded by important Black history.
Ryan Ballard: Keep in mind, my father was born in 1924, so I had older parents, you know, but that was normal for me as a kid in elementary school. Everyone else said to me, your parents are old, and I thought, well, Nope, your parents are just young. This is just what I’ve known.
Caroline Collins: And what he knew was a long line of Ballard Angelinos.
Ryan Ballard: You know, I knew my grandfather was born in 1890 and he knew his father, William, which I don’t know when he was born, but we just always have known it was talked about in our family. Apparently they owned a lot of property and so these were talking about it then just family gatherings. It was talked about all the time.
Caroline Collins: It’s a proud family lineage. For example Ryan’s father, Reginald Ballard, was part of the Tuskegee airmen, a World War II squadron of the first Black American aviators. And after the war, he was a firefighter that helped desegregate the Los Angeles Fire Department. And his father, Claudius Ballard, was a prominent physician who served in World War I.
So they represented a long and rich Ballard history that, within family lore, stopped with Ryan’s great grandfather, William Ballard–the father of Claudius. It was also a family history that was generally about city folks, people who lived in urban Los Angeles, seemingly far removed from rural California.
But that all changed in February 2009 after the Los Angeles Times published a story about…mapping.
Ryan Ballard: So I don’t know what the opposite would be of coincidence cause I know, I think there are no coincidences. So I’m, I’m at work. I got the newspaper every morning And my father called me
Caroline Collins: That in itself was notable.
Ryan Ballard: My father does not call me at work. He does not call me because I should be working. And he said, Ryan, I’m looking at the paper. I said, dad, me too.
Caroline Collins: They were both reading an LA Times article about the removal of a century-old racial slur from maps of the Santa Monica Mountains. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had changed the name of a local peak from Negrohead Mountain to Ballard Mountain to commemorate a Black pioneer who, in 1880, had settled at its base. The article featured a picture from the early 1900s of the settler who was standing at his homestead. By then, he was an elderly man. He stood, a weathered hat upon his head, with his right arm folded across his chest. His name: John Ballard.
Ryan Ballard: He said, you know that fellow kind of reminds me of my grandfather. I said, Dad, well, obviously that’s why we’re on the phone, because you know, the Ballard name, it struck a chord clearly, right?
Caroline Collins: Because Ryan had a hunch that maybe, his family was in some way connected to John Ballard. And that was enough to get him moving.
Ryan Ballard: So I called my sister and I told her to look at the paper. She looked at the paper, she called my sister in law and my sister in law had already contacted the author of that article at the LA times.
Caroline Collins: And things kept happening quickly after that. Because now, more members of the Ballard family suspected that they could be related to that old homesteader in the mountains. So–
Ryan Ballard: We got in touch with the author of the article, which led us to Patty.
Caroline Collins: Ryan is referring to Patty Colman.
Patty Colman: I’m a historian at Moorpark college and I’ve also researched local homesteaders,
Caroline Collins: In fact, it was Professor Colman’s research on John Ballard that helped bring about the mountain’s official name change.
Work that she came to in a roundabout way.
PART TWO: UNEARTHING LEGACIES
Patty Colman: Before I started my full time teaching career, I was working at the national park service in the Santa Monica mountains national recreation area. And I was asked to do a study on the settlement patterns in the Santa Monica mountains.
Caroline Collins: It was a typical historical study in its focus on early California pioneers.
Patty Colman: Homesteading is the quintessential American symbol, right? Because so many people have in their vision what a homesteader is, what an American is, what a pioneer is…
Caroline Collins: The project also involved a lot of archival work, scanning various government records.
Patty Colman: So I was just scrolling through the census data and just getting a sense of who are these people that were living out there in 1900 and scrolling, scrolling, scrolling.
Caroline Collins: And then, Colman noticed something that caught her attention.
Patty Colman: I saw in the census of family and for race there was an N.
Caroline Collins: For Negro, meaning it was a Black family.
Patty Colman: And so that clearly caught me because there just were not many people of color in the mountains at the time.
Caroline Collins: Colman had come across evidence of an undertold history within the state. And she was intrigued.
Patty Colman: And so when I saw this family, I thought, well, who are they? This is really interesting. So I sort of scrapped the larger study and um, and told people at the park service, you know, I think we need to look at this.
Caroline Collins: This new focus led Professor Colman to further uncover the presence of the Ballard family and their contributions to the community.
(Slow tempo orchestral folk music)
Caroline Collins: John Ballard, who was formerly enslaved, may have arrived in California as early 1848 according to the oral history of his son William. Then, in 1859, Los Angeles County records show that he married a free Black woman named Amanda. Unlike some rural Black settlers who never fully resided in urban spaces, the Ballards spent a little over two decades in Los Angeles where John worked as a blacksmith, a teamster, and a firewood salesman. Eventually, he earned enough money to homestead 160 acres in the mountains above Malibu.
Patty Colman: I mentioned this in my article, why did a man who was seemingly quite successful living in downtown Angeles, who owned quite a bit of property, why did he suddenly pack up and move out to this remote area of the mountains?
Caroline Collins: One reason could have been personal loss. In May of 1871 Amanda died, at just 34, due to complications in childbirth.
But another likely contributing factor to his move were demographic changes in Los Angeles in the late 1870s and early 1880s that impacted the lives of its Black residents.
Patty Colman: We have the land boom in Los Angeles and we’ve got the railroad bringing all these Easterners and mid-westerners and you have a real shift in the population in Los Angeles. And one of the things that I think also really changed was the expansion and hardening of Jim Crow laws coming to LA. And that was not the city John knew when John came here, there, there was opportunity for a Black man.
Caroline Collins: In fact, John was active in Los Angeles civic life. In 1870, he was part of a successful lawsuit that granted Black men the vote in LA County. And two years later, he helped establish First African Methodist Episcopal Church, part of the oldest Black denomination in the country.
Patty Colman: And, and I think what started happening at that time was things changed. So I think that he just left because of that and went out to the mountains.
Caroline Collins: So in 1880, a year after re-marrying a widow named Francis, John packed up and relocated to the Santa Monica mountains.
There, they established a rural life. They grew crops and fruit. John hunted; and, from time to time, he went into the city to sell firewood and charcoal for extra money.
Patty Colman: John Ballard had six or seven kids. Alice was the youngest and was the only child left in the family that was still living with them. She attended an integrated school out in the valley.
Caroline Collins: This local mountain school was started by a Ballard neighbor, Mrs. Russell. John’s new wife, Francis, had done some work for Russell in the past, helping to care for her kids when they got sick.
Patty Colman: The Russell children said they used to like to ride out to the Ballard home and, and see what was going on and get some biscuits and things like that.
Caroline Collins: So when Mrs. Russell wanted to open a local school and knew she needed a population threshold to get it opened–
Patty Colman: –it was Mrs. Russell who apparently got some of the Ballard kids to come to the school, um, and essentially, you know, integrated a school and we’re talking 1880s.
Caroline Collins: Alice Ballard attended this school and spent her childhood in the mountains. And when she reached adulthood, she chose to remain there.
Patty Colman: In 1888, she applied for her own homestead as soon as she was about 18. Alice is really an interesting figure to me. By 1900 she’s living in this remote little Canyon by herself with these two children. I mean, her dad wasn’t too far away, but far enough to be out there in the middle of nowhere by yourself.
Caroline Collins: Alice Ballard’s independent life in the mountains above Malibu represents an important part of California history.
Patty Colman: By 1900, most Black women in America were working in other people’s homes, cooking other people’s meals, taking care of other people’s kids.
Caroline Collins: However, Alice’s autonomy actually follows a larger historical pattern.
(Upbeat orchestral folk music)
The American West offered many African American women a chance at economic independence. They’re not always represented in pop culture products like Hollywood Westerns and dime novels. And they faced barriers like racism and sexism, but scholars that study Black women in the early West say that African American women forged lives across the frontier.
Some ran successful businesses like laundry enterprises and hotels. Others were educators, journalists, stagecoach drivers, nurses, midwives, and even gun-toting mail carriers like Mary Fields who the Smithsonian National Postal Museum describes as fearless since being a mail carrier in the Old West didn’t just mean delivering the mail but also protecting it from quote: bandits, thieves, wolves and the weather as well. And, those weren’t the only dangers African American women faced in the West. In fact, a Black woman named Mrs. Tilghman was killed in California’s first stagecoach robbery when she was just riding in the backseat of the Marysville-Comptonville stagecoach.
But despite these dangers and the uncertainty of what they may have faced on the frontier, many Black women still made the American West their home. For instance, some African American women even chose new lives in the West as mail order brides. These women traveled by wagon and train to meet the Black men who’d arranged for their trips with the help of older African American women that acted as match-makers.
And across the West, Black women established women’s clubs, churches, and communities. In fact, many were notable philanthropists like Biddy Mason, who was the primary founder of First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles. She was once enslaved in Mississippi but won her freedom in a California court and eventually made millions of dollars as a prominent real estate entrepreneur.
And some like Alice Ballard, whose records Patty Colman uncovered, homesteaded.
Patty Colman: She built her own house. She owns her own land. She’s a homesteader raising these kids. And to me that’s fascinating.
Caroline Collins: Colman’s fascination with the Ballards led her to publish a study about the family’s seemingly lost history. And one day, after sharing this research at a park service talk for the community, she was approached by a member of the audience.
Patty Colman: A gentleman by the name of Nick Knox came up to me and he said, you know, I live, um, off of Canaan and where I live, there’s a mountain behind us and this is what it’s named. I’ve found on these old records in the neighborhood, it was called this and you know, it was the pejorative, you know, word. And I knew that it had to have something to do with John Ballard and his family because of the close proximity to where it was.
Caroline Collins: He was referring to Negrohead Mountain in the Santa Monica Mountains.
(Slow tempo orchestral music)
Its name represented a long history of mapping practices where White residents named local places–hills, lanes, passes–by the racial epithets they associated with nearby Black homesteaders.
As time went by, sometimes the family names of these settlers were dropped until all that was left were the slurs.
And these weren’t informal nicknames. In other words, places across the nation like N-word Island and sites using other pejoratives for Black people were listed on official government maps. Nearly 800 of them, according to a 2012 NBC News report.
It’s a practice that also took place across California. For example, portions of the state where Black miners panned for gold bore names like N-word Creek and N-word Bar. In the Mojave Desert, where African American settlers formed a community at the turn of the 20th century, two bluffs were called Pickaninny Buttes. And in rural San Diego County N-word Nate Grade Road referred to Nathaniel Harrison, a formerly enslaved homesteader who built a cabin and raised sheep on Palomar Mountain.
In fact, these names across the state were so prevalent that some early researchers used them to highlight Black people’s long history in California. For example, in 1919 Delilah Beasley, an African American historian and reporter, self-published her exhaustive study The Negro Traiblazers of California. In it she says that these place names quote “attest to the presence of blacks in California.”
Caroline Collins: In the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Interior began replacing these pejoratives with the term ‘Negro,’ resulting in new maps across the country that featured place names like Negro Ridge, Negro Creek, and in the peaks above Malibu: Negrohead Mountain.
More than 120 years after John Ballard settled in the Santa Monica Mountains, Patty Colman and a group of local residents set out to commemorate the pioneer’s presence.
Patty Colman: So we got in contact with some other members of the community who were interested in changing the name of the mountain. And then we got the LA board of supervisors involved to ask them to change the name of the mountain.
Caroline Collins: Colman and the others however didn’t want to follow the recent route of many renaming efforts. In some cases, communities decided to give these places more neutral, aesthetically pleasing names. But these new names no longer bore any clear ties to earlier Black settlers. So–
Patty Colman: –then you’re losing the history you’re forgetting that those people were there.
Caroline Collins: It was a history they wanted honored with the name of the family that had staked out a life on that mountain. So, in 2010, the Board of Supervisors officially changed the name from Negrohead Mountain to Ballard Mountain.
It was a remarkable way to re-remember the legacy of early Black settlers who contributed to civil rights in the state.
And then the LA Times covered the story.
Patty Colman: And we said to ourselves, wouldn’t it be great if John Ballard still has descendants in the area and they see this article.
Caroline Collins: And, as we now know, some folks with the Ballard last name did see the story. And soon–
(Upbeat folk music)
Ryan Ballard: –our entire family or a good portion of us met Patty at Moorpark college
Caroline Collins: The Ballards and Professor Colman continued to correspond and eventually government records confirmed the family’s hunch. John Ballard…was indeed the father of Ryan’s great grandfather William Ballard.
Caroline Collins: Years later, in 2018, the Woolsey Fire tore through portions of mountain ranges in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, burning nearly 100,000 acres of land. It was a devastating natural disaster.
Yet an opportunity suddenly arose out of its ashes. Alice Ballard’s 160-acre homestead, where she’d struck out on her own at just 18, was perhaps now accessible for research.
Patty Colman: So we knew where her homestead was that was patented in 1900. We knew exactly where the land was, but the land was pretty inaccessible. And there were a couple of park service archaeologists who had gone out there years ago to kind of walk it a little bit and just look at the land. So dense you really couldn’t even get through.
Caroline Collins: But after the fire–
Patty Colman: They went back out and lo and behold, I mean it was tragic fire, don’t get me wrong, but if there is something positive that came out of it, that land was now opened up.
Caroline Collins: So when the Cal State Northridge archaeology department led a formal survey of Alice Ballard’s homestead site, Professor Colman, and members of the Ballard family joined them.
Patty Colman: Not only could you walk it, but you could literally see features that are associated with the home and artifacts just littered on the ground.
Caroline Collins: They watched the survey team excavate all sorts of items:
Patty Colman: The pottery really stuck out because to me it was just embedded right there, exposed in the dirt. It was amazing.
Caroline Collins: But that wasn’t all that was recovered.
Patty Colman: There were nails. Um, there were some pieces of glass. There was historic barbed wire. The bricks stamped with Los Angeles pottery and brick company,
Caroline Collins: This was tangible evidence of the lives lived in those mountains.
(Orchestral folk music)
And they weren’t always easy lives. Even by moving all the way to their rural homestead, the Ballards didn’t fully escape persecution. They were harassed by White neighbors in their mountain home. Their first house was burned down by arsonists. And, for decades, the hill where they carved out a life bore an egregious slur…White people gave it that name, simply because they resented the Ballards’ presence on that mountain.
Ryan Ballard: It was never intended to be a term of endearment. It simply wasn’t. It was meant to hurt harm, uh, mistreat de-value debunk. And that’s why this story is so important to tell because we have the freedom to discuss it. For many Black people, that was the last word they were called before they were hung and met their maker.
Caroline Collins: It’s a reality Ryan Ballard is sure that his great-great grandfather John Ballard understood all too well.
Ryan Ballard: So clearly someone, uh, someone’s, uh, wanted to try to devalue his existence. So he had to be a man of strong character just to exist and attempt anything. And not just throw his hands up and just really wilt away and die. He said, regardless of what’s going on, this is what’s available to me. And this is what I’m going to take advantage of.
(Positive and upbeat orchestral folk music for several seconds, then music ends)
Caroline Collins: Since we spoke with Ryan Ballard and Patty Colman for this podcast there’s been some exciting news regarding the land Alice Ballard once homesteaded. It’s been purchased and will now be managed by several agencies, including the National Park Service. More excavations and study are planned for this year with the goal of interpreting the site for visitors.
(Cal Ag Roots Theme Music, upbeat jazz hip-hop fusion)
Early Black California families like the Ballards insisted on their own belonging. Despite various attempts to make Black settlers feel unwelcome, they persisted in demanding and working for equal rights. And a lot of that work took place in rural California in places where Black ranchers and farmers not only impacted the state’s agricultural landscape, but its civic culture too. Tune into our next episode, called “Cultivating Change: African American Homesteaders, Innovators, & Civic Leaders,” to learn about these 19th century African American rural settlers who, in pursuit of their California Dream, became civic leaders that shaped the fabric of the state.
Caroline Collins: Thanks for listening to the Cal Ag Roots podcast. If you liked what you heard, you can check out other stories like this one at www.agroots.org, or on Apple Podcasts. And by the way, if you subscribe and rate this show on Apple Podcasts, it will help other people discover it.
Now some important acknowledgements: We Are Not Strangers Here is a collaboration between Susan Anderson of the California African American Museum, the California Historical Society, Exhibit Envoy and Amy Cohen, myself–Dr. Caroline Collins from UC San Diego, and the Cal Ag Roots Project at the California Institute for Rural Studies.
Our traveling exhibit banners were written by Susan Anderson, our project’s Primary History Advisor. And this podcast was written and produced by me with production help from Lucas Brady Woods.
This project was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities (Visit calhum.org to learn more), and the 11th Hour Project at the Schmidt Family Foundation.
–End of Episode–
Cal Ag Roots Supporters
Huge THANKS to the following generous supporters of Cal Ag Roots. This project was made possible with support from the 11th Hour Project of the Schmidt Family Foundation and California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.