Black people have long cultivated the land in rural California. And in doing so, they’ve contributed to what we grow and how we grow crops in the state. Discover how early African American farmers and ranchers didn’t just grow crops and raise livestock throughout the Golden State. They also cultivated societal change that helped make California what it is today.
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Transcript We Are Not Strangers Here Episode 3
Cultivating Change: African American Homesteaders, Innovators, & Civic Leaders
Caroline Collins (Narrator): California often hails itself as the state that most exemplifies the promise of the nation. Or as Kevin Starr, historian and State Librarian Emeritus of California once put it: “California’s future and its promise are nothing less than the future and promise of America.”
It’s a significant narrative that informs the rhetoric of state leaders and culture makers. In other words, from celebrating the state’s tendency towards progressive politics to its multicultural residents to its innovative business landscape and protected natural splendor, California’s mythology is rooted in idealism.
So, we’re going to discuss two issues that are directly tied to the Golden State’s reputation for innovation and progress: Agriculture and Civil Rights. To do so, we’re going to highlight an often overlooked part of state history: the statewide impact that 19th century Black homesteaders made in these pivotal areas.
In doing so, we’ll not only acknowledge that–
(Upbeat folk guitar music)
Susan Anderson: from its inception, Black people have farmed and ranched in California
Caroline Collins: But also, we’ll discover how–
Jonathan Waltmire: California does have a history in relation to civil rights in relation to African Americans they grabbed out opportunity and they made the most of it. Especially in farming.
Caroline Collins: So, in this episode, we’ll see how early African American farmers and ranchers didn’t just grow crops and raise livestock throughout the Golden State.
Caroline Collins: They also cultivated societal change that helped make California what it is today.
(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 third 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.
PART ONE: AGRICULTURAL INNOVATION
Caroline Collins: California’s known for the bounty of produce that sprouts from its soil. Back in the 19th century, it was often viewed as a land of plenty by settlers looking for land-based opportunity. So much so that it was coined the “Cornucopia of the World” by early advertisers.
But the reality that many early settlers faced in rural California didn’t always match promises of ‘magical soil’ made famous by advertisements. Much of California is extremely dry. To create the state’s now booming agricultural economy, it took the manipulation of huge amounts of water and the introduction of various crops. And that involved the work of lots of people, including innovative 19th century homesteaders.
Among these pioneering settlers were African Americans who chose not to reside in urban centers across the state. Instead they established roots in rural California, where, like other settlers, they purchased land that had once belonged to Indigenous peoples and was later claimed by the government or private citizens.
In fact, in our first episode, we dove into the story of one of these early settlers: California 49’er Alvin Coffey. Coffey was an enslaved miner and ranch hand who labored during the Gold Rush not to ‘get rich quick.’ But for his freedom, the freedom of his wife and children, and the future they eventually built in rural California. It’s a fascinating tale filled with iconic pioneer moments. Yet, most Californians have never heard of Alvin Coffey–or, a lot of other Black homesteaders in the state like Alice Ballard and her father John whose homesteads in the Santa Monica Mountains we discussed in our second episode.
So we talked to Susan Anderson, our podcast’s primary History Advisor about why these stories aren’t well known in California history. As the History Curator and Program Manager of the California African American Museum, she’s working to trace the histories of Black homesteaders across the state. And she told us that–
Susan Anderson: Part of what I have observed is that California history was whitewashed.
(Slow tempo, pensive orchestral music)
Caroline Collins: That whitewashing also applies to the history of the state’s 19th century Black homesteaders.
Susan Anderson: The history of their presence in rural California has been suppressed.
Caroline Collins: And that means if official state narratives don’t largely include the stories of Black homesteaders, then the agricultural contributions of these settlers also gets overlooked because–
Susan Anderson: Homesteading is about ranching and farming.
Caroline Collins: So it’s important that we acknowledge their stories. Because archival evidence across the state shows that early Black pioneers worked and lived throughout rural California–often alongside multicultural neighbors. They farmed. They ranched. And many made lasting contributions to what we grow and how we grow crops in the state.
Like Fresno’s Gabriel Moore who helped make California’s Central Valley the most productive agricultural region in the state.
Susan Anderson: Moore was born in 1812 in Alabama. he came as an enslaved person with two men who were sons of the woman who owned him to California in 1853.
Caroline Collins: Moore was among the thousands of African Americans, both enslaved and free, who trekked to California by wagon train during the 19th century.
(Upbeat guitar folk music)
Susan Anderson: And somehow the accounts don’t reveal how, but he became a free man at some point after arriving in California.
Caroline Collins: Freedom in hand, he and his wife Mary began impacting Central Valley agriculture almost immediately. In fact, by 1857–just four years after his arrival to the state–records list Moore as a Fresno County taxpayer who was beginning to establish a lucrative homestead.
Susan Anderson: He got his wealth through farming and he and his wife are credited with planting the first Apple and fig orchards in Fresno County.
Caroline Collins: It was a significant decision. Today, 90% of American figs are grown in California, mainly in Fresno County. And domestically, California is the second largest exporter of apples.
However, the Moores’ business endeavors also traveled beyond their orchards.
Susan Anderson: He’s also considered to have been the first African American cattle rancher in California.
Caroline Collins: Their 350 acre ranch was successful enough to impact others in the Valley. For example, the Moores opened their home to boarders, providing other African American settlers a place to work and live as they got on their feet in California.
And historical records show the Moores didn’t just impact the lives of other Black Californians. They employed white ex-southerners as their herd drivers. And when a group of local White residents wanted to open a dairy, it was The Moores’ that sold them the heads of cattle to give them their start.
However, in a region where economic success often depends upon the manipulation of water, the Moores’ contributions to local irrigation practices might be their most lasting legacy.
Susan Anderson: They were settled in Centerville and their lands were along that portion of the Kings river.
(Guitar folk music)
Caroline Collins: Like the larger San Joaquin River, the Kings River begins hundreds of miles away from the Central Valley in glacial lakes nestled atop the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range. From there, this waterway dramatically plummets through deep canyons and waterfalls becoming a corridor of whitewater rapids before finally making its way to the Central Valley where its North Fork joins the San Joaquin River and its South Fork ends at the Tulare Lake Basin.
The Moores’ homestead was located in a long narrow belt of land in the Valley along the river bottom. And despite the river’s size and strength, in the late 1850s, when they first settled in the area, large-scale irrigation methods weren’t in place.
This was years before the 1887 Wright Act which allowed small groups of farmers to band together to create their own irrigation districts. Together, these groups of famers then took water from major tributaries in the Central Valley like the Merced, San Joaquin, and Kings Rivers. However, before that act, farmers were on their own when figuring out how to irrigate their crops.
So Gabriel Moore was one of the first settlers ever to divert water from the Kings River, according to the National Park Service. He engineered and built the river’s first rock dam, transferring large stones, rocks, gravel, and earth in order to redirect the waterway. This innovation carried water into a small canal that he then used to irrigate acres of corn and potatoes on his family’s homestead.
Due to these efforts the Kings River, in many ways, changed the life of the Moore family. Their rock dam helped sustain their lands, crops, and their livelihood. And so we can imagine that Gabriel Moore probably felt a particular affinity with the river that maintained his homestead and a familiarity with a waterway he regularly crossed by horse with his cattle.
However, just as the river provided for the Moore family–it also took. Because three decades after settling along the river bottom in the Central Valley, it was the Kings River that actually claimed Moore’s life at the age of 67.
On May 28, 1880, The Fresno Republican newspaper reported his tragic loss of life with these words, quote: “Gabriel Moore, an old and well known colored citizen, long resident in the vicinity of Centerville was found drowned in the King’s river. On Wednesday, in the company of his hired man he crossed the river to bring over some cattle.
(Somber orchestral music)
After reaching the eastern shore, they separated. And that was the last seen of him until his body was found. It is conjectured that he attempted to return at the usual crossing, as his horse was found near there, and he must have got entangled in the bridle…”
Caroline Collins: In the end, though the river took Moore’s life, his manipulation of it had a lasting impact. Susan Anderson reminds us of the significance of his rock dam–the first of its kind along the Kings River.
Susan Anderson: Part of the reason this is important is not just because it’s a first and that’s something we didn’t know.
Caroline Collins: But it’s also an important part of California history because of the critical role irrigation played in the area’s development.
Susan Anderson: Fresno County is the biggest agricultural County in the country. And it has more millions of acres under cultivation, under irrigation than any other part of the Central Valley.
Caroline Collins: And statewide, California now has nearly 1500 dams, most of them major construction efforts meant to do anything from provide water and electricity to flood control and recreation.
Susan Anderson: So Gabriel Moore and his land and his family and his endeavors were part of this incipient activity that ended up changing everything and that we’re still living with in California.
PART TWO: CULTIVATING CHANGE
Caroline Collins: At the top of this episode we said we were going to discuss Agriculture and Civil Rights–two issues directly tied to California’s reputation as an epicenter of innovation and progress.
Now at face value, agriculture and civil rights may not seem obviously related. But throughout California history these two issues have intersected, including the many recent and current farmworker movements focused on strengthening workers’ rights in the state and nation.
However, we can also see this relationship between agriculture and civil rights in the history of Black homesteaders across early California.
So when official state histories exclude the role of 19th century African American homesteaders we don’t just miss out on important agricultural narratives like the innovations of pioneers like the Moores and their Kings River irrigation system. We also don’t get a full sense of California’s civic history. And that means several things. Again, Susan Anderson.
Susan Anderson: It means partly that acts that were committed against Black people were left out. So most Californians do not learn that the first state legislature and the constitutional convention passed laws that forbade African-Americans from testifying in court and from exercising the vote and all sorts of things.
Caroline Collins: But that’s not all that gets lost.
Susan Anderson: The roles played by Black people are left out as well.
Caroline Collins: That’s an important omission. Because many early Black settlers made critical contributions to civil rights across the state, fighting for the right to vote and other civic freedoms.
And when you think about the fundamental promise of homesteading: the freedom and independence to work the land in order to build a future–often for a family, it’s unsurprising that many of these settlers’ fights for equality often focused on the education of their children.
Susan Anderson: They desired an education. They were eager for their children to be educated.
Caroline Collins: Since original California law left the question of integration up to individual school districts, many times, desiring an education for their children meant taking matters into their own hands. So in instances where local schools prohibited Black students–
Susan Anderson: They ran their own school. Sometimes they raised money to build a building. Often they used a building that was already a church basement, a home, another kind of building. And they would raise money through subscriptions, dances, fundraisers to pay the teachers and to contribute to the upkeep of the school.
Caroline Collins: Sometimes, these schools were even meant to be mobile. Michele Thompson, great-great granddaughter of 49’er Alvin Coffey, who we talked about in our first episode, recalls family lore about rolling schools.
Michele Thompson: I guess it would be the frontier version of a mobile home, but it was a cabin that was built in such a way that they could roll it from location to location on logs. So if it was out in the field, if it got muddy from the rain, they could move it someplace else and the children had to walk some distance to get there.
Caroline Collins: One such school…would later play a key role in California history.
(Guitar folk music)
Caroline Collins: Before we get to this school though, we’re going to back up a bit, to 1873. That year, in Kansas, Lucy McKinney married Wiley Hinds. Lucy was a young woman, just about eighteen years old at the time. Her new husband, Wiley, was a California farmer. So this meant that after their marriage in Kansas, Lucy was going to leave her home state and trek over 1,000 miles to the state of California. We can only imagine how Lucy’s new husband Wiley might have described her soon-to-be new home and wonder if he also painted it as a land of promise like the land advertisers of the time.
Wiley had originally moved to California fifteen years before he and Lucy married. When he first arrived in the Golden State, he immediately started working in the San Joaquin Valley.
Jonathan Waltmire: So he came out to farm. He didn’t go through the gold rush fields, like many others.
Caroline Collins: Jonathan Waltmire is Tulare County’s lead librarian who oversees the Annie R. Mitchell History Room. Hinds ultimately settled in the area, so the History Room holds a lot of information about him.
Jonathan Waltmire: He came to Visalia and when he got here, he started working for $30 a month working for a local farmer named Mr. Pemberton. And then he also started being employed by other local farmers.
Caroline Collins: Soon, he’d saved enough money to strike out on his own.
Jonathan Waltmire: In 1865 he started engaging in the stock business, so that would be cattle, and he had been involved with raising hogs too. And so after he started making money, he ended up buying his own property.
Caroline Collins: A plot that he added to each year.
Jonathan Waltmire: He bought his first 80 acres and 1868. And then two years later he added 80 more acres. And then he kept accruing more and more property until he had over a thousand acres of land in Tulare County, which is a significant amount of land.
Caroline Collins: So in 1873, when a young Lucy McKinney Hinds left Kansas with her new husband Wiley, she eventually arrived at his sprawling Farmersville ranch just outside Visalia.
There, they would make a home and a family. They became actively involved in their community where Wiley Hinds was a leader.
Jonathan Waltmire: He became a very well known figure in Tulare County. He recognized that education was important and in this area, and I think statewide, there was still a lot of segregation in schools.
Caroline Collins: Wiley Hinds’ son went to a school in Exeter, a town about four miles away from their home. It wasn’t segregated.
Jonathan Waltmire: But the schools in Visalia were.
Caroline Collins: Which makes sense given the fact that, at the time, Visalia was home to many white residents who’d sided with the South in the Civil War.
Jonathan Waltmire: So he started what was called the Colored School.
Caroline Collins: And even though their own son wasn’t a pupil at the school, the Hinds family dedicated all sorts of resources to ensure it thrived.
Jonathan Waltmire: At first it was on his property. It was just a barn. And he hired a school teacher from Fresno County who had originally come here from Maine.
Caroline Collins: In fact, this teacher, Daniel Scott, who was African American, had previously been the private tutor of the Hinds family.
(Upbeat guitar folk music)
Jonathan Waltmire: He paid the teacher to teach the kids who were African American. There were students who were Mexican and there were students who were native American. Then it got to the point where it got large enough where he moved it closer to Visalia.
Caroline Collins: A move that would indirectly place this school at the center of a California Supreme Court battle, largely due to the efforts of another rural California settler, Edmond Edward Wysinger.
Caroline Collins: But to understand the court case, first it’s important to understand Wysinger’s story. Like Hinds, Edmond Wysinger was another Black farmer in the state.
Jonathan Waltmire: Edmond Wysinger was born on a South Carolina plantation in 1816. His father was a Cherokee. And his mother was African American.
Caroline Collins: Edmond’s original Cherokee last name was Bush. But he later took the name of his German owner: Wysinger. When Edmond Wysinger was 32 years old, he came West.
Jonathan Waltmire: He came out to California for the gold rush.
Caroline Collins: He and his owner came to California by covered wagon, traveling through the perilous Donner Pass before finally arriving in October 1849 at the height of the rush. They originally settled in Grass Valley, California–a small town in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Wysinger and a group of more than 100 other Black miners, free and enslaved, mined across California’s Mother Lode Gold Belt. In fact, some locations along this belt were given names like Negro Bar due to the presence of these African American miners.
There, in Gold Country, Wysinger toiled for a year as an enslaved miner. Because, as we discussed in our fist episode, though California was technically a free state–slavery was often practiced out in the open as White Southerners rushed into the gold fields with enslaved individuals who, at times, made them small fortunes.
So, under those conditions, Wysinger eventually earned $1,000 in order to buy his freedom. Once free, he began establishing an independent life in California.
(Guitar folk music)
Caroline Collins: Then, he married Penecia Wilson in 1864. She was the daughter of settlers who’d also arrived in Grass Valley by wagon train. The two eventually moved to Tulare County. There, they raised eight children on their family farm.
Wysinger was a self-educated man and he stressed the importance of education to his children.
So on October 1, 1888, Wysinger took his 12-year-old son Arthur to be enrolled in Visalia’s only public high school.
But when they got there, a teacher named Mr. Crookshank denied Arthur admittance. Crookshank told Wysinger to take the boy to the Colored School–the same one Lucy and Wiley Hinds had established.
Jonathan Waltmire: And so he sued Crookshanks and he sued the schools.
Caroline Collins: A Superior Court heard the case and sided with the school district. So Wysinger appealed, eventually taking his case to the California Supreme Court.
Jonathan Waltmire: And then in 1890 the California state Supreme court ruled that segregation is not allowed because of his lawsuit. And so his son Arthur Wysinger enrolled in the highest school immediately after the ruling.
Caroline Collins: It was a legal battle that forever altered the state.
Jonathan Waltmire: For Wysinger, it’s not necessarily that he had a lot of property. For him, his impact is on civil rights. It was very significant that 60 years before Brown vs Board of Education, you have a state Supreme Court saying that schools shall not be segregated.
(Pensive orchestral music)
Caroline Collins: So, in the end, the Hinds and Wysingers didn’t just make an impact locally, they also helped secure essential civil rights at the state level and, in many ways, nationally in terms of ending segregation. Which is important to recognize because it’s the truth, and —
Jonathan Waltmire: If more people knew about them then I think that we’re all the better for it.
Caroline Collins: The Hinds and Wysinger families, even years after the court case, continued to make an impact upon the state. For example, a Hinds daughter, Pearl, studied music. She later married newspaper publisher and mortuary owner Frederick M. Roberts of Los Angeles, who in 1918 became the first African American elected to the California State Legislature.
One of Wysinger’s grandsons served in World War II and one of his granddaughters, Florence Wysinger Allen, became a renowned civil rights activist in San Francisco. And many of the Wysinger family continued farming in rural California. For four generations they grew peaches and grapes in the Black settlement of Fowler near Fresno.
So as we can see, when we recognize the long history of African American homesteaders in rural California and their many contributions to the state we gain a fuller understanding of California history.
Caroline Collins: Alvin Coffey’s great-great granddaughter Michele Thompson frames these stakes this way–
Michele Thompson: We didn’t pop out of the cotton fields. We’ve worked we’ve contributed, we’ve helped build America.
Caroline Collins: And specifically as farmers and ranchers.
Michele Thompson: When you talk about farmers, it’s not all these White farmers with little White kids out in the cornfield. There are all colors that are there. They’re Hispanic, Black, Chinese, et cetera. They’re all out there in that field and they’re all raising families, you know, and they’re all contributing to the economy.
(Cal Ag Roots Theme Music, upbeat jazz hip-hop fusion)
Caroline Collins: And all contributing to the story of California.
So, African American rural residents like the Moore, Hinds, and Wysinger families made lasting impacts on the state that helped make California what it is today. But it’s important to remember that Black settlers didn’t just cultivate change individually. Some made lasting impacts through collective actions, carving out settlements and communities across the state. Tune into our next episode called “Independent Settlements: Building Black Communities in Rural California” to learn how many Black settlers in rural California went about the work of building communities.
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.