Starting as early as the 19th century, Black communities–large and small, loosely organized and formal took shape across rural California. Discover the undertold history of California’s Black rural settlements including how these communities represent the tension between the promises and the challenges of living in the Golden State.
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Transcript We Are Not Strangers Here Episode 4
“Independent Settlements: Building Black Communities in Rural California”
(Guitar folk music)
Caroline Collins (Narrator): California’s settlement story often highlights rugged individuals: gold panners, homesteaders, laborers. Hardy souls that helped shape rural spaces through tenacity and grit. But these pioneers didn’t make the state what it is today on their own.
In other words, if rural settlers intended to make the Golden State their home, they had to navigate the challenges–and the opportunities–of not just working, but living on the land.
And that often meant going about the work of building communities.
Because a settler’s success in rural California often depended upon the relationships that these miners, ranchers, and farmers formed with each other.
These rural settlements were especially important for many Black settlers across the state who–while seeking opportunity in California–often faced structural inequality. So some Black settlers established roots in rural California by forming communities with one another.
Michael Eissenger: And so in every period of California history, African Americans are making an impact on the landscape as in these communities.
Caroline Collins: Making an impact by not just choosing to settle in California, but by supporting one another’s dreams of forging independent lives in the state. Like in the community of South Dos Palos…
Joe Marshall: Everything in South Dos Palos, except for a few places like behind us, was owned by Black people.
Caroline Collins: So, in this episode and the next, we’re going to take a closer look not just at individual Black settlers in rural California, but the rural communities and settlements some of them founded across the Golden State.
Places that in some ways, helped make California home for many early Black settlers.
(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 fourth 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.
Caroline Collins: In the next two episodes, when we talk about Black settlements in California we’re talking about places where Black folks live together–and places that they often established themselves.
These places are important to discuss not just because they aren’t often included in official state narratives. But they’re also important because they represent the tension between the promises and the challenges of living in the Golden State–a tension that, in many ways, still exists today.
Starting as early as the 19th century, these Black communities–large and small, loosely organized and formal took shape across California. They developed for a mixture of reasons from proximity to employment, to settler preference, to exclusionary practices that banned or discouraged Black people from settling in other areas.
The most well-known of these settlements is probably Allensworth, a Black town in Tulare County forty miles north of Bakersfield. It was founded in 1908 by a group of settlers led by the town’s namesake: Col. Allen Allensworth. And so in the next episode, we’re going to dive into the history and the legacy of Allensworth.
However, when we spoke to our podcast’s primary History Advisor, historian Susan Anderson, to get a sense of the scope of these communities–she reminded us to keep an important fact in mind.
Susan Anderson: Allensworth wasn’t the only all Black settlement. California was just dotted by dozens of them.
Caroline Collins: Which means that telling the story of Black settlements in rural California means looking beyond Allensworth to the breadth and diversity of African American communities.
Because these independent settlements came in various shapes and sizes and contexts. Some were small enclaves where a cluster of Black pioneers settled in the same general area. Others began as labor camps where Black agricultural workers lived together, eventually forming more permanent and substantial communities. And some, like Allensworth, were founded as quote: All-Black Towns, meaning these townships were at least 90 percent Black and made up of residents all seeking to determine their own political destiny.
Susan Anderson: They had varying degrees of intentionality, but they all were people exercising their choice to live in these Black communities.
Caroline Collins: And nearly all of them…were in rural California from the woodlands near the Oregon border to the mountains of rural San Diego County, and especially in–
Susan Anderson: the central Valley because they were all farming communities.
Caroline Collins: Some were formed decades before the Allensworth founders ever laid eyes on their future settlement…
Caroline Collins: If you walk along Main Street in the San Diego County mountain town of Julian–or ride in one of its horse-drawn carriages–the town may seem like it’s stopped in time. Featuring Old West architecture, its quaint storefronts sell various wares, souvenirs, and piping hot servings of the town’s famous apple pies.
At the corner of Main and B Street, across from the Julian Cider Mill and the town hall, you’ll find a California institution–the two-story Julian Gold Rush Hotel, the longest continuously operating hotel in the entire state.
Originally named The Hotel Robinson, this historic site was built in 1897 by Margaret Tull Robinson and her husband, Albert Robinson. Famous for its hospitality and its meals, the hotel was known for catering to well-heeled guests, including wealthy families and congressmen.
Margaret, who hotel employees described as “prim and energetic” yet “quiet-spoken,” was the daughter of Jesse Tull, the first Black man summoned as a juror in San Diego County. Her mother Susan Tull, was a landed Black woman historians believe may have financed the construction of the hotel. And Margaret’s husband Albert, who’d formerly been enslaved in Missouri, had first worked in the area as cook at a local ranch. Together, the Robinsons opened one of the first establishments in San Diego County to be owned and operated by African Americans.
Caroline Collins: When considering the broader historical context of the Robinsons’ endeavor, their Julian location makes sense. Decades before the Robinsons built their hotel, Black and Native American people were already settled in the area. According to the San Diego County History Center, most local African Americans in this period felt rural areas offered more economic advantages than city life. And so, by the end of the 19th century, when the Hotel Robinson opened, the majority of San Diego County’s Black residents lived in Julian.
In fact, it was a Black settler that triggered Julian’s eventual population boom.
(Guitar folk music)
Caroline Collins: It all started in the winter of 1869. African American cattle rancher A.E. Coleman, who also went by Fred, lived in the mountainous region surrounded by pine-oaks with his wife Maria Jesusa Nejo, a native Kumeyaay woman, and their children.
One day, while watering his horse at a local creek just west of what would become the Julian township, Coleman noticed a glimmer in the water. He crouched down closer and discovered…it was gold. Coleman was a veteran of the Northern California gold rush. So, like other African Americans that had toiled in the goldfields, he was already an experienced miner. Which means, he didn’t just know how to expertly pan for the gold dust he saw glistening in the creek. We can assume he was also familiar with the many ways to capitalize on an impending rush for gold. In fact, according to the Journal of Economic History, during the Northern California Gold Rush it was the merchants that made far more money than most of the miners actually did.
With this knowledge most likely in mind, Coleman built a wagon toll road from nearby Santa Ysabel to what’s now called Coleman Valley. It was a calculation that paid off when–within weeks–a tent city shot up after over 800 prospectors descended upon the area seeking access to the goldfields. Access they got by way of Coleman’s toll road. By 1870, just months later, a full blown gold rush had begun.
The creek where Coleman found the gold was renamed Coleman Creek, and soon he helped establish the Coleman Mining District. He was elected its first recorder, meaning, if a speculator wanted to file a claim to mine land within the district, Coleman would process and record that claim. Miners working in the district never made substantial gains — other more prosperous districts eventually formed.
But the result of the rush was clear. The area soon grew, attracting pioneers of various backgrounds but including more African American settlers like America Newton, an entrepreneur who was born enslaved in Missouri. She started a laundry enterprise and eventually purchased an 80 acre homestead in Julian. Black settlers Ernest Morgan and Elvira Price also arrived and soon they owned and operated Julian’s Bon Ton Restaurant. Issac Atkinson, another Black settler, owned a bakery. The gold rush also drew Jesse and Susan Tull and their soft-spoken daughter Margaret to the area. And as we now know, Margaret would marry Albert Robinson, who also joined this community in the mountains of San Diego county. And together the Robinsons built their famous hotel. Today it’s a national and state historic landmark still surrounded by the cedar and locust trees Albert planted more than a century ago.
Caroline Collins: Rural settlements like Julian across the state reflect California’s changing history. For example, as agricultural methods changed so did migration patterns and the communities that were formed by arriving settlers. One of these shifts occurred as California’s agricultural industry expanded.
Like other migrants to California, many African Americans made their start in the state in its agricultural fields. In fact, starting as early as 1888, large-scale growers began recruiting Southern Black workers to harvest fruits, vegetables, and cotton in the Central and Imperial Valleys.
Michael Eissenger: And there were articles in the New York times or articles in the Atlanta journal. Papers all recruiting for African Americans to come to California.
Caroline Collins: That’s Dr. Michael Eissenger, he studies historically African American rural settlements in central California.
Michael Eissenger: And then when they got here, many of them could go across the street to another farm or if they had skills, carpentry skills, skills tanning leather, skills at butchery, they could find better work at better pay.
Caroline Collins: So, these workers could leverage their skills in the state. But unlike earlier Black rural settlers, most of them hadn’t come to California to individually homestead and work land that they owned and lived upon. That means making the long trek to California and finding work in its fields was the just the beginning of their settlement stories. They still needed a place to live.
This led to the birth of communities that were organized around the recruitment of Black labor. Places where newly arriving workers could be close to jobs. For example, in 1907 a colony of farmworkers was created near the cotton fields of Kern County. It became the community of Wasco.
And some African American communities also sprung up around other rural trades, like the lumber industry. In the 1920s, one such community developed in Siskiyou County in the town of Weed, near the Oregon border.
Caroline Collins: Mark Oliver chronicles this settlement and others in his 2011 documentary From the Quarters to Lincoln Heights. It tells the story of how a large African American population rooted themselves in lumber towns like Weed.
In the film Mildred Jacobs, Al Bearden and Melvin Smith recall how a small labor camp for the Long-Bell Lumber Company eventually grew in the town of Weed. At first, it was the lumber company itself that lured Southern workers to this far northern destination.
Mark Oliver film clip: voice # 1 (Mildred Jacobs, Redding CA): Long Bell brought a lot of people from Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas and different places to Weed. They just moved them out here.
Mark Oliver film clip: voice # 3 (Al Bearden, Weed CA): They needed laborers, they needed good workers. So there were people who contacted them back there and said we need good workers to come to Weed and so they came to Weed to work.
Caroline Collins: But soon, the camp was also growing through word of mouth by letters sent home.
Mark Oliver film clip: voice #2 (Melvin Smith, from Weed): if you got here and you made a certain wage and you wrote home and told a little brother that was getting of age maybe that you were making a certain amount of money, and you sent for him. That person came and they were working in a few days after they got here.
Caroline Collins: And this chain continued.
Mark Oliver film clip: voice # 3 (Al Bearden, Weed CA): And then their families came behind them. My uncle came with some other children and they worked here, got established and then they sent for their families who came out here and then they brought more families.
Caroline Collins: This informal network ultimately turned what began as a labor camp into the community of Lincoln Heights–a settlement that bore its own homes, churches, businesses, and even a cemetery. It’s a predominantly Black community in California’s far north…that still exists today.
Caroline Collins: Agricultural migration to California continued throughout the early twentieth century. Then, during the Great Depression another sort of migrant began to arrive.
In the 1930s, while the nation was already in the throes of severe economic decline, ecological disaster hit. Over the course of the decade severe droughts and dust storms devastated the landscape and the economy of states across the High Plains including Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas. This period would come to be known as the Dust Bowl era. A quarter of a million people would become refugees within the nation. Most of these migrants fled to other states, especially California, where many of them would come to be known as “Okies.” The term was popularized by a California journalist named Ben Reddick. He was visiting migrant camps and noticed old cars one after the other with Oklahoma license plates reading ‘OK.’ Soon, the term applied in general to Wwhite migrant agricultural workers. And it also became a derogatory slur meant to highlight their poor Wwhite status.
Okie migration now holds an iconic place in public memory. For example, John Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath played a pivotal role in memorializing Wwhite “Okies.” The story follows the Joad family as they lose everything in Oklahoma before fleeing to California where life doesn’t get much better. In 1940, it became a blockbuster Hollywood film that’s now considered a cinematic classic.
What most people don’t know though, is that up to 50,000 Black “Okies” also joined the exodus to California between the 1930s and 1960s.
Bertha Mae Beavers was one of them.
(Big band jazz music)
Caroline Collins: In 1946, Bertha Mae migrated from Oklahoma to California at 15 years old. She’d heard promises of the Golden State.
Bertha Mae Beavers: I thought they was, you could just come out here and pick money off trees the way they told it.
Caroline Collins: Bertha Mae settled in Teviston, a Black Okie community in the San Joaquin Valley. But when she got there, it didn’t necessarily live up to its promise.
Bertha Mae Beavers: But shoot, I should have stayed in Oklahoma.
Caroline Collins: California’s agricultural fields weren’t a land of milk and honey.
Bertha Mae Beavers: I did the same thing: chopped cotton, picked cotton. I did it all. And it was rough out here, just like in Oklahoma. You had to work hard for your money.
Caroline Collins: In addition to plenty of hard work, the Valley also had its share of racial inequality. Like many African American settlements, the Black Okie community of Teviston bordered a Wwhite town, Pixley, where residents often restricted and harassed the people of Teviston.
Like the time, not long after Bertha Mae arrived, that Wwhite residents of Pixley strictly forbade Black people from entering the town after a Wwhite woman, a Pixley resident, had been found beaten near the train tracks.
(Somber orchestral music)
A Black man was the rumored perpetrator and the people of Teviston knew the kind of racial violence Wwhite folks could unleash on Black communities due to these kinds of allegations. So, they would come home early from work to shelter inside, where the Teviston men–after working all day in the fields–would take up their guns and keep watch…all night long.
Eventually, word got out about who really assaulted the Wwhite woman: Her husband, who after beating her had told folks in Pixley that a Black man from Teviston had done it.
Caroline Collins: Stories like these remind us of California’s history of systemic racism especially as the state grew. As we mentioned in our second episode, California’s population boom of the 1880s didn’t just bring waves of new Wwhite settlers to the state, it also brought many of their racist ideologies with them. These biased ideas about Black people, including how they should or shouldn’t live, resulted in an expansion and hardening of Jim Crow across the state.
So many Black settlements like Teviston, or the 19th century farming community of Guinda in Yolo County, or Cookseyville, which was established in Merced County after World War II–these communities didn’t just develop out of settler preference. They also grew out of exclusionary and segregational practices like redlining that continued well into the 20th century until the passing of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
Michael Eissenger, who we heard from earlier, says that these types of Black settlements weren’t intended to be self-sufficient, they relied on existing services in nearby towns, and they were subject to the whims of Wwhite restrictions.
Michael Eissenger: So if you want to find an all Black community, the first thing to do is find an exclusive white community prior to 1965. Draw a circle about four miles out from the center of that town and you’ll find an all Black community.
Caroline Collins: Joe Marshall grew up in one of these settlements in the 1950s and 60s.
In 1944, Joe’s father migrated from Mississippi to Merced County to work for the railroad. His father settled in the farming community of South Dos Palos, a Black settlement segregated from the more resourced and mostly Wwhite city of Dos Palos which is about 100 miles southeast of San Jose. That’s where Joe was born and raised, along with his twelve siblings. All of the Marshall children worked in the local fields to help make ends meet.
Joe Marshall: I mean anything from chopping beets with a short handle hoe, uh chopping cotton, picking grapes, cutting grapes what they call it, uh knocking almonds out of a tree with a big rubber mallet, (together with brother) uh lettuce, peaches, apricots, watermelon. I mean we’ve done everything that is out there to be done.
Caroline Collins: As kids, their house didn’t have running water or indoor plumbing–a situation that wasn’t always easy for teens with burgeoning social lives.
Joe Marshall: It was kind of embarrassing to bring your girlfriend over–‘hey, where’s your restroom at?’ Boop. You better go outside (family laughs in background). I mean that was hard.
Caroline Collins: But, inequity between Dos Palos and South Dos Palos in the 50s and 60s wasn’t always as clearly evident as a lack of plumbing. And that complexity was tough to navigate.
Joe Marshall: You know we could go anywhere and eat, it wasn’t a place where you had to go to the back door. It was nothing like being in the South.
Caroline Collins: And Joe’s brother Lee sums up California’s more subtle forms of discrimination this way:
Lee Marshall: We didn’t see this hidden, I mean hidden, prejudice. The people in the South, they let you know right off the top, you not welcome, you not wanted. And, ‘Hey, don’t get out of place. You say mister to me.’ And they demand that you say ‘yes sir’ and all this kind of stuff to ’em. It was just straight out, they didn’t hide it. That was better for me ’cause I know where you stand.
(Slow tempo orchestral music)
Caroline Collins: When considering the legacy of these rural Black settlements and towns in California, we see that their significance travels beyond their demographic imprint. Through their development, we can trace the history of rural California including its changing agriculture, migration, and settlement patterns. And, in some ways, many of these settlements remind us of the longstanding challenges many migrant populations face in California.
However, it’s important to remember that despite the obstacles placed before them, many in these Black communities negotiated–and at times actively challenged–structural inequities in a variety of ways from operating and supporting Black businesses to maintaining social institutions like churches.
Residents of Weed describe the importance of a place like church in their Black community:
Mark Oliver Film Clip (young/middle aged man and woman in background): The churches were full (yes), I mean this church was packed (yes). The church down the street was packed. So um, the upbringing for us was, number one, no matter what you did Saturday night, (together) you had to be at church on Sunday.
Caroline Collins: Besides church, residents of these settlements also supported each other through informal community networks, helping neighbors to build or repair homes and meet daily needs like carrying water to one another on wheeled packing crates.
At times, the residents of these communities also pulled together to achieve structural change, like in Weed when residents organized sit-ins in segregated restaurants in the 1960s.
However, throughout California history some African American settlers desired even more deliberate forms of community. So, these settlers joined a broader national movement that viewed land settlement as a direct means to achieve Black independence.
Tune into our next episode “Back to the Land: Allensworth and the Black Utopian Dream” to learn how, at the turn of the 20th century, a group of settlers in Tulare County inspired the Black imaginary as they tested what was possible in rural California.
(Cal Ag Roots Theme Music, upbeat jazz hip-hop fusion)
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.
And finally, special thanks to Mark Oliver, Alexandra Hall, and KQED for the use of some of their audio in this episode.
–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.