S. E. Williams
When the nation set its sights on expansion to the west, African Americans had already moved in that direction.
Some came as free descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought to Mexico by the Spanish in the 15th and 16th centuries. Others arrived during the era of European colonization in the mid-1700’s and helped colonize California beginning in 1774. By 1790, it is estimated African-Americans accounted for 20 percent of the state’s population. Though these ancestors came early, most Blacks made their way to California as the country pushed its boundaries westward toward the Pacific.
Blacks moved west by any means necessary. Some came on horseback, others by wagon and many arrived on foot. There were the enslaved forced west by their masters; others came as freemen; and many others arrived as freedomseekers. There were Buffalo soldiers and cowboys, outlaws, preachers, herders, farmers, miners; railroad workers and entrepreneurs.
Like other Americans who also made their way west, Blacks arrived with a heart full of hope and a head full of dreams—dreams of better days. As altruistic as it seems, in the early days of settlement in California, race was less significant than survival—however, that would soon change.
California ratified its constitution in 1849 and concurrently voted to disenfranchise all but White male U.S. citizens. Over time, other laws further restricted Black rights including a law that allowed anyone who claimed a Black person as an ex-slave to not only detain, but also re-enslave that person. In addition, thousands of Blacks lost their land in the courts because the nation refused to recognize land titles that were granted during the eras when California was under Spanish and Mexican control.
In 1851 a group of 437 Mormons and 26 slaves, who ultimately received their freedom, arrived and settled in San Bernardino. The mere fact that the Mormons arrived with their slaves made the diversity of the new community a given.
In addition to the initial 26 slaves, settlers bought more slaves as the San Bernardino settlement continued to grow. California was a free state but not all slaves were freed when they arrived in the state. In fact, slavery was openly tolerated; despite this however, many slaves were willingly freed by their masters.
Although the slaves could neither read nor write, they were not fully ignorant of the law and at least one among them, Biddy Mason, would not acquiesce to bondage when her master refused to set her free. Eventually, she sued for her freedom and the freedom of members of her extended family in the California courts. A judge ruled in their favor and fourteen slaves, including Mason were, set free.
Bridget “Biddy” Mason, in addition to another Black woman named Hannah Smith, served the small San Bernardino community as midwives. After securing her freedom, Biddy eventually bought a significant amount of land in Los Angeles. She became a nurse, real estate entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founded the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles and over time established her family as one of the wealthiest Black families in the area.
Among the other Blacks who accompanied the Mormons and helped to settle San Bernardino was a slave named Lizzy Flake who married fellow slave, Charles Rowan—both were granted their freedom. After Lizzy’s masters died, she took care of their children in addition to her own. The Rowans built a home and eventually owned property on D Street. She worked as a laundress and her husband ran a barbershop.
Among the Rowan children was a daughter, Alice Rowan Johnson. Johnson eventually became the first Black teacher of White children in California—she taught school in Riverside.
A young lady named Dorothy Ingram became the first Black teacher in San Bernardino County in 1942 at the Mill Street School and was later appointed the first Black administrator in the state of California.
A slave named Grief Embers and his wife Harriet also came west with the Mormons. Among his contributions was the assistance he provided in helping to build a critical logging road into the San Bernardino Mountains. Grief would eventually become the first African-American to own real estate in the Inland Empire.
Grief’s older brother, Toby, also came to California with the Mormons. He was married to Hannah Smith, the midwife mentioned above. Their daughter, Martha, and her husband Israel Beal, also a former slave, would eventually become the first Blacks to settle in what is today the City of Redlands.
In 1852, the Mormon community held a feast to celebrate their harvest. California’s former Mexican Governor, Pio Pico, who was himself of African and Mexican descent, participated in the celebration. According to one record of the event, ““White, Black, and Red mingled without distinction.”
The County of San Bernardino peeled away from Los Angeles County in 1853 and the City of San Bernardino was incorporated on 1854.
There is an African belief that the ancestors continue to live, as long as we remember to call their names. Among the slaves who braved the long and arduous journey to settle in San Bernardino and lay a foundation for the freedom of their progeny were: Ann, Anna, Biddy, Charly, Ellen, Flulman, George, Green, Grief, Hannah, Hark, Harriet, Harriett, Henderson, Jane, Lawrence, Liz, Mary, Nancy, Nelson, Oscar, Rose, Tennessee, Toby and Violte.
As San Bernardino came of age in America, Riverside was also growing. In 1893, Riverside County was carved out of San Bernardino and San Diego counties.
Not a lot was recorded regarding early African- American communities in Riverside. What is known, is that Robert Stokes was the first Black man to settle in the area. He arrived from Georgia sometime between 1870 and 1873. Other members of his family arrived in the 1880s. Some worked as farm laborers, others as road builders or in the citrus industry. Some even became entrepreneurs in hauling, hardware, carriage sales and grocery stores.
Records indicate more than three dozen Black families settled in Riverside prior to 1915 and by 1920, nearly 500 Black residents had put down roots in the area.
Although the contributions of Black Americans to the settlement of the Inland region is too often only a footnote, Black Americans — like other early pioneers — made significant contributions to the settlement of the Inland region and surely contributed to San Bernardino’s role as the economic center of early California life.
As we pause during Black History Month to reflect on the role Blacks played in the settlement of this region, the celebrated author and poet Dr. Maya Angelou reminds us, “No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.”