The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1981, Volume 27, Number 2

By Gail Madyun and Larry Malone

With an essay by Robert Fikes, Jr.
Senior Assistant Librarian San Diego State University

Images from the article

San Diego’s Black Pioneers: A Statement of Who We Are

Actually, the black presence in what is now San Diego County was established long before whites from the United States began arriving in numbers. During the Spanish and Mexi can periods blacks, who had accompanied Cortez in 1519 and had been slaves until 1829, as well as mixed-blood Californios were found at all levels of society. They had been assimilated into the population of Mexican-ruled California. In fact, Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, was part black — his grandmother was described as a “mulatta” in a census taken in 1790.1 The first known black from the United States to set foot in San Diego was a sailor named John Brown who in 1804, while the naval vessel O’Cain was anchored in San Diego Harbor, jumped ship and successfully deserted.2 When California entered the Union in 1850 only eight blacks in a total population of 798 resided in the county. In 1870 there were only seventeen, but by 1880 there were fifty-five. The great majority came from the rural South, which is noteworthy in that proportionately fewer blacks migrating to other parts of California came from the former slave states.

Before the population boom of the 1880s most of the new black arrivals were slaves, ex-slaves, or employees of whites whom they had accompanied. One such person was Nathaniel Harrison, born a slave in 1820 in Tennessee, who journeyed to San Diego in 1848 and became the county’s first permanent black resident. Harrison built his cabin on a 160 acre farm 3,000 feet up on the western slope of Palomar Mountain. He became the most widely known black of his day and lived to be one hundred years old. One of the earliest black women to arrive was America Newton who came from Missouri to settle in the Julian area in 1872. Unlike Nathaniel Harrison who raised and sold livestock and worked on nearby ranches, Miss Newton mainly earned her living laundering clothes. The dusty trail near her cabin was named America Grade in her honor. Likewise, Nathaniel Harrison Grade appears today on a street sign in Pauma Valley leading motorists up a road past the location where his cabin once stood.

Blacks in the early period preferred living in the rural areas which offered more economic advantages than life in the city. There were at least five farmers in the 1860s and 1870s: James Hamilton, James Brown, Jesse Tull, Thomas Jackson, and Fred Coleman. At one point the majority of blacks in the county were inhabitants of the Julian area. It was in Julian that blacks made their presence most felt. The Bon Ton Restaurant, owned by Ernest Morgan and Elvira Price, was the only business of its type operated by blacks. Issac Atkinson owned a bakery there before moving to San Diego. Fred Coleman discovered gold in a creek in Julian in 1869 which launched the county’s first gold rush. A boom town sprang up near that spot called Coleman City. Mr. Coleman later constructed and operated toll roads between El Cajon and his boom town. But probably the most important black success story was that of Margaret and Albert Robinson, who in 1887 built, and for twenty-eight years owned and operated the Hotel Robinson. Today, located at 2032 Main Street, this charming structure is known as the Julian Hotel. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the “oldest continuously operated hotel in Southern California.”3

San Diego’s sluggish economy picked up during the last quarter of the nineteenth century when rail connections were finally made to the north and east.4 By 1890 San Diego had a downtown and the city’s black population had risen to 289. There were black business proprietors in the city who catered to all races. Henry H. Brown ran a saloon and kept six “loose” women on the premises. George Millen and Daniel Fry operated blacksmith shops until their luck ran out. Edward Anderson owned the IXL Laundry between 1897 and 1909, a hog farm in Coronado, a garbage collection service, and a mortuary that is still in operation today. But the average black man in San Diego worked as a servant or as an unskilled laborer. There was an assortment of other occupations which blacks felt lucky to have such as teamster, cook, seaman, porter, bootblack, janitor, waiter, and longshoreman. Although these occupations were hardly prestigious ones, they were the best blacks could aspire to at that time and some of the most prominent and respected citizens in the black community were able to maintain a decent standard of living through hard work. Only three black professionals lived or worked in the county in the 1890s. A Dr. Burney, who was probably retired, was said to have owned a prosperous ranch just outside the city limits.5 The first black to be admitted to the San Diego bar in 1891 was Joseph H. Steward, formerly of South Carolina. The third professional, S.A. McFarland, was a federal government clerk who had been quite active in Minnesota Republican politics before moving here because of failing health.

It was not until well after the Civil War that whites gave up their attempts to keep blacks from entering the state. Before 1870 a black could not testify against a white in a court of law, vote in public elections, intermarry with whites, or farm on certain lands. Of course, hotels, restaurants, theaters and other public accommodations were either segregated or completely off limits to them. Their status in San Diego was no better or worse than that of other blacks living outside the South. Though there were no lynchings or organized white opposition to harass them, they were, by and large, treated as outcasts and were referred to in the newspapers as “uncle,” “aunt,” or “nigger.”

But even before the turn of century there were those courageous blacks who protested discrimination. The best example was that of businessman Edward Anderson and his wife, Mary, who were not allowed to take orchestra circle seats they had purchased tickets for at the Fisher Opera House in 1897. They were told to stand in the balcony or leave. The Andersons sued and won a judgement of $150. They lost the case on appeal but it represented an historic first of its kind in Southern California.

Politics and socializing was also a concern of San Diego’s black citizens before the century closed. Between 1885 and 1900 the black population rose dramatically, but was still less than one percent of the total. A real community was present in the city and only a handful remained in the hinterland. The racial climate seemed to have improved, at least on the surface, and blacks came together to form groups in which they could share and express themselves in ways which were not permitted in a predominantly white setting. Since the Civil War, blacks had been staunch Republicans and there were no less than four local political clubs organized by them: the Colored Voters Political Club in 1886, the Silver Cate Colored Republican Club in 1890, the McFarland Club in 1892 and the McKinley Club in 1896. Political heresy would not be tolerated as Issac Atkinson learned after he sold his bakery in Julian, moved to San Diego and started the first black-owned newspaper in 1892, the Colonizer. His Democratic views prompted the Republican San Diego Union to label him a “Judas” and black Democrats as “freaks of nature.”6

Also in that year Reverend G.W. Brown presented visiting President Benjamin Harris with an artistically designed red, blue, and gold printed folio as a souvenir on behalf of the city’s black citizenry. San Diego’s black pioneers not only took their politics seriously but were enthusiastic about their entertainment. In the Gay Nineties the cakewalk was the popular dance craze and black couples entered and won local contests. A brass band organized by blacks in 1893 with thirteen musicians first performed with shiny new instruments at the corner of Seventh and H. A desire for social recognition brought together members of the Hotel Florence Social Club. One evening in 1891 they waltzed in elegant attire into the wee hours of the morning to the music of Professor Forbes and his five piece orchestra. The Violet Club, founded by women in 1899, admitted only the black elite of San Diego.

The Acme Social Club was formed after the turn of the century as were several other social and professional groups. Fidelity Lodge No. 10 included as members Edward Anderson and Walter W. Meadows, the city’s only black jeweler, and later vaulted R. C. Marshall of Coronado to Grand Master of California’s Prince Hall Masons. To satisfy the need for religious communion Second Baptist Church and Bethel A.M.E. Church were founded between 1886 and 1888, and Mt. Zion Baptist Church in 1900.

In the 1880s and 1890s the majority of blacks lived in or near downtown San Diego where they rented, lived with their employers or in an abode on their property. As their numbers grew and their economic status improved some moved into more expensive neighborhoods further away from downtown.

By 1900 twenty-four black families in San Diego and seven in outlying areas owned their own homes which were mostly constructed by them, demonstrating initiative, self-reliance, and varying degrees of technical skill. Homeowners like Amos Hudgins, a barber shop owner who lived in Coronado, and city employee Issac Wooden of Logan Heights — two of the more socially prominent blacks in the first quarter of this century — were fortunate not to have been affected by restrictive covenants in property deeds. This was a legal maneuver used increasingly by whites after 1888 to deny blacks their chosen place of residence. It ultimately helped to concentrate them in southeast San Diego, a clearly observable development by 1920.

The early 1900s produced a number of colorful personalities. For example Reuben Williams (a.k.a. Reuben the Guide), who wore a Mexican sombrero, a serape, and a sheriff’s star on his vest when he gave his guided tours. It was said that he always got top price for his tour of Tijuana because when he approached the Tijuana River he would stop his mules and tell his passengers: “Dollar tickets keep your seats, 75-cent tickets walk and 50-cent tickets push.”7

One of the most active pioneers was Solomon Johnson who came from Evansville, Indiana in the late 1880s. Johnson was a founder of perhaps the first black church in the city, Bethel A.M.E. Church. He also helped found several social organizations and brought in a chapter of the NAACP. Possibly the most brilliant orator, writer, and intellect ever to reside in San Diego’s black community was Reverend George Washington Woodbey, a self-educated ex-slave from Johnson County, Tennessee who had been active in politics in Kansas and Nebraska before coming here in 1902. His involvement in the Socialist Party eventually led to his ouster as pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, but he continued lecturing and writing in Southern California. One of his booklets, What to Do and How to Do It, or Socialism vs Capitalism, was translated into three foreign languages and gained him international renown.8

Recently, the existence of seventeen black-owned establishments in downtown San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter between 1880 and 1930 was confirmed — the most fashionable of these being the Hotel Douglas, built in 1924 at 206 Market Street by businessman George Ramsey — where some of the city’s best entertainment could be found.

There is a considerable amount of research yet to be done on San Diego’s blacks in this century. Sufficient scholarly attention would likely uncover many more interesting personalities and notable achievements of the city’s black community and its contribution to the area’s progress.




1.Robert L. Carlton, “Blacks in San Diego County, 1850-1900” (unpublished Master’s thesis, San Diego State University, 1977), p. 28.

2.William E. Smythe, History of San Diego, 1542-1907 (San Diego: the History Company, 1907), p. 92.

3.Paula Parker, “Heyday of Julian Hotel,” Los Angeles Times, San Diego ed., February 3, 1980, Part II, p. 1.

4.LeRoy E. Harris, “The Other Side of the Freeway: A Study of Settlement Patterns of Negroes and Mexican-Americans in San Diego, California,” (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Carnegie-Mellon University, 1974), pp. 9-15.

5.Delilah Beasley, The Negro Trail-Blazers of California. (Los Angeles: n.p., 1919; reprint ed., San Francisco: R & E Research Associates, 1968), pp. 103, 131; and Robert L. Carlton, “Blacks in San Diego County, 1850-1900” pp. 120-121.

6.San Diego Union, July 4, 1892, p. 4, col. 2.

7.Paula Parker, “Research Traces Role of Black Business Downtown,” Los Angeles Times, San Diego ed., September 11, 1979, Part 11, p. 1., col. 1.

8.For more details of the career of Reverend George Washington Woodbey see Philip S. Foner, “Reverend George Washington Woodbey: Early Twentieth-Century California Black Socialist,” Journal of Negro History, LXI (April 1976), 136-157. Foner was only able to find information on Reverend Woodbey until 1915, but one of his lecture engagements was reported in the San Diego New Idea, February 24, 1923, p. 3, col. 1.

9.Parker, “Research Traces,” Part 11, p. 7, col. 1.



Photos shown here are a sampling of the photographs in the original article and reprint — they are from the San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection.

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