AFRICAN-AMERICANS AND THE EARLY PUEBLO OF LOS ANGELES
African Americans have made significant contributions to the history of Los Angeles in all areas—from the arts and culture to science, education, architecture and politics. Contrary to popular belief, the African American presence in the city did not originate from the waves of new settlers who came to the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their presence and contributions to Los Angeles stem from the founding of the city in 1781, and the encounter between Mexican and United States social histories.
African Roots in Mexico
The African presence in Mexico began with the conquest of Spain by the Moors of North Africa in the eighth century. During the period of Spanish exploration and conquest of the Americas, Africans were among those who accompanied Christopher Columbus in 1492. They were also present with Hernando Cortes in 1521, during the conquest of the Aztec empire in Mexico City. Few people know that Juan Garrido, a black man, was the first to plant wheat in Mexico, or Estevanico, a black Moor, traveled with the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca from Florida across the present United States Southwest, between 1528 and 1536.
Africans had begun to enter the northwestern region of Colonial Mexico by the mid 1600s. Their descendants were racially mixed by the time the colonization of Alta California had begun in the second half of the 18th century. What is more, Indians, mulatos, mestizos, and other persons of mixed caste were actually the majority population in the Mexican northwest. From this region came the original settlers of Alta California who came north with Captain Juan Bautista de Anza, between 1774 and 1776. This region also produced the original settlers of Los Angeles. Thus, contemporary scholars have come to describe this majority population of mixed African heritage as "Afro-Mexicans." Today, it is estimated that there could be more than 500,000 Afro-Mexicans concentrated in the Mexican states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Veracruz.
Afro-Mexicans and the Founding of Los Angeles
The settlers or pobladores of Los Angeles came from the present northwest Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa and were of mixed Indian, African and European descent. This mixed racial composition was not only typical of the majority of settlers of Alta California; it reflected the majority population of Sonora and Sinaloa, as well as the entire northwestern region of Colonial Mexico.
Under the new Governor of California, Felipe de Neve, El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles was founded on September 4, 1781. The original forty-four pobladores were comprised of twenty-two adults and twenty-two children; of this number, twenty six were Afro-Mexicans. Many of their descendants became farmers, rancheros and prominent members of the pueblo community. Francisco Reyes, for example, served as the first alcalde (mayor) from 1792 to 1795 and was the original owner of the present-day San Fernando Valley. María Rita Valdez, a descendant of the poblador Luis Quintero, was granted the Rancho Rodeo de Aguas in 1841. She later sold the property to developers and today it comprises the City of Beverly Hills.
Pío Pico (1801-1894) is perhaps the most celebrated Afro-Mexican in California history. He was the last governor of California under Mexican rule, an owner of huge rancho properties and prominent resident of Los Angeles. His parents and grandparents came with the Anza party from Sinaloa, Mexico in 1776, where two-thirds of the residents were mulatos. His younger brother, Andrés Pico was a wealthy landowner and military commander during the Mexican era. Under United States rule he became a member of the State Constitutional Committee, General of the State Militia and California State Senator. Many other Afro-Mexicans during the Mexican and early American periods continued to make important contributions to the Pueblo of Los Angeles.
The second African American influence in the early pueblo of Los Angeles came from the stream of American settlers, some of whom were former slaves, during the mid-19th century. According to the city’s 1850 census, of a total population of 1, 600, twelve were African American. Peter Biggs, a former slave, settled in Los Angeles in 1852 and became the city’s first barber, opening his popular "New Orleans Shaving Saloon" on Main Street.
During the 1850s, when proslavery sentiments ran high in the city, the Robert Owens family built a successful livery business and supplied horses and cattle to newly arriving settlers. They became the most wealthy and influential African American family in 19th century California. Biddy Mason was another luminary of the early black community. Brought to California as a slave in 1851, she won her freedom for herself and her family in a celebrated 1855 court case. Working as a nurse and midwife, she saved her earnings and became the first African American woman to own land in Los Angeles. Known for her charitable work among the poor, Mason was a respected businesswoman and leader of the African American community. In 1872, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in her home on Spring Street. Like many black Angelenos of the 19th century, Mason was fully integrated in the local culture. She spoke fluent Spanish and was a well known figure in downtown, especially at the old Plaza, where conducted business she dined on occasion at the Pico House.
As the westward movement accelerated in the late 19th century, the African American community in Los Angeles grew considerably from 102 in 1880 to 2,131 by 1900 and to more than 19,000 by 1929. By 1930 Los Angeles claimed the largest African American community on the Pacific Coast. Indeed, all of the years of struggle, bitter discrimination and achievements of the African American community, a history which began with the founding of the pueblo in 1781, were confirmed in 1973 when Thomas "Tom" Bradley, the son of Texas sharecroppers, was elected Mayor of Los Angeles.
Today, the "founders’ plaque" at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument serves as a tribute to the African American origins of Los Angeles and an enduring hope for the future.