African-Americans Shaping the California Desert by Chris Clarke

: Homesteading in the Mojave

Journalist Delilah L. Beasley documented African-Americans' contribution to California in the 19th and early 20th centuries

Journalist Delilah L. Beasley documented African-Americans’ contribution to California in the 19th and early 20th centuries

In this era when “urban” has become a coded phrase meaning “African-American,” it can be easy to forget that California’s desert backcountry has a rich African-American history of its own. Black California history isn’t limited to the 213 and the 510: the 760 is pretty well-represented in its own right.

For generations the California deserts represented both opportunity and the possibility of being left alone to live your own life. Both of these siren songs were alluring to many African-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The deserts of California, namely the Mohave and at Victorville, are government lands, and quite a few colored people have taken up homesteads on this land and are improving them. Some sections have been found to contain oil. Many of the colored people have bought this land and afterwards sold it for a good margin.

So wrote Delilah L. Beasley, the first African-American woman to land a regular writing gig with a major metropolitan daily newspaper, in her 1919 book The Negro Trail Blazers of California. Beasley, quite an interesting figure herself, traveled the length and breadth of the state doing research for the book. The work almost killed her. A poignant note in the preface reads:

During the past year the author has been in very serious ill health and all during the long months of illness there were a few good, staunch friends who voluntarily sent money whenever they wrote and never allowed her for one moment to entertain a thought that she would not get well nor complete the book.
Beasley did live another 15 years after writing that preface, long enough to land a column at the Oakland Tribune, lobby for California’s passage of an anti-lynching law, and organize for the establishment of the then-controversial International House at UC Berkeley.

The legacy of the desert homesteaders she mentioned was not always as monumental. The East Mojave’s Lanfair Valley, now mostly part of the Mojave National Preserve, offers an example.

In 1910, the first year of homesteading in the Lanfair Valley, six land claims were filed by black people, a respectable proportion of the total number of claims. All in all 17 African-American families homesteaded the valley, most of them in the vicinity of Dunbar – a settlement intended to serve as a center for African-American folks. Dunbar’s Post Office opened in 1912, within a month of the opening of another Post Office a tenth of a mile away, in Lanfair. The two offices operated in a kind of de facto racial segregation until 1914, when, according to local historian Dennis Casebier, the U.S. Post Office noticed the redundancy and closed Dunbar’s P.O.

Ambitious projects nearby included an orphanage for black youth and the planned community of Harts, billed by its founders G.W. Harts and Howard Folke as “bringing freedom and independence to a limited number of colored people.” Neither really got off the ground, though a few young boys did move there from orphanages in the Los Angeles area for a time.

African-American homesteaders proved more resilient. The first half of the decade after 1910 was unusually rainy, and the Lanfair Valley saw a flurry of attempts at wheat farming, some more successful than others. Black families lived with their white neighbors in what must have seemed a liberatingly democratic fashion, the adults helping on each other’s farms and the kids sitting together in school. This early integration had its limits, though. As Casebier writes,

In talking with people from that period (black and white) there is an almost categorical denial of any prejudice or discrimination between whites and blacks… In spite of this kind of testimony – which I consider to be honest but somewhat naive – there is evidence of some discrimination.

[In speaking of her black neighbors one resident] said “I don’t think they ever came to any of our dances.” There’s a reason for this. I have a copy of the bylaws for the social organization in Lanfair Valley called the Yucca Club and under the heading of who is eligible for membership the bylaws stated clearly that a member could be “any white person in the valley.” This is the club that organized the dances.

Also in interviewing black homesteaders (remembering they were children in the teens) they seemed to know little about the community picnics and pioneer celebrations held at Lanfair on the 4th of July and they did not attend them. That tells me that likely their parents did not feel welcome at those gatherings – as they were specifically not welcome at the community dances each month.

Black and white homesteaders had a common enemy in those days: the Rock Springs Cattle Company, which held grazing rights to much of the Lanfair Valley, resented the homesteaders and did its best to chase them out. According to the National Park Service,

The homesteaders experienced constant conflict with the Rock Springs Land & Cattle Company. The company considered Lanfair Valley to be some of the best part of its range, and resented the “intrusion” of settlement. The company denied water to the settlers, forcing them to use the few public springs or dig expensive wells. Cattle trampled carefully nurtured crops, sometimes allegedly after the cowboys cut the nesters’ fences. In return, the farmers would occasionally help themselves to beef. The cattle company brought in hired thugs, and rumors swirled claiming some homesteaders’ cabins burned to ashes under mysterious circumstances.

The Lanfair Valley today | Chris Clarke photo

The Lanfair Valley today | Chris Clarke photo

In the end it was rain as much as racism that undid the African-American community in the Lanfair Valley: by the second half of the decade the climate reverted to its extremely arid type, wheat crops failed, and one by one homesteaders moved away to better opportunities elsewhere. By 1927 the population had dwindled to the point where the Postal Service was compelled to close the Lanfair Post Office. What remains now is cleared land, foundation stones, and the occasional fence line — some of it still owned by the descendants of the homesteaders.

But in the few short boom years residents of the Lanfair Valley may well have enjoyed more relative freedom, and less hatred, than any other African-Americans in the U.S. In Casebier’s words:

The fertile soil yielded crops with which homesteaders (black and white) could sustain themselves. The children made their own games and toys and played among the wonderland of Joshua trees. From where they lived east of Lanfair a half mile or more — they could see the smoke of the train rising above the Joshuas and hear the whistle as the train came through twice a day – once early in the morning from Goffs to Searchlight and later in the day back from Searchlight to Goffs. They had a fine school in Lanfair with efficient teachers and friendly students and parents. There were outings to magical places like Fort Piute and Piute Creek and occasional visits to Goffs and sometimes even into Needles.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about African-American pioneers in the Low Desert of the Coachella Valley.

More in this Series
– African-Americans Shaping the California Desert: Coachella Valley

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every week. He lives in Palm Springs. From http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/commentary/african-americans-shaping-the-california-desert-part-1.html

African-Americans Shaping the California Desert: Coachella Valley

John and Miranda Nobles: detail of a mural on the site of the Nobles Ranch | Chris Clarke photo

John and Miranda Nobles: detail of a mural on the site of the Nobles Ranch | Chris Clarke photo

No one remembers just what brought John Nobles to Indio in the first part of the Great Depression, though as some say he came from Oklahoma, escaping the early years of the Dust Bowl is a pretty good guess.

By 1917, African-Americans were already well-represented among agricultural laborers in the Imperial Valley to the south. As pioneering journalist Delilah L. Beasley wrote in her 1919 book “The Negro Trail Blazers of California”,

Imperial Valley, California, embracing the towns of Brawley, El Centro and Calexico, has a climate hot and dry enough to raise cotton for the markets. The first cantelopes of the season in the United States are grown in this valley. Colored people live in great numbers in this valley and are producers from the soil. They have their own churches and schools and apparently are happy and prosperous.

If Nobles had stopped first in the Imperial Valley, the somewhat more sparsely settled Coachella Valley may well have beckoned as a land of relative opportunity. Or perhaps he heard of his future home by word of mouth. The truth is lost to history.

The nature of Nobles’ relationship with Reynaldo Correon, the East Coachella Valley’s first doctor, is a mystery as well. Were they friends? Business partners? Strangers who engaged in a straightforward business transaction? If anyone remembers, they haven’t said anything to Coachella Valley historians.

What we do know is that in the late 1930s, when deed restrictions prevented the sale of Coachella Valley land to African Americans, Nobles and his wife Miranda were given Dr. Correon’s ranch, a sizable spread just south of the then-compact city of Indio, near the intersection of Avenue 46 and Monroe Street. Nobles began growing peanuts, cotton, and winter lettuce – crops well-suited to the Coachella Valley’s climate – and raising chickens and hogs. He prospered.

By the time Nobles became a landowner, Lawrence Crossley was already well-established as a behind-the-scenes mover and shaker in Palm Springs, 20 miles west of Indio. Born in Mississippi in 1899, Crossley arrived in Palm Springs in the mid-1920s as the chauffeur and handyman of retired Colorado rancher and Hollywood mogul Prescott Stevens.

The ambitious Crossley, who sent for his wife Martha and their two daughters as soon as he arrived in Palm Springs, quickly became Stevens’ majordomo, managing and profiting from his mentor’s local investments. Said investments included the development of the El Mirador Hotel, whose golf course Crossley designed. Despite being handicapped at the outset by discriminatory housing restrictions in Palm Springs, Crossley parlayed his earnings into a significant portfolio, eventually encompassing a restaurant, a laundromat, a tea and cosmetics company, and a housing development mainly marketed to African-Americans. He also became the manager of the Whitewater Mutual Water Company, hiring family members to supervise opening and closing of the floodgates in Whitewater Canyon north of town.

Though both Nobles and Crossley were successful in their chosen fields – those fields being literal in Nobles’ case – their long-term impact on the Coachella Valley comes more from the way each man shaped the Valley’s social structures and demographics.

Over the course of the 1930s and ’40s, as African-American settlers moved into the Indio area, John Nobles’ ranch became a mecca for families seeking a stable place to live. Odious, racist deed restrictions were still in place throughout the Valley; Nobles was the one of very few landowners in Indio willing to sell portions of his land to Black families. By the time Nobles died in the wake of World War Two, his ranch hosted private homes, apartments, stores and churches. His granddaughter, who inherited the ranch on Nobles’ death, soon sold it off and the thriving, largely African-American neighborhood continued to grow.

In Palm Springs, Lawrence Crossley became a close confidant of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, many of whose members found him a kindred spirit. He became a close friend of Chief Francisco Patencio, and was soon the only outsider invited to join meetings to discuss tribal issues. He and his wife Martha regularly took part in tribal rituals and aid programs.

In the mid-20th century the Agua Caliente’s sole source of income were meager fees tourists were charged for admission to local canyons, as well as for day use of the hot springs near the present-day intersection of Indian Canyon and Tahquitz Canyon drives, which springs provided both the tribe and the city with their English names.

The old Tribal bathhouse on Section 14 | Public Domain photo via Agua Caliente Cultural Museum

The old Tribal bathhouse on Section 14 | Public Domain photo via Agua Caliente Cultural Museum

Most of the Agua Caliente lived on a parcel of reservation land in the middle of town: the so-called “Section 14,” one of a number of mile-square sections checkerboarded throughout the West Valley established by an 1876 treaty. Living conditions on Section 14 were harsh. Author Greg Niemann, in his book “Palm Springs Legends, Creation of a Desert Oasis,” describes the housing on Section 14 as “tents and shacks made of available materials: cardboard, pieces of tin, irregular pieces of wood, and branches.” Economic development of the land, though guaranteed by President Grant when he signed that treaty with the Agua Caliente, was stymied by a climate of punitive regulation and official corruption at levels from the municipal to the Federal. Individual band members had no title to the land they lived on, preventing improvements to their living conditions.

During the 1950s, Crossley worked with Judge Hilton McCabe of the district court in Indio to help the Agua Caliente take advantage their treaty rights to the use and development of their own land. Or so McCabe claimed. The solution eventually arrived at – a conservatorship program that supposedly “protected” the Agua Caliente from entering into shifty development contracts with unscrupulous outsiders – was eventually roundly condemned, and an expose of judges and conservators apparently gouging their Native wards won the Riverside Press Enterprise’s George Ringwald a Pulitzer in 1968. Crossley did not escape critical examination in the series, though he had died some years earlier. Named a guardian of a young Cahuilla boy under the conservatorship program, Crossley shared with two other guardians $20,351 of attorney and guardian fees paid out of the boy’s total income of $23,325. Some band members seemed inclined to give Crossley the benefit of the doubt, however. Anthony Andreas, who also had Crossley as a conservator for a time, told one interviewer “Lawrence? We knew him for a long time. I can’t say anything bad about him.”

During World War Two Section 14 was settled by about 1,000 new African-American residents. Conditions in the neighborhood were still bleak. The city was effectively segregated. African-Americans, Latinos and Native people were denied entrance to clubs, lodging in hotels and other basic rights. When the 1959 change in federal law pushed by McCabe finally allowed the Agua Caliente to offer 99-year leases on parts of their land, making commercial development on Section 14 more attractive, Palm Springs’ city fathers began to resent the presence of so many people of modest means – and dark hue – so close to the swank downtown area. The Agua Caliente, despite their decades-long friendship with Crossley, agreed.

The lure of cash was hard to resist after a century of penury – at least to the Agua Caliente’s conservators and guardians, who continued to hold power of attorney until 1968. Crossley worked to develop a new housing tract in which to resettle Section 14 residents, but died in 1961 before it could be completed. The project faltered. Palm Springs didn’t seriously pursue development of low-income housing for another decade, but that didn’t keep city officials, in tandem with the Agua Caliente’s “guardians,” from peremptorily revoking Section 14 tenants’ leases, evicting them with no notice, and burning down their houses in 1962 – a campaign which the State of California later characterized as a “city-engineered holocaust.”

Two decades after demolition, this part of Nobles Ranch is still a vacant eyesore | Chris Clarke photo

Two decades after demolition, this part of Nobles Ranch is still a vacant eyesore | Chris Clarke photo

John Nobles’ legacy in Indio was also tarnished by municipal development plans, but with a somewhat happier outcome. In 1988 the still-thriving Nobles Ranch neighborhood was still largely African-American but with an increasing Latino presence. Nearby, the Indio Fashion Mall had been enjoying modest success since its opening a decade earlier. The city of Indio’s redevelopment agency decided the mall should be expanded, and condemned 80 Nobles Ranch homes through eminent domain, along with adjacent shops on a 17-acre parcel south of the mall. It bulldozed the buildings just in time for expansion plans to fall through. Mall owner David Miller, founder of the clothing chain Miller’s Outpost, suffered investment reversals and halted his plans to build out on the additional acreage.

Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed in 1990 on behalf of relocated residents alleged racial discrimination during the eminent domain process. Greg Evans, an attorney who worked with former Nobles Ranch residents on the suit Oliver v. City of Indio, described the complaint in an interview with the Daily Journal:

The mall wasn’t expanding straight back or straight to the left, it was expanding diagonally in the direction of the oldest African-American community in the Coachella Valley, called Nobles Ranch. And the reason is because they wanted to get rid of all the black people.”

Nobles Ranch plaintiffs won a favorable settlement in 1993, with the city and its Redevelopment Agency agreeing to buy new homes for former homeowners in Nobles Ranch, and providing retroactive relocation assistance to renters.

A pleasant neighborhood on the remainder of Nobles Ranch | Chris Clarke photo

A pleasant neighborhood on the remainder of Nobles Ranch | Chris Clarke photo

Prejudice against African-Americans is still rife in the Coachella Valley, with relatively vicious outbreaks every so often, and the wealthier cities in the West Valley are almost as segregated as they were when such discrimination was still legal. But without pioneers like Nobles and Crossley the divisions might have run much deeper. Each man’s name now lives on mainly due to the Valley’s streets named for them; John Nobles Drive on his former ranch in Indio, and Crossley Road in Palm Springs, superficial tributes to men whose impacts on the desert cities run deep.

More in this Series
– African-Americans Shaping the California Desert: Homesteading in the Mojave

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every week. He lives in Palm Springs. From http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/history/african-americans-shaping-the-california-desert-coachella-valley.html

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About sesshu

The woman slapping tortilla shapes makes like the rain hitting the cement floor. I like the smell of charcoal smoke, rotting vegetables and sheet metal rust. I think about it when it's 100 degrees and I'm driving in the desert.

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