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The Story of Juneteenth

Santa Cruz has been celebrating African American culture on the ‘Black Fourth’ for 25 years

Legendary Santa Cruz bluesman and native of Arkansas Robert Lowery at a previous Juneteenth celebration at the Louden Nelson Center. PHOTO: BILL LOVEJOY

In June of 1865, Major General Gordon Granger, a New York-born West Point graduate and a Union officer in the Civil War, made his way on horseback across the recently defeated Confederacy to Galveston, Texas, with 1,800 Union soldiers at his command. Granger was placed in charge of the Lone Star State and bringing Texas back into some semblance of Union rule.

That was no easy feat. “The Great Rebellion,” as the Civil War was more commonly known at the time, had ended two months earlier, in Appomattox, Virginia. President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated in the aftermath, and his vice president, Andrew Johnson, a southerner by birth and former slave owner, had assumed the presidency. A sense of anarchy and regional resentments reigned in the south. Bands of rebel militias refused to acknowledge defeat and wrought terror on isolated Union commands and slave communities.

Legend has it that news of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed into law by Lincoln and effective on Jan. 1, 1863, had been slow to reach Texas. That was not the case. Telegraph news services promptly reported events of the day in newspapers throughout the country. White Texans simply refused to adhere to federal law. The editors of The Galveston Daily News called for a “gradual system of emancipation” and described Lincoln’s proclamation as “repugnant.” It took the presence of an occupying army to administer the law.

It was on June 19 of 1865 that Granger posted a declaration that Texas would henceforth be ruled by the U.S. Constitution: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free,” Granger declared. “This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.”

Slaves in Texas were now formally free—certainly a cause for joy and celebration—but, in practice, the institution of their rights was far more complex. A rarely cited caveat to Granger’s dictum illuminates the broader story: “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages,” he cautioned. “They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”

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FABRIC OF THE COMMUNITY Siblings Ana Marden and David Claytor or Sure Thing Productions & Managment have taken over the mantle of Juneteenth celebrations in recent years. PHOTO: DYLAN DUNN

Real change was hard wrought. As one former Texas slave named Katie Darling, who worked for her mistress six more years, recalled: “[She] whip me after the war jist like she did ‘fore.”

However limited their practical freedoms may have been, former slaves in Texas began celebrating “Juneteenth” one year later, in June of 1866, to commemorate the actualized anniversary of their freedom. The celebration caught hold in southeast Texas, then regionally, and eventually nationally. In essence, it became African-Americans’ version of Independence Day.

As abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass had noted in his own celebrated proclamation given in Rochester, New York, in the summer of 1852: “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.”

Juneteenth challenged—and continues to challenge, in the age of Donald Trump and white privilege—the national vanity on race.

 

 Cut to Santa Cruz, spring of 1991. Raymond Evans, then serving as assistant director of the Louden Nelson Center, decided it was time to bring the Juneteenth celebration to his adopted city.

A native of Texas, Evans once told me that he was shocked to find that there were no traces of Juneteenth in the region when he first arrived here. He had grown up in the predominantly all-black neighborhoods of Dallas, and from his earliest memories, Juneteenth was celebrated by the entire community, with “music and food, prayer and ecstatic jubilation.”

It was, he declared, “Black America’s Fourth of July.”

Evans recalled his mother cooking, baking and making Juneteenth picnic baskets—the “entire community got excited about the festivities.” It was a holy day and a jubilee all rolled into one, he said. Evans wanted to recreate that sense of excitement and community pride in Santa Cruz.

Saturday, June 11, marks the 25th anniversary of local Juneteenth celebrations—and a quarter century of Evans’ enduring vision.

“Very few occasions provide for the opportunity to bring our community together,” says Ana Marden, who, along with her brother and fellow arts maven David Claytor of Sure Thing Productions, has taken over the mantle of Juneteenth from Evans here in Santa Cruz and spearheaded recent celebrations. “It’s a legacy that brings multi-generational families out in an open celebration of their heritage,” says Marden. “We call it ‘The Fabric of the Community.’”

“Juneteenth is one of the few events in Santa Cruz that traditionally brings out the county’s black population,” says Claytor. “It gathers African Americans from all the corners of our county and reminds ourselves, and others, of both our presence and our legacy.”

“What it boils down to, for me,” Claytor says, “is that it’s a reminder of where we came from—the history of slavery—and it’s important that we remember, and that our community remembers that history. And at the same time it celebrates the transformation of that struggle into a celebration. I guess you’d say that’s the magic of Juneteenth. We want to acknowledge the contributions of black people to our history.”

Part of what has made the Juneteenth celebrations at Louden Nelson Community Center such an overwhelming success over the years is the eclectic nature of their offerings. This year’s potpourri of events provides no exception.

Beginning at 11:30 a.m. there will be a Juneteenth parade— led by Double Dee’s Brass String Band—that begins at the Museum of Art & History (705 Front St., Santa Cruz) and will wind its way to the Louden Nelson Community Center (301 Center St., Santa Cruz.). As always, admission is free.

HONORING A LOCAL ICON Members of the Louden Nelson Memorial committee from 1953 are shown at Nelson’ grave in Evergreen Cemetery. From left to right are C.H. Brown, chairman of the morial committee; Frank Guliford, president Santa Cruz Improvement Club; Rev. Dennis E. Franklin, NAACP; Rev. W. M. Brent, pastor, Santa Cruz Missionary Baptist Church; Herman Gowder, secretary, Memorial Committee; and Henry Pratt, president, F. & A. club.

The formal festivities start at noon and will continue on through to 5 p.m. Headlining the afternoon jubilee will be the Sista Monica Tribute Band, honoring the late local blues and soul singer who died in 2014, and featuring the magnificent Terrie Odabi and Tammi Brown. Also performing will be Rich Tycoon’s Original Showcase, and the Monterey Peninsula Community Gospel Choir.

Other performing artists and speakers will include Rev. Deborah L. Johnson of Inner Light Ministries, DJ M.L.E. Wax, Kaya Johnson, Lee Earl, Gregory Speed Sr., and WVG. There will also be live interactive painting for all ages by Elijah Pfotenhauer.

For those looking for more physical activities, from noon to 3 p.m. there will be a Basketball Skills Contest coordinated by Harbor High basketball coach Stan White and sponsored by the Santa Cruz Warriors, with a three-point shoot-out at noon, a skills challenge at 1 p.m., and a shot competition at 2 p.m. Special warm-up fitness sessions with Trenise Pot (Truly Toned) and Eugenia Rice (Soca/Zumba) will also start at noon.

There will be booths sponsored by ABC/African-American Community Health Group of the Central Coast, NAACP Santa Cruz and other local nonprofits. MAH will stage a Pop-Up Museum on local African-American history, and Mayor Cynthia Mathews will be on hand to issue a formal proclamation at 2 p.m.

A variety of soul food and other African-American fare will also be available, a veritable cultural gumbo. As Marden notes, “There’s something for everyone.”

 

One of the historic links that Evans sought to make between Juneteenth and Santa Cruz was the longtime community legacy of former slave London “Louden” Nelson, who made Santa Cruz his home in the 1850s in the decade leading up to the Civil War, and after whom the community center downtown was named, following a sometimes contentious struggle, in 1979.

As I explained to Evans at the time, Nelson’s life had been celebrated by generations of local schoolchildren who made annual pilgrimages to his burial site at Evergreen Cemetery in Santa Cruz. There, in the quiet sylvan glade that has been so remarkably transformed in recent years by the Museum of Art & History, his weathered white marble gravestone reads:

Louden Nelson

Native of Tennessee

Born May 5, 1800

Died May 17, 1860

He was a colored man

and willed all his property

to Santa Cruz School

District No. 1. Rest in Peace.

Nelson’s legendary act of generosity to the local school system has been a cultural touchstone in the community for more than a century. But for much of that time, the legend was more than a bit vague, if not distorted, and a significant error was made in the spelling of his name from London to Louden.

Eventually, historical research caught up to the legend. Using slave records and genealogical materials originally compiled by the Mormon Church in Utah, my late friend and historian Phil Reader was able to trace Nelson’s birth to a North Carolina (not Tennessee) cotton plantation owned by a slave master named William Nelson. As was the practice at the time, slaves were forced to assume the family name of their owner. William Nelson, in turn, named the slave children born onto his plantation after English place names: Canterbury, Marlborough, Cambridge—and London.

William Nelson’s youngest son, Matthew, eventually inherited the Nelson slaves from his father, and moved the family plantation to Tennessee. The discovery of gold in California in 1949, however, lured him farther westward. Promising both London and his younger brother, Marlborough, their freedom if they joined him, Matthew set up a claim on the American River, where the trio was to mine successfully for four years.

With his freedom secured, London Nelson eventually found his way to Santa Cruz in 1856, where, with his earnings from the goldfields, he bought a small piece of land (near what is today the rear parking lot of the downtown post office.) As Reader also discovered, Nelson joined another freed slave in Santa Cruz named Dave Boffman. Santa Cruz County was an abolitionist stronghold before the Civil War, and thus provided a tolerant, if not necessarily egalitarian, setting for a freed slave of African descent.

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JUNETEENTH THE FIRST The first known photograph of a Juneteenth event in “East Woods,” Texas, June 19, 1900. Photograph taken by Grace Murray Stephenson. Courtesy Austin History Center

By then in his mid-50s and suffering from poor health, Nelson raised small crops of onions, potatoes and melons, and also worked as a cobbler to support himself. He joined the local Methodist Church and lived a relatively quiet life on his land. From there, according to legend, he was able to view children playing on the grounds of the old Mission Hill school, which was having financial difficulty at the time. The fate of the children and their education concerned him.

Nelson’s health, however, continued to deteriorate. He began to cough up blood, and in April of 1860, a local physician, Dr. Asa Rawson, realized he had only a short time to live. Rawson and Elihu Anthony, friends of Nelson’s from the Methodist Church, recorded his last will and testament, in which Nelson bequeathed “unto Santa Cruz School District, No. One, all of my estate … forever, for the purpose of promoting the interest of education therein …” He signed the document with an “X.”

Nelson died a short time later, on May 17, 1860, less than a year before Lincoln’s election and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. His property, onion crop, a note due to him from Hugo Hihn, and assorted other belongings were valued at roughly $370.

The following day, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, identifying him solely as “Nelson,” paid substantial tribute to the “pioneer Negro” whose soul “beat responsive to noble and benevolent emotions.” The Santa Cruz News, in an obituary entitled “Old Man Nelson,” lauded him as “a man respected by those who knew him well enough to appreciate his good sense, his honesty and fidelity to friends.”

Neither article made reference to his first name.

So how did his first name get changed?

“History never stops revealing itself. It always continues. In some ways it’s a miracle that we’ve maintained this tradition.” — David Claytor

While going through the handwritten probate records on Nelson’s estate, I found at least three instances, the earliest dating back to August of 1860, in which Nelson’s first name appears to be spelled “Louden”—though it’s easy to see how the “n” in “London” could have been misconstrued for a “u,” and the “o” for an “e.” The handwriting was that of Elihu Anthony. The initial printed record of his probate, however, published in the Weekly Sentinel, clearly identified him as “London.”

A prominent local businessman, a former Methodist minister and an ardent Republican abolitionist (who would, ironically, in later years, become a leader in the city’s virulent anti-Chinese movement), Anthony had been chosen by Nelson to serve as the executor of his will. Whether by simply mistaking two letters on other written documents, or because he honestly believed that’s how the name was spelled, Anthony unwittingly initiated a conundrum that was to last for more than a century.

But Anthony was not alone in creating the controversy over Nelson’s name.      

While various probate records appearing in the Santa Cruz Sentinel identified him as London, the closing probate record in that paper referred to him as “Linden.”

Given the overt racism that still existed in post-Civil War America, the irony of Nelson’s generosity was not lost on the local community. A Sentinel editorial in 1868 pointed out that while Nelson had bequeathed his property to local schools, “There are a half dozen colored children in the District who … are anxious to be educated. Yet the white Christians deny them this boon, and refuse them admission.”

A blatantly racist article in the Santa Cruz Surf of 1896 was headlined “Nigger Nelson … The Story of an Every Day Darkey Who Turned His ‘Watermillions’ Into Dollars for the White Pickaninnies.” In that article, Nelson was referred to as London, although only a few weeks earlier he was identified by the same paper as “Ludlow Wilson.”

Throughout the early 1900s, local newspapers and historians invoked “London,” “Louden” and “Loudon,” but as the decades wore on, the mistaken name on his headstone began to take hold. Some ugly racism also permeated local history at that time. As late as 1939, Sentinel historian Robert Burton referred to him as “Nigger Nelson” and described him as “a humble darky” and “being, as all southern negroes are, a connoisseur of watermelon.” Burton—who got Nelson’s first name right—was a teacher at Santa Cruz High School and later served two terms on both the Santa Cruz City Council, and, in the 1960s, on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.

In the aftermath of World War II, the overt racism in newsprint diminished, but the mistake in Nelson’s name became ever more entrenched. For members of Santa Cruz’s post-World War II African-American community—many of whom had served in the all-black 54th Coast Artillery Regiment at Lighthouse Field—and for those of us who were raised in Santa Cruz during the postwar era, the legendary figure who was embraced as a symbol of generosity and goodwill at Evergreen Cemetery was named Louden Nelson—not London. It was the only name in common usage during this era.

It was the name first invoked in the 1950s by Chylow H. Brown, the first president of the local NAACP chapter, when he founded the Louden Nelson Foundation as an adjunct to his civil rights efforts here in Santa Cruz. Two decades later, with the Rev. Lowell Hunter, Brown’s son-in-law, and Wilma Campbell leading the charge, it was Louden that was fought for and Louden that was championed by activists in renaming the city’s community center in 1979.

Two decades later, Reader believed that Nelson’s name “London” should be restored to his given name at the community center and elsewhere in the historical record. Evans wasn’t so sure. As he pointed out, London was merely the man’s slave name, and we will likely never know his African name—the name his parents first gave him on the plantation in Carolina two centuries earlier.

That, of course, is the American legacy of racism which we all must bear. Perhaps it is fittingly ironic that Nelson’s slave name has been bastardized by history, and, maybe, that’s how it should be left. I will leave that for others to decide.

But the controversy over his name should not obfuscate his generous legacy, nor the humanity of the man who had been born into slavery when Thomas Jefferson—another slave owner and the father of slave children on his plantation in Virginia—assumed the presidency in what has long been celebrated as a golden moment in the American democratic tradition.

At best, it is a deeply tarnished tradition. But it makes the life of London Nelson all the more remarkable. He survived the atrocities of slavery in North Carolina and then Tennessee, made his way west to the California Gold Rush, freed himself through his tenacity and his labor, and made a life for himself in Santa Cruz on the western outpost of the American empire. He didn’t live long enough to experience the Emancipation Proclamation, nor the ensuing Civil Rights amendments. But he did live long enough to celebrate his own freedom.

Which brings us back to Juneteenth—the 150th anniversary of the first formal Juneteenth celebration in 1866 and the Silver Anniversary here in Santa Cruz. It’s a tenacious legacy.

“History never stops revealing itself,” organizer Claytor says. “It always continues. In some ways it’s a miracle that we’ve maintained this tradition. But even at this stage of the game it’s growing, still expanding. We’ve been blessed with a lot of support and generosity from the community. And our goal is to make Juneteenth survive and thrive.”


Juneteenth will be held from noon to 5 p.m., Saturday, June 11, at the Louden Nelson Community Center. A parade led by Double Dee’s Brass String Band will begin at the Museum of Art & History at 11:30 a.m. Sponsors for the event include the Santa Cruz Warriors; the Louden Nelson Community Center; the Museum of Art & History; Sure Thing Productions & Management; the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County; the City of Santa Cruz; and Ow Family Properties. Portions of this article appeared in Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II, by Geoffrey Dunn (Capitola Book Company).

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