Wednesday, February 1, 2012

African-Americans Shaping the California Desert: Homesteading in the Mojave

by Chris Clarke

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.

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.

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.