Though underreported and underappreciated, Black people have been present in the territory that is now Santa Cruz County for centuries. In 1995, late professional researcher Phil Reader compiled a timeline outlining the history of Black individuals in Santa Cruz County. This is a continuation and expansion of that timeline, including the last twenty years, featuring voices of African, Black and Caribbean (ABC)-identified peoples and their personal histories and contributions to the community at large. This timeline covers a large expanse of history instead of its entirety due to limited documentation.
Free Black man Allen Light became the first Black person to set foot in what would be the settlement of Santa Cruz County. Disembarking from a vessel in Santa Barbara, he made his way up the California coast hunting otters for pelts.
About 2,000 free and enslaved Black people were among those who rushed to California during the Gold Rush, many settling later in Santa Cruz County. London “Louden” Nelson, the namesake for the Louden Nelson Community Center on Center Street, was brought by his master from Tennessee, driven by the allure of gold.
Nelson bought his freedom following his master’s departure back to Tennessee. He settled in Santa Cruz, one of two Black residents, and farmed his land. Before dying of tuberculosis in 1860, he donated his estate to the Santa Cruz School District. This donation inspired the community center to change its name to Louden Nelson Center, and it holds extensive records about his life.
At what is now Lighthouse Point near Steamer Lane, there was a horse racing track where Black jockeys trained.
Black children began attending segregated schools in Santa Cruz for the first time.
Following the passage of the 15th Amendment giving Black men the right to vote, of the 53 Black people living in the area, all Black men living in Santa Cruz County were registered to vote. In Watsonville, Benjamin Johnson, son of Robert Johnson, who fought to break the color line in Watsonville schools in the 1860s, became the first Black person to vote in Santa Cruz County history.
Among other Black people who settled in the Santa Cruz area were the aunt and uncle, the guardian figures, of civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. While Wells was already famous at this time and only visited Santa Cruz, her sister Anna Wells graduated with honors from Santa Cruz High School in 1894, one of three Black students up to that point to do so.
Albert Logan, born a slave in Arkansas, and his wife Mary converted their home in eastside Santa Cruz into a boarding house. Though Albert would die later in 1922, Mary continued to run the house for the next 50 years. It was a popular hub for the Black community.
The Black community in Santa Cruz was large enough to establish its own church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The first church of this denomination came to the county in 1868 when Reverend Adam B. Smith established one in Watsonville.
With baseball being popular in Santa Cruz, the Black community founded the Santa Cruz Colored Giants baseball team. Games were played against local white teams in the area.
At this time, the Census showed the county’s Black population was at 64 people. There was also a Ku Klux Klan presence in Santa Cruz — it was established in 1924 and set up a headquarters in 1928.
A large portion of Black Americans enlisted in the armed forces in World War II. The Santa Cruz County census reported a meager 18 Black people in the county.
The Santa Cruz branch of the NAACP was established.
The Black population grew in the years that followed, many settling close to Delaware Avenue on the westside commonly called “the circles.” The circles are still present today, though the Black population has widely dispersed to other areas.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Connovocation, a dedication to Dr. King’s civil rights work, began a yearly tradition of engaging the UC Santa Cruz students and the Santa Cruz community on topics of equality and justice.
World-famous member of the Black Panther Party Angela Davis began lecturing at UCSC. A powerful icon for Black liberation and an acclaimed theorist on race, gender and class, Davis was the chair of the feminist studies department from 2003-06. Retiring in 2008, Davis is still a professor emerita, drawing enormous crowds each time she visits.
Students held a three day occupation protest at the Kerr Hall administration building to establish the African American Student Life Union, now called the African American Resource and Cultural Center (AARCC) and bring attention to a lack of support and Black visibility. The center was not allocated the space the AARCC is in now, but students used different locations at different times to visit the AARCC.
“Making people aware [is one part] but also allowing for students to come and have that opportunity to just be,” said current director of the AARCC and UCSC alumna Shonté Thomas. “More times than not, Black students aren’t allowed to be students — you’re a Black student. You’re one of few. […] [So it is important] to be able to have a space that is just yours technically, that you can just come and not have someone question your existence or why you do what you do.”
The Rosa Parks African-American Theme House (R.PAATH) was already established on the UCSC campus, but it was not widely advertised to Black students. Co-chairs of the African Student Union Wisdom Cole and Shadin Awad worked with the AARCC to promote outreach to Black students on and coming to campus. The next academic year, the number of Black students living in R.PAATH went from less than five to around 25 out of 80 total spaces.
“Part of retaining Black students at predominantly white institutions is to be able to have Black housing. A lot of people think it’s separation, but it is actually a form of self-preservation,” said Cole, who graduated from Oakes College in 2015.
In spring 2017 the Afrikan/Black Student Alliance (A/BSA) conducted a three-day reclamation of Kerr Hall to present administration with a list of demands to help Black retention and prioritization. One demand was to paint R.PAATH in Pan-African colors to increase visibility and pride of ABC students. In fall 2017 A/BSA changed its name to the Black Student Union (BSU) to promote solidarity with other BSUs across the nation.
“Everywhere Black students go on this campus, we feel very isolated, it’s very easy to feel isolated. We can’t identify with people and people can’t identify with us. […] BSU operates as an umbrella organization. […] That means essentially that for every Black entity that is on campus, it operates through us in one way or another,” said Vice President of BSU and fourth-year Donnaven Bradley.