In researching a possible new book on African-Americans in our community, I came across a California State Office of Historic Preservation report (“An Ethnic Sites Survey for California”) that mentioned that most people seemed to believe that, before 1940, there were virtually no African-Americans in the state. But there were.
Of the 44 original founders of the city of Los Angeles, 26 were of African descent. Africans had been brought to Mexico, many as slaves, in the 17th century, and their descendants were racially mixed by the time of the colonization of California in the 18th century. People of mixed race were actually the majority of the population in several Mexican states. California Governor Pio Pico (1845-46), the last governor of California under Mexican rule, has been described as Afro-Mexican. In the 1900 U.S. Census, those that identified themselves as Mexican were classified as black, along with African-Americans.
I found 7,858 African-Americans living in California in 1900, with 21 of that number (who lacked Hispanic surnames) living in Long Beach. Let me tell you about one of the more prominent members– George Washington Hawkins, one of the leaders in the Long Beach and Los Angeles community. Hawkins was a Los Angeles furniture dealer who also owned a ranch in the Los Cerritos area of Long Beach. He was born in Alabama in 1845 and had been married to wife Carrie (born in Wisconsin in 1854) since 1875.
Not much is known about Hawkins’s early life, though he may have been a slave born to a black mother and a white father, since he listed himself as “mulatto” in the 1910 U.S. Census. He was referred to as “Captain” and may have served in the Civil War, though I can find no records to that effect. He was first listed in Los Angeles city directories in 1891 and continued having a residence in Los Angeles until 1913. He was one of the most successful African-Americans in Los Angeles, according to a Los Angeles Herald article published in March 1902. His Los Angeles home was on the corner of 16th Street and Central Avenue and was located in “a refined aristocratic white community.”
Hawkins had been active in the California Republican Party since his arrival in Los Angeles in 1891 and quickly gravitated to the California Afro-American League and its platform, which stressed education, political involvement and helping each other. In 1901, he was also instrumental in forming the Colored Business Men’s League of Los Angeles, which frequently met at his business at 242 E. Second St. in Los Angeles. At that time, Los Angeles had several African-American physicians, a dentist, a veterinarian, tailor, plumber, nurses, pharmacist, blacksmith, cabinet makers and carpenters, and there were several grocery stores and other businesses run by African-Americans.
The city also had two local African-American newspapers. At the inaugural meeting, Hawkins stated there was a need for such an association so African-American men in business could come together and become acquainted with each other. There was a need to “instill into the race a desire to branch out in various commercial lines and to be better known among their people that they might obtain a good share of the trade that now drifted to other firms.” Hawkins also pointed out how an increase in patronage would enable African-American-owned businesses to employ others of their race.
In 1903 the Colored Business Men’s League took a firm stance against proposed school segregation in Los Angeles. In the Oct. 15, 1903 issue of the Los Angeles Herald, Hawkins said:
We are American citizens and taxpayers and our children are entitled to the same privileges as those of the whites. There should be no race distinction, particularly in a section where the differences that cause so much trouble in the south are lost sight of. It would be fully as unjust to isolate the Spanish, the Germans or any other nationality, as to exclude the Negro from the public schools. If there are unruly spirits among the Negro pupils there is a very simple remedy. Put them out of the school, just as is done with white children. No Negro parent will object to such a measure. I have talked with 20 or 30 men of my race within the past 48 hours, and I have not found one in favor of separate schools.”
Hawkins was elected state vice president of the California Afro-American League in 1904. The organization was one of several African-American political groups formed in the United States after the Civil War. The California League started in San Francisco in 1891 with less than 150 members; by 1896 it had a chapter in all major cities of the state. Initially the members were all Republicans who espoused the belief that none but responsible and honest men should be nominated and elected to public office.
After the first meeting on Aug. 10, 1891, those present decided to form an association that would uphold the principles of the Republican Party and, by doing so, benefit their people in maintaining their political rights. It was also understood that as membership in the League increased, efforts would be made to obtain employment for those looking for work, and in this and other ways “establish a fraternity of interest and good will toward each other.” Women were allowed membership and voting rights in the organization and supported universal women’s suffrage, as did the men in the League.
Theophilus B. Morton founded the California Afro-American League and served as its president for seven years. Born in Virginia in 1849, he escaped from slavery in 1862 and in 1864 took part with the Eighth Illinois Regiment in defense of Washington D.C. Morton settled in California in 1875. He believed the highest duty a man owed himself was the love of a home, and in order to have a home and have it properly protected, he must be involved in the political affairs of the state and nation.
The League had a hard road ahead of them because of dissension among the members. Many felt that the pioneers and native-born California African-Americans were being slighted by those who had come from the south. There was also a prejudice of the black men against those of lighter color, according to the Aug. 6, 1895 issue of the San Francisco Call.
Morton had high ideals for the African-American race. According to the July 5, 1896 edition of the San Francisco Call, he told those in attendance at the 1896 congress held in Los Angeles:
The young people of the race will be encouraged by the congress to cultivate their talents so that they will be fitted for the various callings in the business world, and not be contented to live from hand to mouth. We need to show our ability, and we have considerable, and thus receive the recognition we deserve, and disarm many good men and women who wish us prosperity of any lurking prejudice that remains.
In 1896, the League supported McKinley for president and were very happy to receive a letter from McKinley thanking them for their support. At that conference, they appointed a committee of five to consider the best way to get legislation passed to end discrimination against their race. The most urgent measure related to section 60, article I, of the California Civil code, commonly known as ‘the black law,” and read: “All marriages of white persons with negroes or mulattoes are illegal and void.” (This law would remain until the California Supreme Court voided the ban on interracial marriage in 1948).
They also pushed for a bill which would allow “full and equal accommodation, advantages, facilities and privileges of inns, restaurants, hotels, eating houses, bathhouses, barber shops, music halls, public conveyances on land and water and other places of public accommodation or amusement.” If anyone committed the offense, they would pay a sum of not less than $100 or more than $500. (This too would remain a dream not achieved in their lifetimes).
The League also called mass meetings to denounce the lynching of African-Americans in the South by lawless mobs and demanded proper action by the law in finding those responsible and punishing them. The League raised money to assist in defraying the cost for lawsuits in the states where the outrages occurred.
In a speech Hawkins gave in August 1904 to the Afro-American League in Los Angeles, he said the Negroes of the day were, in reality, slaves, kept down by the white people. He believed the Negro had to do better work and work longer hours than the white man to keep his position. He urged the race to turn to agricultural pursuits; own farms and their home life would be far happier.
Hawkins took his own advice and purchased property in the Los Cerritos area of Long Beach. With the arrival of the Pacific Electric railway in 1902, he could easily commute between his ranch and his used-furniture store in Los Angeles. A March 2, 1902 issue of the Los Angeles Herald article detailed his sentiments:
The colored man who owns an orange ranch is treated by his white neighbor with vastly more consideration than one who owns none. The former, when he goes to a packing house to sell his oranges, finds the color of his skin no barrier. The latter goes to the same packing house to get a job and finds to his sorrow that none but white men are employed. Now, these two black men differ only in the fact that one had oranges to sell and was entertained, while the other, who had nothing to sell had a race problem on his hands…. The number of this class is happily on the increase, this pursuit carries with it an independence and dignity that the poor man finds nowhere else. To employ himself should be the ambition of every laboring man. In this lies the hope for the colored race of Southern California.
I haven’t been able to find anything more on Hawkins. I have had to rely on Los Angeles and San Francisco newspapers for information, though there were a few Long Beach newspapers from the early 1900s that have been preserved. In March 1903 the Long Beach Evening Tribune mentioned the Reverend P. Robertson of the Second Baptist Church of Los Angeles had established a mission in Long Beach at 10th between Elm and Atlantic. Though he was not mentioned by name, I am certain it was thanks in part to Hawkins.
According to census records, Hawkins and his wife Carrie had no children whose descendants might know more about this remarkable man of many achievements. If any readers have additional information, please email me at email@example.com.
Burnett is a former Long Beach librarian who, during her 25 years of researching local history, has uncovered many forgotten stories about Southern California that she has published in nine books. She has degrees from UC Irvine, UCLA and Cal State Long Beach. For more information, visit claudineburnettbooks.com.