Name change halts longtime racial slur
A mountain peak in Lobo Canyon, listed on government documents as “Negrohead Mountain,” has been officially changed to Ballard Mountain in honor of John Ballard, who is said to have been the first African American to settle in the Santa Monica Mountains.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors adopted Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s proposal asking the U.S. Geological Survey to change all maps of the area to reflect the new name. Last month, the USGS Council of Geographic Names Authorities approved the request.
Radha Reyes, an African American musician who lives in Triunfo Canyon, was the first person to call attention to the derogatory epithet.
“I had heard (Ballard’s) name existed and went to the archives to look it up,” said Reyes regarding her research trip to the Agoura Library more than 10 years ago.
Reyes said while looking through historical records she found many typewritten documents that identified the hilltop near her home as either “Niggerhead” or “Negrohead” Mountain.
Reyes also learned that when President Lyndon B. Johnson was in office from 1963 to 1969, his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, had issued a mandate to change all documents using the “N” word.
“I have no idea why it wasn’t changed,” Reyes said.
News about the racial slur spread quickly.
Reyes shared the story with her neighbors, Paul and Leah Culberg, whose home sits in front of the peak, and Nick Noxon, whose property in Seminole Springs is part of Ballard’s original 1888 homestead.
Noxon attended a National Park Service talk about the history of the mountains and met speaker Patty Colman, a history professor at Moorpark College and editor of the Journal of Ventura County History .
Colman had been conducting research on the settlement patterns of the Santa Monica Mountains when her focus turned to the history of African American settlers there, specifically John Ballard. She discovered that the 1900 Calabasas census data identified Ballard’s race with the letter “N.”
While Colman knew that a black man named Ballard had settled in the area, the news that his homestead was called “Niggerhead” then “Negrohead” came as a surprise.
“I had no idea that the mountain was even called that,” Colman said. “As a historian I couldn’t make that leap with the Ballard family. I had to find a real connection. Sure enough, when I started digging, I found a newspaper article in 1908 (that) actually referred to it as Nigger/Ballard Hill.”
Meanwhile, Paul Culberg was conducting his own research and shared the Ballard story with Yaroslavsky while at a Christmas party in 2008. Culberg proposed renaming the mountain.
Former newspaper articles characterized Ballard as a deeply religious man who was among the initial investors in the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.
How Ballard managed to purchase property at a time when people of African or Chinese descent and women were forbidden to do so remains a mystery, Culberg said.
“Patty identified that (Ballard) owned land prior to his homestead,” Culberg said.
One old story tells of Ballard’s attempt to save a man’s life from lockjaw. Ballard embarked on a full-day wagon journey to a hospital, but the man died before they arrived.
Ballard’s home in the Santa Monica Mountains was simple. He was a squatter, but by 1900 he had formalized a land deal and received his official homestead patent, Colman said. His property included a 16-by-16-foot house with a kitchen of equal size. The property also had a barn, chicken house, drinking well and fences.
On Oct. 25, the First AME Church in Los Angeles conducted a ceremony commemorating the Ballard Mountain name change. More that 20 Ballard descendants attended the ceremony.
Tracing Ballard’s lineage has been a daunting, but rewarding task for Colman, the Culbergs and Noxon. They found that Claudius Ballard, John Ballard’s grandson, was a Berkeley-trained physician who served in World War I. Claudius Ballard’s grandson, Reginald, was a Tuskegee Airman who attended President Obama’s inauguration, Culberg said. Yaroslavsky added that Reginald Ballard is a retired captain of the Los Angeles City Fire Department and was involved in a lawsuit against the city to desegregate the fire fighters.
“It’s meaningful to find out something about your ancestors,” said Yaroslavsky as Ballard’s descendants began to learn more about their patriarch.
“The notion of the land being named after the color of his skin rather than the man himself is insulting,” Yaroslavsky said. “We’ve eliminated the insult. We’ll find a spot nearby and build a pedestal with a plaque (that includes) the history of John Ballard.”
Colman said, “There are many injustices that have not been righted. In all the Santa Monica Mountains, so many of the early landowners are wealthy or are from Hollywood and are by and large white people. Streets and mountains are named after them. I would imagine this is the first landmark named after an African American.
“There is a lot more diversity in the mountains than we thought.”