In the ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains rests a part of the foundation of Los Angeles’ African American history. Currently known as Negro-head Mountain, a peak near Seminole Springs, is being renamed to honor its explorer, Black pioneer John Ballard. The middle-aged trendsetter migrated from Kentucky in the mid 1800s, probably as an ex-slave and was one of 12 African Americans in L.A. at the time.
History professor at Moorpark College, Patty Coleman is one of the forerunners in the movement to honor this unrecognized Black history of Los Angeles. In doing research for the National Park Service, Coleman recovered census records of the Ballard family.
“I stumbled upon this African American family that was living in the mountains in 1900 and that really caught my attention because it was so unique to have a Black family out there at that time,” Coleman says.
Before the ’70s, the peak was called “N*gger-head Mountain.” Coleman says local homeowners residing at the base of the mountain have been in the struggle to finally bury the barbarically abominable name and rightfully honor Ballard by identifying his paramount historical contributions.
The name change to “Ballard Mountain” has been approved by the county supervisors and is currently in the process of being permanently changed through the federal government.
“I think for people who have studied Los Angeles history and Southern California, this sort of Black history of the area is not as well known as it should be,” Coleman says. “I think that we as a community really do need to understand the full history and all the participants and all of the people who really built this city up.”
Ballard came from a state where at the time of his departure, 99% of African Americans were slaves. In the mountain where he settled, he worked as a teamster, transporting goods throughout rural Los Angeles. Because L.A. was a rugged terrain with few workers, a high demand for Ballard’s specialty services enabled him to purchase and trade land. Possibly being a newly freed slave, Ballard possessed an exceptional wealth in real estate and gold, owning at least 300 acres of land and purchasing property from a prominent politician.
The pioneer, along with six other African American men, Jeremiah M. Redding, Charles Owen, Louis Green, Oscar Smith, John Hall, and Samuel Jones, purchased property in Downtown Los Angeles in 1872.
Coleman discovered that according to the deed, all of these men were the “Trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.” Though it is widely accepted that Biddy Mason is the founder of the Los Angeles AME Church, Ballard played an important role in its inception.
Reggie Ballard, the great, great grandson of the patriarch discovered that the mountain was part of his family history after he heard the story of the name change on a local newscast.
He says this piece of information has helped him understand the many characteristics of his family’s personality and history.
“As we find out some of the information, you kind of say ‘Oh well maybe that’s where we get that from.’ My father is a lot of what my great, great grandfather sounds like.”
In his family roots research and discovery, Reggie finds pride in that his forefathers were way makers during the Black American struggle.
“You don’t do something because you know it’s going to be historical,” he says as he remembers his father’s contributions as a Tuskegee Airman.
Recognizing the hardships of the time, Reggie points out that his great, great grandfather was just trying to survive and feed his seven children.
“These things that happened are just something that you choose to do and you choose to do it because even though it might be a struggle or it’s really hard,” Reggie says. “Sometimes, later, other people will look at it as, ‘you really did something historical’ and while you’re doing it, you’re just doing what you got to do.”
Keeping the history alive, Coleman brought a group of students to the mountain where they were able to reflect upon the significant impact John Ballard made not only on Los Angeles, but also the African American community.
“When they heard the story of John Ballard and got so close to him and where he lived and what it means to their community, it meant something to them. It made history come alive,” Coleman says.
Chris Stanton, a Moorpark College student writes, “It is amazing to even fathom how he was one of the first Black men to settle in the Los Angeles and Agoura Hills areas.” The first stanza of his poem honoring John Ballard reads, “For nothing I use to work the land. Simply because I was the darker man. Never imagine that even I can. Become the king of Negro Hill.”