In early Monterey County history, a person of African descent was a slave, even though California was a free state. His name was Lewis Bardin and he was kept a slave in Salinas by his owner 10 years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.
In early Monterey County history, a person of mixed African, Mexican, Indian and Italian descent was a governor, in 1845, in Mexican-ruled Alta California. His name was Pio Pico, and he and his wife, Maria Ignacio Alvarado, and their family lived in Monterey.
This comes from historical accounts in Jan Batiste Adkins’ new book, African Americans of Monterey County, a history of a people in black and white photos: a prospector, an innkeeper, a rodeo star, an artist, soldiers – lots of soldiers.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Adkins spoke at a book launch party in a conference room at Embassy Suites in Seaside. Her book is the latest in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America pictorial history series, which now numbers 9,000 titles. The series has covered Pacific Grove, Fort Ord, Carmel Valley, Salinas and more, and is burrowing into narrower topics, like Monterey’s Hotel Del Monte, early Salinas, the local Japanese and Italian communities.
Adkins, a Bay Area teacher, compiled the photographs and wrote the captions that make up the book. At the launch party, she told the mostly black crowd: “If we don’t document the history of our communities, we won’t understand. It’s OK to learn about Columbus and George Washington, but so many have contributed to our local communities.”
Arcadia published Adkins’ African Americans of San Francisco in 2012. In that research she came across strands of Monterey County history that fascinated her. For example, Alejo Nino, a Spanish Moor, came to early Alta California on the same ship as Fr. Junipero Serra.
“Two people I interviewed [Agnes Tebo and Velma Niblett Evans] are not with us today,” she said at the launch.
“THANK YOU FOR SHOWING US THE PERSEVERANCE AND THE STRENGTH THAT THESE PEOPLE HAD.”
The audience, many of whom were older, reflected on her sentiment: History, from the moment it happens, begins fading. Adkins tried to thank the myriad families who had shared their stories and were in attendance, but got confused by the array of names – the Smiths, Washingtons, Nibletts, Jordans, Walkers, McDonalds, Martins, Greens, Suttons, Bouttes and Tebos.
“I’m not from Monterey,” she said, by way of apology. She’s also not a trained historian, like Carol Lynn McKibben, the Stanford history professor behind the Images of America book on Seaside. But the audience was grateful anyway.
“I’m Ira Lively’s daughter,” one woman stood and said. “I get emotional whenever I talk about my mama.”
“My name is Mary,” another woman testified. “I’m part of the Green family. My brothers are here too.” She thanked Adkins for shining a light on the contributions of African Americans in a county in which their history is often forgotten.
The book comprises more than 200 photographs and researched stories from oral accounts, the Monterey County Historical Society, libraries, churches, newspapers and museums.
U.S. Army Pfc. James Green drove amphibious vehicles and was “diverted” from Japan just before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He met his future wife, Socorro, in the Philippines and they relocated to Monterey to start a family. In the photo, he’s wearing shades, his left hand resting possessively on Socorro’s shoulder, wedding band gleaming; she’s smiling, her hand atop his other hand. They could be any World War II-era newlyweds, all optimism and scrappiness in patent leather shoes and button-down shirts.
Paul Green, one of their sons, was at the book launch.
“We were successful as a family [in New Monterey], where there were not many people of color, because we were respectful and valued education, and we were hard-working ,” he said.
African Americans in Monterey County shows how the local black community contributed despite it all, from the Buffalo soldiers stationed at the Presidio to latter-day civil rights crusaders Willie McCoin and Helen Rucker (both in attendance), and professionals like Judge Marla Anderson and Rev. Fred Anderson (also in attendance), and business owner Darryl Choates.
The event proceeded as a reunion of families and friends, a meeting of political allies, a classy Sunday reception with cake decorated as the book cover. It ended with a toast delivered by Melanie Batiste, one of Adkins’ sisters, “for all the people mentioned in the book.”
It was evocative to see some of the people who helped make that history still present to raise their glasses.