Unique Historical Experience
By Etta Jordan Hill “Tillie”
September 14, 1976
“The Early Black Families of Riverside have spread their heritage of enduring faith and determination.”
I, responding to SUBPOENAS that were received by some as early as November 25, 1975, some 700 Black people gathered at Fairmount Park in the City of Riverside, California on August 7, 1976 “to meet old friends and have a good time”.
The uniqueness of this picnic was that those invited or their families had resided in Riverside prior to the year 1940 and many of them were descendants of the first Black settlers, who dated back to the late 1800s. My early recollections of our history was told to me by my parents, grandmother, aunts and uncles and some of the elders of our community. I have been gratified by the accuracy of their accounts as I have researched and read the limited, recorded, history of that time. The move by most of these Blacks from Georgia and others from the southern states during the reconstruction years was due to a political ploy based on economic expediency.
When America won her independence from England she established alliance and treaties with other countries. Some of the early treaties were with Japan and China and Asiatic Immigration began in 1852. Contracts were established that brought Chinese men into the United States to build the railroads but as both China and the United States grew they began to have political difficulties and made claims against the other. The United States began to fear the great clusters of Chinese men on the Pacific Coast and voted on a Chinese Exclusion Act in 1879. This Act which excluded the Chinese from California was passed in 1882 and a plan was devised to exchange two Chinese men from one Negro.
Many Southern Negroes migrated to California under labor contracts or in colonies and Immigration Bureaus, Freedmen’s Relief Associations and other organizations were established to facilitate the move and to help the relocation. The story that was told to our family was – that most of the early Black settlers of Riverside were from Georgia and came to Riverside at the invitation of two Black Entrepreneurs: Filmore Davenport and Henry Gordon. These two men left Georgia as colonizers with a strong FAITH and a firm RESOLVE and DETERMINATION to make a better life for themselves, their families, and friends.
Filmore Davenport a outstanding tall, dark, handsome, compassionate strong man who returned to Georgia in 1902 and came back to Riverside with two young nieces and later sent for the third niece. He took on the responsibility of rearing and caring for these girls, whose mothers, (his sisters) were dead. He remained a bachelor all his life and was the patriarch of his three nieces’ families. Filmore or “Uncle Buddy” as he was called by all was a land owner and rancher. His ranch was in West Riverside and he came to Riverside, with his horse-drawn wagon, laden with fruits and vegetables, daily and supplied the Blacks of the “East Side” with garden fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, chickens, turkeys, etc.
One of Uncle Buddy’s nieces, Susan Page, was teaching at a country school and attending Spelman College but was forced to leave her position to save her life. She had reported to law enforcement officers that many Blacks were being re-enslaved. She was being sought by sharecroppers so she fled. Cousin Susan was the eldest of the three nieces; a maternal resource and inspiration for Nella and Mattie Huff. They were very close and after marriage bought houses next door and across the street form each other and it seems they were compulsively competitive in child bearing for each had babies with a six months or year interval so that the children seemed like triplets.
Five of the remaining six children of the late Susan and Trivel Williams were at the picnic with their spouses, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and in-laws.
Nella Huff, the second niece was reluctant to leave her father and stepmother but was lured to California by cousin Susan who promised that she would buy her a diamond ring. She was give the ring by the late John Jordan and they had ten diamonds. (Six girls and four boys). They were my mother and father. Four of the remaining six of us were there with families, children, nieces, nephews, in-laws, grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Aunt Mattie was the third of the three nieces, my mother’s sister. Their mother died giving birth to Aunt Mattie. Aunt Mattie married papa’s brother the late William Jordan and we lived next door to each other during our growing up years. Four of Aunt Mattie’s and Uncle Will’s remaining six children were there with spouses, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, nieces, nephews and in-laws. Sunny, the eldest son of his family resides in Shreveport, Louisiana and he and his wife Carrie and family drove out during their vacation time. I had not seen Sunny for thirty-seven years so I was overjoyed and delighted at our reunion at Fairmount Park.
Henry Gordon was a very handsome, strong, large, articulate, intelligent man. He had brothers and cousins; Charles Gordon, Rev. J. D. Gordon. They had leadership qualities and great know-how and they contributed much in the Black Pioneer Communities of Riverside, Los Angeles and Pasadena. The Gordon influence has continued its dominance in Riverside as Vera Gordon is recording secretary and Albert Gordon is financial secretary of the RIVERSIDE OLD TIMERS’ COMMITTEE.
Albert Gordon has always lived in Riverside and has served his community well in Civic, Fraternal, Church and Social Organizations. Many of the families of Henry, Charles and Sherman no longer live in Riverside but came long distances to be at the picnic.
Henry Gordon, who was affectionately called “Police Gordon” by the community and “Big Dad” by his grandchildren became the first Black policeman in Riverside. He was responsible for the safe-keeping of the “EAST SIDE”, where most of the Blacks, some Whites, and most non Whites lived. However, the Hendersons, Kersey Carters, Fred Jordans, and DeBeals had maintained their choice property and live across town in Arlington and Corona.
Henry Gordon was very responsive, influential and respected. He was a guiding light for the total community. He was father of George and Walter. George Gordon still lives in Pasadena, California. He moved there as a young man, and was involved in civic, social and school affairs. His wife, son and daughter are deceased and he lives in a rest home but is visited often by Jack, who lives in New York. Anita Gordon Conerly, his youngest daughter, lives in Pasadena and was at the picnic with her husband, children, grandchildren and in-laws.
Walter died this year, also, having been the first Black policeman in Berkeley, California. Walter was a prized player on the Cal football team during his undergraduate years. He graduated from UC in the class of 1913 with the late Dr. Robert Gordon Sproul and the late distinguished Chief Justice Earl Warren. Walter graduated from Boalt Hall School of Law and practiced law in the Bay Area. He was a long time president of the Oakland NAACP, served on the California Adult Authority, was Governor and Judge of the Virgin Islands, the recipient of the Distinguished Service Award of the University of California at Berkeley and of the NAACP and many other honors. His widow, children, grand and great grandchildren live in the Bay Area.
In this short article I will not attempt to name all of the Black Pioneer families of Riverside. These families have an intriguing and fascinating story that should be recorded. During this time when Black Riverside was mentioned, people always asked about the Gordons, Jordans, Wileys, Williams, Stricklands, Stokes, Goodwins, Decaturs, Bryants, Carters, Hopkins, Coles, Lockharts and Littles.
Many early Black Families were related and there was a strong feeling of pride, community and belonging. The respect, seniority and authority allowed all older people to chastise and discipline all of the community’s children. The cultural trait goes back to our African Heritage and I am grateful for the reinforced character training and molding and motivation of our Elders and Teachers, for their wisdom, faith, know-how and inspiration has under girded and enhanced my life and made it possible for me “TO COPE”.
The Church and Fraternal Organizations were active, influential and powerful. Most of the families were Baptist. The Second Baptist Church, our family church, was organized in September 1890.
The meeting place of all of the fraternal organizations (Mercantile Hall) still stands and the weather-beaten building holds many secrets and triggers many memories of the general stores, the plays, fashion shows, weddings (real and Tom Thumb) and of the fabulous dances, potlucks, and other socials that took place on Twelfth Street.
This is indeed why this picnic is not for me just a picnic, but a unique retrospective. priceless experience that needs to be written about and shared with others.
My senses were titillated as we drove into the Park because, through the City has gone through the inevitable metamorphous that time brings, Fairmount remains as I remember it as a child – mystical, spacious, rambling with intriguing beauty and serenity. I was psychologically energized by the warm, loving vibration of family and friends for I had not seen so many of them since I left home years ago to go to college.
When we arrived at the park at noon, many were already there and so a fascinating, thrilling trip back through the years began. Most of us are privileged to return to campuses for reunions and often have family reunions but returning to one’s birth place and being involved for eight or more hours with three or four generation of some 190 pioneer families some, I had not seen for thirty years, many I had never seen was a moving, mystical, memorable, experience.
The impact of brothers and sisters of families of earlier generations seated with children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, great grands, in-laws and friends, made my mind encompass our existence in Africa, the West Indies, South America, Europe, Mexico, and the years of infinity when all of us will have lived out our LIFE’S DRAMA but these valid serious thoughts were mingled with joy, love and humor.
A critical analysis of this experience drives home how well the Early Black Families of Riverside have spread their heritage of enduring faith and determination. How proud we should be of our ancestors and of the significant contribution that we have made to society and of the spontaneous love, feeling and spirit that flows from one to another when we get together.