African American Citrus Growers in the Inland Empire

By Megan Suster

African-Americans’ participation in the citrus industry has left a lasting legacy in the Inland Empire. Though not as numerous in the citrus industry as compared to other racial groups, African Americans nevertheless built businesses and forged strong community connections through intra-ethnic religious, social, and political organizations.  As was frequently reported in The Colored Citizen, an African American-run newspaper published in Redlands in 1905 and 1906, orange ranchers were the most prominent members of the black community.  None were native to California and many likely came to the state to escape the racial violence of the South. Their efforts to gain economic independence illuminate larger patterns of community development and complicate Anglo-dominated narratives of citrus heritage.

Eliza Tibbets, for instance, is often credited with starting the industry that would later make Riverside one of the richest cities in the country. Yet she did not do it alone.  After travelling from North Carolina to Los Angeles to work on “Lucky” Baldwin’s ranch, John B. Adams flourished as a horticulturalist and “budder,” or someone who grafts budwood onto existing rootstock to create new trees.  Oral histories suggest that he assisted Eliza Tibbets with grafting the parent navel orange trees in the late-1880s. His granddaughters Eunice Lisberg, Helen Armstrong, and Thelma King explain that after being born into slavery as “Hicks Bundy” in the 1860s in the Carolinas, John B. Adams travelled to California as a free man in order to participate as contracted labor on Baldwin’s Monrovia ranch, where he would settle and raise a family.  His green thumb was well-known in the area, as he cultivated many of the plants still on the grounds of the Los Angeles Arboretum. As his story exemplifies, African Americans were an active part of the citrus industry from its birth.

In addition to lending their horticultural skills to existing growers, a handful of African Americans also owned orange ranches throughout the region.  For example, in August 1905, The Colored Citizen boasted, “Rev. A. Simpson is one of Riverside’s oldest and most substantial citizens…From his orange ranch, upon which his large two-story house sits, he realizes quite a sum.”  Ten years earlier in Crafton, east of the nearby city of Redlands, Horace Harroll purchased a $12,000 orange ranch, and earned enough profit from his groves that he paid off his mortgage in just one year.  He would later use his citrus profits to fund The Colored Citizen’s two-year run, which perhaps explains the paper’s interest in the groves and grove owners of the region.  This contemporary image of his Redlands home, built in 1911, conveys a sense of the wealth that a citrus grove could provide its owner at this time.

Horace Harroll home, 2016. Photo by author.

Harroll’s good friend, Israel Beal, was one of the most influential African Americans in the Inland Empire and built his own citrus empire a mere half mile from Harroll’s home.  Born into slavery in Virginia in 1849, Israel Beal was one of the earliest African American settlers to the Redlands area in the 1870s. Two decades earlier, in 1851, a group of twenty-six slaves had arrived with a caravan of 500 Mormons who hoped to settle in Southern California.  Two of these early Black settlers, Toby and Hannah Embers, married after arriving in California and later had a daughter, Martha, in 1855. “California native” Martha Embers would marry Israel Beal in 1870. During this time, Beal continued to work on Myron H. Craft’s orange ranch in Redlands, before purchasing the land on which he and Martha would build their Redlands home in 1877.

Horace and Rachel Harroll, 1905. The Colored Citizen, Courtesy A.K. Smiley Library, Redlands, California.

The home was built in 1886 and the first known image of the structure appeared in The Colored Citizen in July 1905.  One of the first African Americans to own property in the area and called “one of the leading horticulturists in his neighborhood” by The Colored Citizen, Beal was one of very few African American grove owners, with 60 acres of land to his name.  In addition to owning his own citrus groves, Beal was an investor and co-director of the Lugonia Fruit Packing Company, started by Redlands city founders E. G. Judson and Frank E. Brown, which specialized in peaches and apricots.  He also helped to develop the future University of Redlands campus by planting peaches, apricots, and other small fruits, noting “We didn’t think we could grow oranges.”

It is unclear when the Beal home was razed, and the site is now a vacant lot.  However, a 1953 image of the rear of the house shows mature citrus trees surrounding it, which remain remarkably unchanged from their  original form. As an emblem for health and prosperity in the region, owning a successful citrus grove provided Israel Beal economic capital, and also signaled his social and cultural capital in the Redlands community.  Today, his legacy is embodied by a park named in his honor in North Redlands.

Israel Beal home, 1905. The Colored Citizen, Courtesy A.K. Smiley Library, Redlands, California.
Israel Beal home, 1953. Image by Donald S.C. Anderson, Anderson Slide Collection, Courtesy A. K. Smiley Library, Redlands, California.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition to their friendship as neighboring grove owners, Horace Harroll and Israel Beal were both members of a  fraternity, San Bernardino Lodge, No. 3022 G.U.O.F. Redlands. Their wives, Rachel Harroll and Martha Beal, were involved in the Household of Ruth, Orange Blossom, No. 1967.  The group raised money to help the sick, widows, and various charities. Further, Harroll was President of the local Afro-American League with Beal as Vice President. The Harrolls and Beals were also members of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Redlands, where Riverside resident and fellow citrus grove owner Rev. Augustus Simpson served as pastor for three years.

While Horace Harroll and Israel Beal were leaders in their Redlands community, their good friend David Stokes played the same role in Riverside.  Like many others who would follow, Stokes first arrived in Riverside on the endorsement of a relative, his uncle, Robert Stokes, who had migrated to the area by 1880 and later became the first African American policeman in the region.  Like Beal in Redlands, David Stokes worked as a laborer in various capacities before saving enough money to start his business. Similar to Beal helping to develop the land of the future University of Redlands, first-generation Riversider Oscar Stokes helped his father, David Stokes, plant the first Washington navel orange trees in 1917, on the grounds of the now world-famous University of California, Riverside Citrus Experiment Station.  He vividly remembered, “the ground was so hard we had to blast holes in it.” There is additional anecdotal evidence that African Americans would have been employed by the Citrus Experiment Station as laborers in various capacities, such as planting and picking. (This remains an area of research that demands further attention.)

Stokes Family, 1905. Standing: Cecile, Janie (wife), and Oscar. Seated: David with baby Wilhelmina and Walter. Riverside Metropolitan Museum, Courtesy Jayne Thomas.

As census data shows, a concentration of African American families ultimately settled in the Eastside neighborhood of Riverside, which housed the multiracial labor force of the citrus industry in the early twentieth century.  Among abundant examples of entrepreneurship within the black community, David Stokes stands out as instrumental in the construction of Mercantile Hall in Eastside in 1905, which would also house the Stokes & Wiley Grocery Store.  The Colored Citizen enthusiastically covered the progression of Stokes’s business ventures, and Stokes had an ad in nearly every issue that was produced in the paper’s two-year run.  The December 1906 issue even noted “D.S. Stokes is doing quite a prosperous business among the people of the East side.” In addition to their interactions through The Colored Citizen and perhaps in their shared stories of laboring in the region’s groves, David Stokes would have kept in close contact with Israel Beal and Horace Harroll through community social events held in the Mercantile Hall building in Riverside.

Mercantile Hall, 1912. Riverside Metropolitan Museum, Courtesy late Maitland Stokes.

Oral histories, newspaper accounts, census records, and other archival materials show that African Americans operated as economically independent grove owners whose agricultural self-sustenance made them influential members of their communities.  By saying the names and sharing the stories of John B. Adams, Israel Beal, Horrace Harroll, and David Stokes, among others, we have the opportunity to decenter the founding narratives of citrus heritage in the region. These narratives have traditionally privileged Anglo stories of hard work and mastery over nature, and subordinated or omitted entirely the experiences of the multi-racial work force.  The new findings about African American growers represented here are significant, then, for shifting the narrative of citrus heritage and for illustrating the ways that people of color contributed more than their labor. They built community and fostered a sense of civic responsibility that reverberates to the present day.

Sources:

Israel Beal, interview by John Fisk, 1927, transcript, A. K. Smiley Library, Redlands, California.

The Colored Citizen, A. K. Smiley Library, Redlands, California.

Vincent Moses, editor, Our Families Our Stories: From the African American Community Riverside, CA 1870-1960 (Riverside: Riverside Museum Press, 1997).

Byron Skinner, Black origins in the Inland Empire (San Bernardino Calif.: Book Attic Press, 1983).

Susan Strickland, “African Americans in Riverside: Migrating West,” African American Presence in Riverside (Riverside: Riverside African American Historical Society, 2005).