June is a special month for me: birthdays, World Environment Day, World Oceans Day, start of Cropover in Barbados, Juneteenth, Caribbean American Heritage Month in the US, summer solstice, and more.
Juneteenth – June 19th – freedom from enslavement.
I first heard about Juneteenth a few years ago, while I was living in Florida I think, but many Americans still have not (yet they know Christopher Columbus, go figure). For an immigrant who relocated to the US as an adult, that’s understandable, but for Americans it is not. It’s almost as if African American history isn’t American history … hmmm 🤔.
When the US gained its independence from the UK on July 4, 1776, it signified freedom for some, not for all and the enslaved remained in bondage. The Emancipation Proclamation came into effect on January 1, 1863: “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” However, it was not until around two and a half years later on June 19, 1865 that General Order No. 3, informing Texans of emancipation, was issued. Juneteenth (June + nineteenth) was first celebrated in Texas in 1866. Although it was not until December 6, 1865, that the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that finally abolish slavery was ratified, Juneteenth is without a doubt, an historic and important day for African Americans and all of us in the African diaspora.
Juneteenth probably got more press coverage this year than it has at any other time in the past. The US is in the midst of an ongoing civil rights protest for which the tinder has been accumulating for many years. The spark that triggered the current explosion was the murder of George Floyd on May 25 and the protests have not ceased since that week. Thus, conversations about and increased events to celebrate Juneteenth are obvious outcomes of greater focus on and discourse around the fact that Black Lives Matter.
The need for national recognition of Juneteenth was underscored by the crass actions of the sitting US president who decided that he would desecrate the day by hosting an election rally (that is my polite description) on June 19 and in Tulsa Oklahoma, no less. In the midst of a pandemic. Tulsa, Oklahoma, where in the Greenwood District between May 31 and June 1, 1921 mobs of white residents massacred nearly 300 African American residents, left some 10,000 African Americans homeless and destroyed Black Wall Street. The president’s announcement added fuel to the fire of protest and the backlash was swift. The rally date was eventually changed to June 20 and the rally itself was fittingly, a mere whimper heard by a few. Yet this episode was a critical reminder that too many are still blind to the fact that African American history is US history and should be acknowledged and respected accordingly.
As I reflect on the last four weeks and think beyond the now, I ponder whether the current protests are testament to a moment (brevity) or a movement (longevity). Of whether the current rallying cry of Black Lives Matter from all corners of the US and the world is indicative of a moment or a movement. Of whether the current calls to defund the police that have led to city, state, and federal governments seeking ways to re-deploy public funds, are evidence of a moment or a movement. I have openly stated that I am afraid to hope because it took more than 400 years to reach where we are now. Yet in the quietest hours, when all is laid bare, it is my fervent hope that we are on the cusp of a movement with the fortitude to see it through and not at the tail end of a moment.
What’s in a Name? Val Verde – Eureka Villa – Black Palm Springs – Val Verde
On the second Friday in June I did my first hike with someone else since mid-March. It was great to be hiking again and we planned to get outdoors again the following week. Since that hike would be on Juneteenth, I wanted to it to be in a place of significance for African Americans. I googled ‘African American heritage in Santa Clarita’ and the immediate results were Val Verde (original Spanish name, was later called Eureka Villa, then back to Val Verde). I was familiar with the history of Val Verde, so I continued searching using other key word combinations such as ‘Black in Santa Clarita’ and ‘Black heritage in Santa Clarita’. The results were not relevant, so I searched for trails in Val Verde and that’s where Jennetta and I hiked on Juneteenth. Does this mean that there isn’t more African American history related to the Santa Clarita Valley? Perhaps it’s just not easily found with a Google search 😉.
Founded in 1924, Eureka Villa was an oasis for African Americans in a desert of exclusion. Like everything else in the US, recreational opportunities for African Americans were restricted and activities like hiking, swimming, playing sports, etc. that I sometimes take for granted were not readily available to most African Americans. Prior to Eureka Villa, a few other recreation areas for African Americans had opened, but survival was difficult. For example, Bruce’s Beach Resort in the city of Manhattan Beach operated from 1912 until the mid-1920s. Its closure resulted from increasing harassment of the resort’s owners and guests by white property owners and the KKK and policies enacted by local officials to force out African Americans. Manhattan Beach officials used eminent domain ordinances to seize land from the Bruces and other African American property owners to create a public park so that by the mid-1920s the resort had ceased operating (Jefferson, 2020).
The group that created Eureka Villa envisioned an African American community of residences, vacation cottages and cabins, and a variety of recreation activities and entertainment. In this, they were successful and by the 1940s Eureka Villa was referred to in some quarters as the ‘Black Palm Springs’ (Johnson, 2020). A donation of 50-53 acres for a park in 1939 made the area even more attractive for residential and vacation purposes. The original name, Val Verde, also came back into use around this time.
According to Stewart (1994), Val Verde was where “black Los Angeles met itself” and it “had a full social calendar: baseball, hiking, horseback riding, hay rides, billiard tourneys, card games, golf, dances in the clubhouse, fishing in nearby lakes – and a pool and bathhouse.” Eureka Villa/Val Verde was popular for day and overnight trips among African Americans from all strata of society and it remained that way until the 1960s when hostilities against the community started to increase and civil rights achievements expanded access for African Americans in other areas of Los Angeles and beyond (Stewart, 1994).
Today Val Verde remains an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, with no historic markers to explain the African American contribution to its history. A few original buildings remain like the Recreation Center at Val Verde Community Regional Park, and the building that houses the Fast Stop #2 shop are still in use (https://laist.com/2008/05/03/laistory_val_ve.php). Its racial and ethnic composition is also significantly different, with only 4% of the 2,468 residents identifying as Black and 1,507 as Hispanic or Latino (Census.gov).
As much as I think about being Black in the outdoors, I think about being Black while traveling. I travel regularly and most of my travel is solo travel. A lot may have changed since the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1807 and later of African slavery in the Americas, but I’m not always confident of how I will be treated when I visit any destination.
Flashback to Eureka Villa in its heyday. If I wanted to visit but lived in Northern California or in another state, how would I have travelled? Where would I have stayed en route? I consulted my 1940 edition of the Green-Book, that is, The Negro-Motorist Green-Book by Victor H. Green, which was first published in 1936. I wouldn’t have had many options for meals and accommodations along the way or even in Los Angeles County, but the opportunity to enjoy the experiences of a Black resort would’ve made the trip worthwhile.
If I’d made the trip to Eureka Villa in the 1920s I could also have spent some time swimming and relaxing at Bruce’s Beach in the city of Manhattan Beach or taken a wellness break in Lake Elsinore Valley.
Now to the Hiking
Val Verde Community Regional Park, a site within the L.A. Parks and Recreation system was where our trail started. As mentioned previously, there are no markers that explain the history of the area. On the county’s website is the blurb
In 1937, Mr. Harry M. Waterman donated 50 acres to the County for the creation of a park. Now, Val Verde Park is a 58-acre community regional facility in a verdant rural setting, nestled among mature oak trees. During the 1950’s, affluent African-Americans found respite from the city by traveling to this area for recreational activities. The park quickly became a community gathering place and was home to the annual Coronation Ball and the Green Valley Festival Parade. Today, the park serves as a cultural and recreational focal point for the Val Verde community.
That is the extent of the interpretation. There are also no markers for the trail. Perhaps information is available in the recreation center, but that was closed, likely because of COVID-19. The absence of markers and trail information is what I’ve come to expect at L.A. County sites, as if their attention is on activities on concrete surfaces, not the natural ones (Santa Clarita city sites are the polar opposite). Fortunately, I’d gotten a basic idea of where the trail started from information posted online by other hikers and it was easy to find. However, there were a few offshoots from the main trail, so a trail map would’ve been useful. Since the website states that the park is 58 acres, it would also be nice to know how much of that is actually trails.
The trail wasn’t difficult, just sufficiently inclined for a good challenge on a gorgeous day. A range of California native plants (Sacred datura/Jimson weed, elegant clarkia, California buckwheat) were still blooming, and the views of Val Verde were beautiful. As usual Jennetta and I found lots to discuss as we hiked, but the protest, the Black Lives Matter movement, racial injustice, white privilege, white ignorance, and police brutality were our main topics. I felt connected to Val Verde and it was fitting and humbling to have these conversations in a place where African Americans chose to build a community for themselves. That was my Juneteenth hike 😊.
June 19 is important historically because of Juneteenth, but it is also more than a regular date on my calendar because two of my friends were born on that date. One from St. Lucia in the Eastern Caribbean; one from the US Midwest now living in California. One with whom I share my love of history, the Caribbean and more; the other with whom I share my love of the outdoors. Different reasons, different seasons, but likely friends for a lifetime.
What else is in a date?
June 20 is my sister-cousin Yvette’s birthday. Ras Vette or Ras is one of my favourite people in the world. We grew up together and she has always had my back and I hers. Since our birthdays are one day apart, when I celebrate my birth month and birthday, I’m celebrating her as well. Ras loves music and has covered many music events and festivals in her career in Journalism. More often than not, I enjoyed Cropever events with her, well more like me wukking up and liming while she worked. Alas, no Cropover this year, so how else to celebrate a loved one during safer-at-home (I don’t care how much the state has re-opened) but with another hike in my Santa Clarita backyard?
For hike number two of the birthday weekend Jennetta and I independently came up with Taylor Trail in Rivendale Park and Open Space. Since great minds think alike, that is the trail we hiked. It did not disappoint. It was a beautiful way to celebrate Ras Vette’s birthday, on the summer solstice, but I’ll come back to that 😁.
Taylor Trail is in an area of Stevenson Ranch that burned a few years ago and though there has been some recovery, many trees show the evidence of the fire.
Some of the plants seen: evening primrose, California buckwheat, elegant clarkia, bush mallow, lots of purple sage, cliff aster, heart-leaved penstemon, sacred datura (Jimson weed), New Mexico thistle (powder-puff thistle), California poppies. I also saw and heard various birds, bees, butterflies and lizards. I didn’t see any snakes, but a hiker who was leaving when we arrived had seen one on the trail and Jennetta saw a small one as well.
Strike a pose
What’s in a Trifecta?
The initial plan wasn’t for a trifecta, but once we’d done two hikes, why not three? After all, it was my birthday (last year I also celebrated with a weekend of hiking and exploring). The summer solstice in the northern hemisphere was on June 20 this year. How weird is that? Perhaps it’s in keeping with all of the other whackery that has happened so far for 2020. For the last 121 years, yes 121 years, the summer solstice has fallen on June 20 only 9 times: 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020. I’m not sure if I should be optimistic about the rest of 2020. To be fair, there were 11 years in which the summer solstice fell on June 22. However, that means that for 101 out of 121 years it has fallen on June 21 – my birthday. You may think I have too much time on my hands, I assure you I do not. Attention to details is important 😆.
Moving right along, I found out this birthday that June 21 is also International Day of Yoga (thanks Paul) and World Music Day. So, whatever solstice … I’ve done more yoga since mid-March than I’ve consistently done at any other time in my life and the importance of world music goes without saying. June is also Great Outdoors Month and African-American Music Appreciation Month.
Back to the trifecta. Ivan joined us for hike number three in San Francisquito Open Space. Let me just say the trail we did in SFOS was flatly different to Val Verde and Taylor Trail. While hiking the Taylor Trail I’d said to Jennetta that after two trails with heart pumping inclines, a flatter trail for the third hike would be nice. I should be careful what I wish for or if only all my other wishes were this perfectly actualized 😏. SFOS trail was much flatter than I’d desired, but it was a warmer day than the previous two, so maybe that was for the best.
Along this easy 3 mile hike we saw sacred datura (Jimson weed), Missouri gourd, and other plants I didn’t recognize; ground squirrels (possibly) moving quickly, Greater Roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) and other birds. The trail was not as picturesque as the one in Lagoon Valley Park that I hiked on my last birthday, but it was pretty, and just nice to be outdoors with friends. As always, lots to talk about, from work to our next out of town hiking trip and everything in between. All in all, another excellent birthday weekend.
Nature … Gotta Love It! Especially in Santa Clarita with its 80 plus miles of trails. I still have lots of exploring to do. Fortunately, I have at least two friends who will explore with me and after hiking, celebrate my birthday with cake, icecream and a few sips of a 1999 Oremus Tokaji Aszu 😋.
So what’s in a name, a date, a moment, a movement, a trifecta?
Recognition, celebration, appreciation, commemoration, camaraderie, history, heritage, longevity, memory, love, joy, friendship, family, community, resistance, resilience, survival, protest, freedom, life …
For more information see:
- What is Juneteenth? (H.L. Gates Jr., 2013)
- Why celebrating Juneteenth is more important now than ever (P.R. Lockhart, 2018)
- Juneteenth: Our Other Independence Day (K.C. Davis, 2011, 2020)
- A Long-Lost Manuscript Contains a Searing Eyewitness Account of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 (A. Keyes, 2016)
- This newspaper has never forgotten the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — and its fight continues (Lee, 2020)
- The Oklahoma Eagle Forgotten Oasis of Freedom: Val Verde, the ‘black Palm Springs,’ provided an escape from racism–if only for a weekend (J.Y. Stewart, 1994)
- Val Verde SCV History
- Val Verde, The ‘Black Palm Springs’ (L. William-Ross, 2008)
- When Val Verde was Eureka Villa: The neglected history of the town once known as ‘the Black Palm Springs’ (J. Swan, 2017)
- Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era, (A.R. Jefferson, 2020).