December 20, 2008 § 26 Comments
OK. I need to begin by telling you that there is an offensive and insensitive word in this post, one that I regret being here, but that is also the genesis of my search. I apologize for its presence.
Some of you have also been looking for it. We can see search terms that lead you to the LA Creekfreak. And ever since that map exhibit at the Public Library, we’ve been seeing those two words, one of which is really ugly. I bet you have wanted to know how the hell a waterbody ends up with a name like that on a federal map. In any era. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, the image below contains racist language, in a shockingly banal context.
Clearly a loaded topic, and one which links our environmental history to our racial (and racist) history, something which has been lurking in the background in a number of our posts on historical LA and its waterbodies, and which I also feel as an angelena is often not readily acknowledged.
I have been avoiding writing about this slough in part out of the theory that it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. We have a lot of trauma in the city caused by racism, we are still living out the effects of this trauma, and unfortunately there are those creating new traumas. All the time. And I don’t want to re-traumatize our African-American neighbors by reviving this horrible name. But I have also regretted that the story behind the name can’t be turned on its head, and wondered if there was a way to elevate the story to help unwind history a little.
And so this is my attempt, and an incomplete one at that.
There has been quite a bit of speculation as to the origin of this former place name, later renamed the Dominguez Slough, and today the Dominguez Channel (the slough being all but gone). Some have asserted that its desultory name came from the black mud that surrounded the area, but I don’t buy it. The 1914 Reagan papers have repeated references to this Slough, one of which added the name Tom:
“The water was pouring through the bridge that caused our wreck and was running into the Nigger Tom slough…” Mr. A. C. Cook, 1914, in Reagan.
Who was this man Tom, if this name refers to an actual person? Rudy Mattoni and Travis Longcore, in their 1997 publication, The Los Angeles Coastal Prairie, A Vanished Community, provide the following comment in a footnote: “The wetland was reportedly named after the freemen who farmed near it and the name appears on historic maps of the area (Nelson 1919).” To further complicate matters, I went over to the CSU Dominguez Hills archives to see what information they had. In 1977, a student researcher, Bonita Lucille Braddock Miramontes, pulled together archival resources to what she could piece together. She had met with Bill Mason, then of the Natural History Museum (I don’t know if he’s still there), who shared the view that our mystery man was believed to be a hog farmer who lived on the old Rancho Dominguez lands, near the slough, in the 1870s. Bonita then tracked down Robert C. Gillingham, who wrote a history of the Rancho San Pedro. Gillingham elaborated that he had heard this story from an old caretaker and Dominguez-Carson family members, who in turn heard it from old Mexican farmhands. He also noted that our mystery man arrived sometime after the Civil War, but that by the 1880s there were no blacks living in the vicinity of the slough. He also mentioned that “one conjecture is that” the hogfarmer “may have been a descendant of one of the pioneer settlers who founded Los Angeles in 1871, which included a number of negroes.” Bonita went further with her research, locating the name of a black man, Joshua William Smart, who owned property near the slough, in the Assessment Book for LA County, 1870-71. So…Joshua or Tom? Or someone else?or all of them? How did they come to live there, and why did they leave? How did the slough affect their lives and livelihoods? How were the neighbors?
Clearly more research is needed. Bonita listed newspapers that could be consulted, including the California Eagle, a black LA newspaper that began publishing in 1879. There are other historical society archives to visit, and perhaps even descendants of early settlers. I haven’t given up this thread just yet. You see, I can’t help but think of how courageous and resilient he or they would have been, and I think his or their presence lends yet more richness to the diversity that was early Los Angeles.
If only the County could have been as aggressive in erasing housing covenants and other forms of discrimination as it was in erasing this glaringly embarrassing and insulting name from the maps. If only they didn’t have to erase the history of Tom/Joshua when they did this.
I will write more about the slough and its story another time. For now, I’d just like to point out to you that it was so large as to extend from Carson (think Victoria Golf Course) to Torrance (Madrona Marsh), Gardena, and parts of Compton, with fingerlets in Hawthorne and West Athens(fragments still remain at the Devil’s Dip/Chester Washington Golf Course). Other bits of remaining marshland include the Gardena Willows near Vermont and Artesia, and what’s called Albertoni Farms in Carson, a bit of slough in the middle of a trailer park.
I think it would be pretty cool if one day, a park or greenway or remnant wetland was properly named after Tom X, or Joshua Smart, or whoever our mystery man is. Smart Creek has a nice ring to it.