As we celebrate the significant contributions of famous African Americans this month, I think it’s important to introduce our collective memory to the often forgotten local heroes and pioneers of African American history. In the 1880 census, 31 African Americans lived in the area of Julian, California . That number, small as it was, constituted 60% of the entire African American population in San Diego County. The town of Julian, located in the back mountainous country of San Diego County and long known for its gold (and more recently for its apples ) is also where early African American pioneers made their mark on San Diego.
One of those pioneers was A.E. “Fred” Coleman . A former slave, Coleman had spent some time in the gold fields of northern California during the ’49 gold rush. In 1869, Coleman was a cattle herder living in the area of Julian. One day, after leading his horse to a small creek, Coleman looked into the stream and discovered the unmistakable glitter of gold…and the Julian Gold Rush was on!
Coleman was soon elected Recorder of the newly formed Coleman Mining District. Between 1870 and 1875, the Julian mines produced about $2 million in gold. The creek where Coleman made his discovery was renamed Coleman Creek . And a nearby street, Coleman Circle , was also named in his honor.
Another pioneer, Albert Robinson, originally came to California as a slave. Robinson won his freedom and moved to Julian around 1880. With his wife Margret, he opened the Robinson Restaurant and Bakery. Margret’s reputation for good cooking and hospitality brought in so many customers that Albert soon added rooms to the restaurant. The new Robinson Hotel became very popular during the Julian boom times and beyond. The Robinson’s owned and operated the hotel for 28 years. The Robinson Hotel, (presently known as the Julian Gold Rush Hotel ) has been in operation for over a hundred years and is the “oldest continuously operated hotel in southern California” according to the National Register of Historic Places .
These are just three of the African American pioneers who helped shape San Diego County. I invite everyone to do a little digging and learn more about little-known African American pioneers in your own town. For more on Black pioneers in San Diego, check out this article from the Journal of San Diego History.