Shout it from the mountaintop—it’s Ballard Mountain!

November 1, 2009 


Unexpected coalitions can move a mountain. Sometimes they can even change the mountain’s name.

That much was abundantly clear on a recent sunny Sunday morning at First A.M.E. church in Los Angeles, when an array of people from far-flung corners of Los Angeles assembled to pay tribute to a man, a mountain and a shared purpose that, improbably, had brought them all together.

There was a history professor, a geophysicist, a retired entertainment executive, a Los Angeles County supervisor and a retired city firefighter with much of his extended family in tow.

And there was the leadership and congregation of First A.M.E.—there to celebrate the journey that recently culminated in a new name for a prominent Santa Monica Mountains peak: Ballard Mountain.

Until this fall, it was called “Negrohead Mountain”—a ‘60s-era modification of its earlier name, which contained a racist slur.

John Ballard

Now it honors—by name–John Ballard, one of Los Angeles’ early black pioneers. Ballard first established himself in Los Angeles in 1859, and in 1869 became one of the original founders of First A.M.E. He eventually relocated with his family in the 1880s to the mountain area known today as Seminole Hot Springs, filing a homestead claim in 1880 and receiving his homestead patent in 1900.

“Before it was Negrohead Mountain, it was another N-word Mountain,” Pastor John J. Hunter told the congregation, celebrating the fall of “another symbol of racism” and thanking Yaroslavsky for his leadership.

“Name the mountain for the man, not his race, and that’s what we’ve done,” Yaroslavsky said. “It’s the right thing to do and it’s a great thing to honor a man who’s been gone for almost 100 years.”

Kenneth W. Hudnut, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, presented a map bearing the new name to Ballard’s great grandson, Reginald Ballard, Sr. The United States Board on Geographic Names made the change Sept. 9, at the request of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, which adopted Yaroslavsky’s proposal to do so.

Reginald Ballard, 84, retired from the Los Angeles City Fire Department as a captain in 1978. In the mid-1950s, he had been part of a group of firefighters who challenged the department’s segregation practices, eventually prevailing and opening up promotional opportunities and integrating firehouses.

Although Reginald Ballard had been a part of history in that case, he didn’t know much about his own—until recently.

He said his father, Dr. Claudius Ballard, had been a good doctor but not much of a communicator. “I didn’t know anything about my family tree,” Ballard said. “We didn’t sit around the table discussing things.”

But, after reading an extensive article in the Los Angeles Times (here) that detailed the work of Moorpark College history professor Patty Colman on the Ballard family saga—and the efforts of neighbors who started the push to change the mountain’s name—Ballard and his grown children realized they might be looking at a long-lost link in their family history.

They connected with Colman and with neighbors Paul Culberg and Nick Noxon. Eventually, the connection to John Ballard was confirmed through marriage and death records.

Culberg, a retired entertainment executive who lives near Ballard Mountain, helped get the name change underway by telling Yaroslavsky about it at a holiday party last year. Culberg said he and his wife, Leah, were thrilled to have been part of the coalition that made it happen—and delighted to have been invited to First A.M.E.

As for Colman, “the biggest thrill of all for me was when we actually met the descendants. Sitting there chatting with Reginald Ballard, that’s the closest I’ll get to John Ballard.”

In addition to The Times, the story has been chronicled on television and newspapers from the Agoura Hills Acorn to the New Zealand Herald.

Ryan Ballard, Reginald Ballard Sr.’s youngest child and the great-great-grandson of John Ballard, took a special joy in bringing his wife, Nicole, and their two young sons to the service.

“As a father, it’s quite significant,” said Ballard, 37, a special education teacher at Locke High School. “You’re always thinking of what you’re going to leave to your kids. Who’d have thought that this would be left for them as part of their legacy?”

The family hasn’t hiked up to the Ballard Mountain—yet.

“You know the plan is already underway,” Ryan Ballard said.

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