Canyon News
Slaves In The Hills Of Los Angeles
By Joann Deutch
Apr 1, 2012 - 5:07:28 PM

LAUREL CANYONWhen I first moved to Los Angeles and bought a house I was horrified to find in my Chain of Title the following language: “”¦Restrictions”¦ based on Race, Color, Religion or National Origins are Deleted.” Why were they in there to begin with? My hometown was on the Underground Railroad route, so this stuff made my antennae twitch.

Early Black Cowboy


It’s always been in the back of my mind, and I often asked people about it. I’m always assured this language was never enforced, but I’m skeptical. I know that Los Angeles’ white flight was caused by mandated school integration.


I put this out of my mind until I came across the fascinating story that slaves hid out in the hills overlooking Los Angeles. Whoa Nellie! Even I know that California entered the Union as a Free State, so how was it that slaves lived in our hills? The story began when Mr. and Mrs. Smith traveled with their slaves from Mississippi, joined by other Mormon missionaries, and came to Los Angeles. Mr. Smith contended that his ultimate destination was Texas, also a slave state, which would entitle him to keep Biddy and her family as slaves, even in the Free State of California.

Apparently Mr. Smith had taken up residence in the Santa Monica Canyon. History is not clear whether Biddy and the other slaves had fled to other parts in the hills. A Writ of Habeas Corpus on behalf of Biddy, her family, and another slave family had been filed. “A group of 10 African American cowboys, made aware of the Smith family’s plan, located Smith in Santa Monica Canyon and served him with a Writ of Habeas Corpus (an ordering requiring that the named people be brought into Court) for “seducing persons of color to go out of the state of California.” The Fugitive Slave Act forbade Biddy from testifying in the matter, so the judge took the extraordinary measure of questioning her in his chambers. His landmark decision issued Papers of Manumission to all the petitioners. This was in January 1856. The Dredd Scott case was not decided until 1857. Biddy stayed in Los Angeles and worked as a midwife.  She became well known as a philanthropist and founder of the FAME church.


The connection between blacks, slavery and Restrictive Covenants here in my neighborhood is closer than you’d think. As early as the 1910, 50 years after Biddy’s successful challenge for freedom, official zoning laws which restricted black housing were standard fare. In the mid 1910s, these official Restrictive Covenants were declared unconstitutional, and discrimination was handed over to developers and landowners, hence the language in my deed.


Adding to the local connection between blacks and Restrictive Covenants, I came across the name of a famous Los Angeles architect, Paul Williams.  He designed over 2,000 homes for the rich and famous, and many of them in the Hollywood Hills, none of which he himself could have lived in because of the existence and enforcement of these Restrictive Covenants.  He was black. He taught himself to draw upside down so that he did not need to sit next to his white clientele to show them his proposals.


We find connections with our history in unexpected places.

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