More than 150 years ago, a former Kentucky slave migrated to California, made a home in what is now Los Angeles County. He now has a mountain named for him.
A peak in the Santa Monica Mountains that rises 2,031 feet above sea level is named after John Ballard, who with his daughter Alice staked claims to 320 acres of land there before the start of the 20th century.
The U.S. Geological Survey's Council of Geographic Names Authorities approved the name change late last year from Negrohead Mountain to Ballard Mountain. It was the mountain's second name change. Early maps listed the mountain as Niggerhead.
Descendants of Ballard attended the renaming ceremony Saturday, and a plaque with historical information was placed near the peak.
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Patty R. Colman, a history professor at California's Moorpark College, was conducting research in 2006 on settlement patterns in that area for the National Park Service when she discovered that one of the residents was black.
"Every person had a 'W' by their name, and then I came across an 'N,'" Colman said. "Who were these people?
"It hit me in the gut, and I wanted to know who this family was."
She started working backward and discovered that John Ballard and his family were the first black residents of the Santa Monica mountains.
Born into slavery in Kentucky about 1829, Ballard went to Los Angeles County in the 1850s, when only about 4,000 people lived there, including a few dozen African-Americans. He bought and sold land there, owned a delivery service and worked as a blacksmith.
Ballard married his first wife, Amanda, in 1859, Colman said, and the couple had seven children. Apparently, Amanda died in childbirth, as did their eighth child, in 1871. He married his second wife, Francis, in 1879.
During those years, Ballard helped start the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles.
A land boom occurred in Los Angeles in the 1880s, bringing with it an influx of people, increased property values and a heightened sense of segregation.
About that time, Ballard moved his family to the mountain about 50 miles away and made a home there. He claimed 160 acres under the Homestead Act. His daughter Alice claimed an adjoining 160 acres.
"It is a very rugged area with deep canyons," Colman said. "Even today, they joke about people there being from the boonies."
J.H. Russell, the son of a rancher Ballard worked for, recalled in his 1963 book, Heads and Tails ... and Odds and Ends, that Ballard was a powerful man who could pick up 100-pound bags of grain with one hand and drove a wagon that was hitched to at least five mules.
Ballard's house, Russell wrote, was a compilation of mud, rocks, willow poles and discarded signs. It became a sight-seeing attraction.
Even after moving to the mountain to escape discrimination, Colman said, Ballard was harassed. His house was burned to the ground once, but he never left.
Recently, residents on Ballard Mountain pushed for the name change.
Paul and Leah Culberg, whose home sits in front of the peak, and Nick Noxon, whose property in Seminole Springs is part of Ballard's original 1888 homestead, began researching the name and found Colman's research.
Working together, they discovered that the name Niggerhead Mountain was a means of designating it as Ballard's place. Colman found a newspaper article that referred to the location as "Nigger/Ballard Hill."
The neighbors approached Los Angeles County supervisors and pointed out the insult of the mountain's name. The supervisors agreed, voting to request the name change.
The only branch of Ballard's descendents that Colman and others have found includes a grandson, Dr. Claudius Ballard, who became a doctor in the early 1900s, and a great-grandson, Reginald Ballard Sr., who was a Tuskegee Airman and later became a captain in the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Reginald Ballard, who attended the ceremony, said his father didn't talk much about his family, and they lost touch with other descendents.
John Ballard died in 1905 and was buried in an unmarked grave. Despite owning property in Los Angeles and on the mountain, he died a pauper.
Colman said she is conducting research to find out what happened to his property and wealth. She said she'd like to come to Kentucky to research his roots.
"That's the next phase of my research," she said. "I have a couple of possible leads."