At Saturday's Juneteenth celebration in Santa Cruz, it was almost like the last 14 months never happened. The smell of barbecue ribs filled the air. People were sitting and eating together. And for the first time in over a year, they could see each other smile, because few were wearing masks. The event was held at Laurel Park, which is flanked by a community center named in honor of one of the city's Black heroes, London Nelson. But for nearly 150 years, history had gotten his name wrong. And at this year's Juneteenth, Santa Cruz would finally make a revision.
The scene in Laurel Park reflected the community's progress against the pandemic. But speakers at the event discussed the ongoing struggle for racial justice, and the work that's still ahead. Juneteenth commemorates the freeing of America’s last slaves, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863. Ana Elizabeth and her brother, who co-own the company Sure Thing Productions, have organized the Juneteenth event in Santa Cruz for over two decades.
“Juneteenth is alive. Freedom is alive here in Santa Cruz. So let’s keep doing this,” Elizabeth said from the stage to a cheering crowd on Saturday.
Juneteenth evokes a more accurate telling of history, and for months, a group of community members looked closely into Santa Cruz’s past to solve the mystery of London Nelson's name.
Born in North Carolina in 1800, Nelson was taken to California as a slave, and forced to work the California gold rush. Eventually, he bought his own freedom, but illness prevented his return home. He settled in Santa Cruz, buying a tract of land where the post office now sits in downtown Santa Cruz. Nelson was a succesful farmer and cobbler. When he died in 1860, he left all of his wealth to Santa Cruz public schools. It became a vital endowment that grew in value over decades.
But a nearly 150-year-old typo left the spelling of his name in question, leading many to believe he was called Louden instead of London. Even his gravestone in Evergreen Cemetery displays the incorrect name.
Brittnii Potter grew up in Santa Cruz and remembers her mother telling her the Louden Nelson Community Center was a misnomer.
“I took it really personally,” she said. “We don’t call Jack O’Neill John O’Neill. Everyone knows who he is, and people spell his name correctly.”
Potter said she was frustrated with the endless conversations she saw on social media about racial justice from “keyboard warriors,” and the lack of actual action.
“I wanted to do something positive for my community,” Potter said. “And the first thing that popped into my mind was the London Nelson center.”
With support from the city, Potter assembled a group of local historians and community members to dive into Santa Cruz’s past. In the end, they concluded there was ample evidence that his name was London Nelson.
On Saturday, the London Nelson Community Center received its new, corrected name. City Councilmember Justin Cummings was part of the group.
“London Nelson, being someone who gave so much to this community, it’s really important that at a minimum we get his name right,” he said.
The arc of the moral universe is long — very long. After over 150 years, America finally recognized its first Juneteenth, and London Nelson finally got his name back.