By Jacqueline Scholten |Staff Writer|
Black History month is a month of pride for San Bernardino as we celebrate one of our first African American settlers who gained freedom in California.
Former slave Lizzy Flake Rowan played a major role in San Bernardino’s early history, according to San Bernardino’s Historical and Pioneer Society.
In 1851, 26 black slaves left Salt Lake City, Utah and traveled to southern California to settle a new colony with 437 Mormons. The city they settled eventually became San Bernardino.
All 26 of the slaves became free when they reached the California state line.
“Some of them were a bit wary of this freedom, afraid that their new status on the frontier might just mean the freedom to starve,” said Steven Shaw, president of the Historical and Pioneer Society of San Bernardino.
Elizabeth (Lizzy) Flake Rowan was one of the 26 slaves that would eventually be a big part of why the San Bernardino community became a success. At age four she was taken from her parents and given to a white couple, James and Agnes Flake, as a wedding present.
James Flake passed away so his widowed wife took her children and Lizzy on the journey to Southern California.
Upon the family’s arrival to San Bernardino Lizzy helped make the first adobe brick for the first homes built in the community.
She also helped build a fort, to protect them from an “Indian uprising,” on the land where the San Bernardino County Courthouse now stands.
“The blacks who chose to stay were accepted into the community, and were looked upon as valuable members by their fellow citizens,” says Shaw.
Agnes Flake passed after settling in San Bernardino, leaving Lizzy to take care of her children. While Lizzy did receive her freedom when she entered California territory, one of the children went back to Utah and “sent back the proper papers to Lizzy giving her the freedom she already technically had,” stated Nicholas Cataldo, author of the article “Lizzy Flake Rowan”.
After receiving her freedom Lizzy still took care of the children until she could find someone else to continue giving them care. She then married a man named Charles Rowan.
Lizzy and Charles put down roots in San Bernardino on what is now D Street. They raised three children while Lizzy worked as a laundress downtown and Charles ran a barbershop.
For 40 years Charles ran the barbershop in the Southern Hotel right by where the San Bernardino County Sun office is. Lizzy and Charles’ son, Byron, operated a feed store on I Street and then, like his father, opened up a barbershop on 3rd Street.
Their daughter Alice became one of the first African Americans in the history of California to graduate from college. She also became one of the first black teachers of white children in California, for the city of Riverside.
“This couple lived the rest of their lives in San Bernardino and were loved by all,” said Shaw.
Lizzy passed away in 1908 and is buried at San Bernardino’s Pioneer Cemetery. Pioneers of different races attended her funeral and served as pall bearers.