This year on an overcast morning on Juneteenth, our new federal holiday, a large group of people hiked the Gabrielino Trail at El Prieto Canyon to honor a man and his family who lived in a cabin under those California Scrub Oaks in the shaded foothills of Altadena called El Prieto Canyon.
By Jennifer Hall Lee
They were there to unveil a permanent trail marker to honor a unique resident, Robert Owens, a Black American whose life has largely gone unnoticed until now.
This morning, at a soft curve on the El Prieto trail, Altadenans and Pasadenans alike, stood respectfully and listened to the people who worked to make this day a reality.
Ms. Veronica Jones, an active member of the community and an Altadena Town Councilmember, was instrumental in making this day happen. She said that she had hiked this trail for many years, but only a few years ago did she figure out that El Prieto meant the “dark one.”
Owens was born in 1806 in North Carolina into slavery. Later as an adult, enslaved in Texas, he proffered his enslaver a business deal that involved hiring Owens out on local work and the money made would be split between them. The deal was accepted. At 47 years old, twelve years before the end of the Civil War, Owens earned enough to buy his own freedom.
He traveled to California with a plan to buy his wife Winnie’s freedom as well as that of their children, which he did after just one year of living in California. He moved to the foothills of Altadena, and his family joined him in a canyon that was later named, El Prieto which means “the dark skinned one.”
Mr. Erik Hillard, a member of the Lowelifes Respectable Citizens’ Club, a trail maintenance organization for the Angeles National Forest, has worked to educate the public on the life and accomplishments of Robert Owens. In January of this year I attended a lecture about Robert Owens given by Hillard in the Altadena Community Center. I sat in rapt attention at this fascinating story about this early Altadena settler.
There were approximately 100 people who hiked the trail yesterday to the place where the trail marker now stood covered. As we waited for the unveiling, the mood felt calm and happy. It was as if we knew that witnessing the re-telling of a story that had been erased was an honor.
A Boy Scout troop, under the leadership of Clarence Stubblefield, led the Pledge of Allegiance.
Steven McCall, Board of Directors for the Los Angeles Conservancy, presented Mr. Hillard with a traditional African Kente cloth because he said that Hillard is “considered a patron of African American History.”
Veronica Jones said, “You are making history right now among these trees.”
Pasadena City Councilmember, Tyron Hampton addressed the crowd and provided information for the ceremony. He spoke of the fact that African American history has been “deleted.” He added that history was similar to an onion and that one day, as the layers are removed, we will “get to that place where everybody is equal.”
Hampton pointed out that “Owens walked the same trail we did.”
Altadena writer Michele Zack was at the unveiling and according to her book, Altadena: Between Wilderness and City, Robert and Winnie “conducted the first religious services for Black people in Southern California.” They were referred to as Uncle Bob and Aunt Winnie.
The Lowelifes Respectable Citizens’ Club has consistently elevated the life of Robert Owens. According to their website, “Robert and Winnie would help shape the progress and development of Los Angeles.”
Robert Owens amassed a fortune for him and his family through his businesses in livery, lumber and real estate. He and one of his sons were also instrumental in assisting the Los Angeles historic citizen, Biddy Mason, to obtain her freedom.
Altadenan Japhena Musson acknowledged that this trail marker, and this day, was the work of Veronica Jones and Erik Hillard who “willed it into existence.” Musson sang Lift Every Voice and Sing; that was followed by a chorus from the crowd of This Land is Your Land.
When the trail marker was unveiled many photos were taken and it felt good to finally honor Robert Owens, his wife Winnie and their children: a Black life story once forgotten and now remembered.
After the unveiling Altadenan Jon Hainer said to me, “It makes me feel good about Altadena.”
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