Publication Date

December 1, 2009

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

San Diego has a rich and diverse ethnic heritage, reflected in its architecture, street names, and neighborhoods. While the county’s Spanish and Mexican influences are well known, the contributions of others, including African Americans, are often harder to discern. However, for the intrepid local or tourist, a visit to the mountain town of Julian and San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter can provide a different perspective on San Diego’s history.

In San Diego’s early American period, many settlers lived in rural areas of the county where it was easier to live off the land. The first permanent black resident, Nathaniel Harrison, came to San Diego from Tennessee in 1848. Harrison owned a cabin and a 160-acre farm on Palomar Mountain, where he raised and sold livestock. He supplemented his income by working on neighboring ranches. Harrison lived to be 100 years old and was so well known in the county that a street was named in his honor. If you follow Nathaniel Harrison Grade in Pauma Valley, you can drive past the land where his cabin once stood.1

Julian is a popular destination for anyone seeking fresh mountain air, bucolic scenery, and a good piece of apple pie. In fact, the area is well known for its Apple Days festival. However, in 1869 people came to Julian for a very different reason—gold. Fred Coleman, an African American, discovered the precious metal in a local creek and in no time, the aptly named Coleman City sprang up to meet the needs of miners drawn to the promise of wealth. Coleman’s entrepreneurial savvy led him to a money-making business venture—the construction and operation of toll roads between El Cajon and the new boom town.

Of course, Coleman was not the only African American business owner in Julian. A variety of businesses opened in the area, catering to miners and travelers alike. Newlyweds Albert and Margaret Robinson opened a popular restaurant and bakery in 1886. The business was so successful they opened a 10-room hotel above the restaurant and living quarters. The Hotel Robinson was well known for the pleasant accommodations and Margaret’s excellent meals. Members of the Scripps and Hearst families were guests at the Hotel Robinson, along with other dignitaries and luminaries of the period. Unfortunately, Julian’s gold rush petered out and many of the businesses along Main Street followed suit. Despite the death of her husband in 1915, Margaret held onto the hotel for another six years. She finally sold the business in 1924 and moved to San Diego. But the story doesn’t end there. The Hotel Robinson was bought and sold several times over the years, and is still in existence. In fact, it is the oldest continuously operated hotel in Southern California. Now called the Julian Hotel, it retains much of its original charm. Employees of the Julian Hotel assert they can feel the presence of the Robinsons, with one housekeeper claiming she occasionally smells cigar smoke (one of Albert’s vices) and fresh-baked bread. While the Julian Hotel will probably not be featured on Ghosthunters, adventure seekers might want to spend a night or two in one of the old Victorian rooms.2

While Julian’s fortunes declined, the introduction of rail connections to San Diego in the last part of the 19th century led to a steady expansion of the population and the establishment of what would become the Gaslamp Quarter. By 1890, there were 289 African Americans who lived and worked in San Diego, many of them in the Gaslamp. Black-owned businesses catered to everyone in the community, but were largely established to provide goods and services to African Americans who faced widespread discrimination in the city. There were the usual barbershops and shoeshine parlors, as well as restaurants and hotels. To provide lodging for African Americans, Lucile H. Simmons owned and operated the Simmons Hotel at 542 6th Avenue from 1938–60. There were even a few niche businesses such as Meadows Jewelers, located at 516 5th Avenue. Walter Meadows brought his skills as a master jeweler in Tennessee to San Diego, where he opened his shop in 1903. One of the most popular businesses of its time was the Hotel Douglas, built in 1924 by two African American businessmen, George Ramsey and Robert Rowe, at 206 Market Street. The Douglas was much more than a hotel. In addition to lodging, the business housed a restaurant, card room, barbershop, dry cleaners, and billiard rooms. The adjoining nightclub, the Creole Palace, offered top-notch music and dancing and attracted people from as far away as Los Angeles.3

One last business in the Gaslamp Quarter deserves special mention. San Diego’s proximity to the Mexican border has made Tijuana a popular destination for locals as well as tourists. Today, it is only a short drive or trolley ride to the border. In the late 1890s and early 1900s the trip was more of a challenge. Reuben Williams, also known as “Reuben the Guide,” was another savvy African American entrepreneur who ran a sightseeing tour from 5th Avenue and Broadway to the Mexican border. Williams dressed the part in a serape and sombrero and offered a tiered price structure for his round-trip excursion: 50 cents, 75 cents, or $1. According to the memoirs of Ed Fletcher, a local San Diegan, Williams always received top price for his tours. Reuben waited until he reached the Tijuana River to announce: “Dollar tickets keep your seats, 75-cent tickets can walk, and 50-cent tickets push.”

The history of African Americans in San Diego is as rich and varied as the county itself. It is often a history that is hidden in plain sight, so as you explore all that San Diego has to offer, look beneath the surface—you never know what gems you might discover.



  1. Gail Madyun and Larry Malone, “Black Pioneers in San Diego, 1880–1920,” Journal of San Diego History 27, no. 2 (spring 1981). []
  2. Paula Parker, “Heyday of Julian Hotel,” Los Angeles Times, San Diego Edition, February 3, 1980, A1. []
  3. Paula Parker, “Research Traces Role of Black Business Downtown,” Los Angeles Times, San Diego Edition, September 11, 1979, A1. []

Myra Burton is a historian with the U.S. Department of State. She covers U.S. relations with Africa for the Foreign Relations of the United States series. Ms. Burton formerly taught history at the college level in San Diego.