History etched in stone

Ian White was taking his toddler son up into the hills above Altadena when he spotted the long-lost gravestone of abolitionist Owen Brown in a dirt patch off the trail.

Owen Brown survived the ill-fated Harper’s Ferry raid led by his radical abolitionist father John Brown and later retreated to a hilltop rancho in Altadena. When he died in 1889, he received a hero’s funeral. His lonely grave site is in the scrub on a hill above Altadena named Little Round Top, after the strategic hill at the battle of Gettysburg.

How Brown’s headstone suddenly appeared a few hundred feet below his grave 10 years after it vanished remains unknown. But even more unknown are the tangled threads of the history that lie behind the tombstone.

Before I started on this story, I had no idea that Southern California had a Civil War past, much less what it might be. Moreover, I was startled to hear that Pasadena had any part in the fight for racial equality.


Beneath its patrician veneer, the Pasadena of my youth in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a place of overt racism. It was probably no more segregated than the rest of L.A., but the “white” and “black” sides of town were clearly demarcated. On the white side, where my aunt and grandmother lived, the only black people I saw were servants.

But the history of race relations in L.A. does not run in a straight line. More than half the original pobladores who founded Los Angeles traced all or part of their ancestry to Africa, but that didn’t stop racism from erupting later.

After the Civil War, Pasadena became a refuge for former Union soldiers and a place where freed slaves mingled with whites in civic affairs. Segregation didn’t take hold in full force until the period between the two World Wars, Nick Smith, a Pasadena City Library technician and local Civil War history researcher, told me.

Owen Brown’s funeral was attended by a crowd of 2,000, black and white, that included virtually all the leading citizens of Pasadena. Through the years, his grave site became a beloved if obscure Altadena landmark.

Ian White took me to see Brown’s burial plot on a searingly hot, clear day last month. The surrounding San Gabriel Mountains, which were burned over in the Station fire, fairly scintillated in the sun.

White, an artist and teacher, explained that he grew up just below the grave site; it was part of his mountain playground. White also introduced me to another piece of racial history. His father, Charles White, was a celebrated midcentury artist. Fifty years after Brown’s death, Charles White played a role in the civil rights movement.

While his contemporaries explored abstract and minimalist art, he depicted African American heroes like Rosa Parks and Coretta King and everyday people standing up to oppression with nobility. His drawings, etchings and paintings of what he referred to as “my folks” became emblematic in the “black is beautiful” era.

A friend of Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, the elder White, a black man from Chicago who studied with the great Mexican muralists, made artwork for the film and recording industries and taught for years at Otis Art Institute. There’s a Charles White Elementary School in L.A. and a Charles White mural at the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune branch library in Exposition Park. Yet, I was embarrassed to admit, I had never heard of him.

John Brown was one of only two white men Charles White depicted in his art. The other was Abraham Lincoln.

Owen Brown’s grave is on private land. In the early 2000s, the owner, Michael Cichy, started blocking people from visiting the site. In 2005, an Altadena trails group won a court judgment guaranteeing public access, but it was too late. The headstone had been removed in 2002.

A number of people from as far away as upstate New York searched the hills for the stone over the years, without success.

Ian White is an archivist of his father’s work. When he found the stone at the bottom of Little Round Top, he recognized it right away, even before he read the inscription “Owen Brown / Son of John Brown / The Liberator.”

Whether the marker had been overlooked or buried all these years, or moved more recently to the place where White found it, is a matter of conjecture. It’s unlikely it was merely knocked over by teenagers; the stone had been equipped with a concrete collar that would have taken a real effort to dislodge.

The stone is currently being held at a secure, undisclosed location. A 2007 settlement agreement gave Save the Altadena Trails the right “to erect an appropriate grave marker to Owen Brown.” White wants to see the stone put back where it came from, and a Brown family member who has spoken out agrees.

“He loved the mountain. I think he should stay,” said Alice Keesey Mecoy. Cichy could not be reached for comment.

A 1971 documentary on Charles White showed Ian and his sister climbing the hill to Owen Brown’s resting place as children. Both were adopted when Charles White was in his late 40s; his wife was white, and the couple had been denied adoption earlier because authorities discriminated against interracial couples. The camera zeroed in on the tombstone inscription as Charles White discussed his childhood fascination with John Brown and his delight in finally having a family to carry forward the history of his folk.

“A man without a history is nothing,” White said.

Los Angeles is notorious for eating its past. Here is an opportunity to restore a powerful symbol of California’s forgotten legacy in the unfinished fight for racial equality.