Have you ever glanced at the backstory of what, until this year, was called Louden Nelson Center? If so, you know the man for whom the center was named — or rather, misnamed — in 1979 was London, not Louden, Nelson.After many decades, the Santa Cruz City Council finally voted to correct the error.
Why did the misspelling persist for so long? The man and the mistake are threaded through our local history.
Who Was London Nelson?
An early hero of the City of Santa Cruz, London Nelson is memorialized by the eponymous building and several plaques around town, hailed as friend to education. He was a slave included in an expedition from Tennessee to Northern California in search of gold in 1850 — when California was filled with fortune-seekers, many of whom kept their slaves despite the establishment of California that year as a free state.
Nelson’s group found gold, and London Nelson used his share to buy his freedom in 1854.
Ill health — and perhaps good sense — kept him from returning to Tennessee. Instead, now in his 50s, he moved from the Sacramento area to Santa Cruz — another sensible choice — and lived here for the rest of his life. Nelson never married here (we know nothing of his previous life in Tennessee). He was popular with his neighbors, selling vegetables and repairing shoes from his garden plot by the San Lorenzo River, behind the current post office. It’s said that he enjoyed watching local children trek past his house to their school up on Mission Hill. Uneducated himself, he valued the school, and when the it closed for lack of funds he was determined to help.
Nelson had no nearby heirs. When he died in 1860, he bequeathed his property to the school district, signing his will with an X. Eventually his small farm was sold, the proceeds going to the construction of a beautiful new schoolhouse on Mission Hill (long gone now). His was one of the first graves in Evergreen Cemetery, and for many years schoolchildren made an annual pilgrimage to tend the grave.
Abolitionists or Racists? Both.
What happened in the decades and centuries following London Nelson’s death is a picture of a conflicted society. Nelson had been one of only two Black residents of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz was a stronghold of abolitionism before and during the Civil War, according to historian Geoffrey Dunn, and didn’t hesitate to honor a Black man. He was beloved while he lived and celebrated after his death. At the same time, he was the subject of sometime virulently racist news articles and his name was misspelled, his legacy muddled.
Georffrey Dunn has also written a more recent description of London Nelson and the effort to correct his name in The Good TImes.
What’s in a name?
Spelling a name properly is a sign of respect, so the correction is important.
Cruzio has a long history with the Center. We have donated internet to the building for nearly 30 years and have worked closely with the Senior Center housed there. We signed the petition demanding the name change and we’re happy to see recognition returned to a good-hearted man who helped our community long ago. Many thanks to Brittnii Potter who started the petition and to the City Council for finally making the correction. And do read the Geoffrey Dunn article from 2016 for more details! It’s an article abut Jeneteenth but the second half goes into London Nelson.