From Slaves to Power Brokers: The Story of the Owens Family

This is the second installment of a three-part series on the Mason and Owens families, two wealthy black American families that helped build Los Angeles.

Discussions of the history of black people in Los Angeles often begins with the migration of former slaves in the mid-1800s, coinciding with California’s joining the Union. However, the original settlers of Los Angeles included the first people of African descent in the region. El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles was officially founded on September 4, 1781 by a group of settlers that came from what is now the Mexico northwest states of Sonora and Sinaloa. They were of mixed Indian, African and European descent and known as Afro-Mexican.

At the time of the city’s founding, 26 of the 44 settlers identified with this mixed heritage. Over the next seven decades, Afro-Mexican descendants would become the farmers, ranchers and mayors of Los Angeles, and include the last governor of California before it became the 31st state on September 9, 1850. They were also the landowners of much of the area that make up some of the most well-known areas of current Los Angeles.

By the time Robert Owens decided to move his family from Texas to Los Angeles, racial discrimination and a pro-slavery sentiment had seeped into the state, brought in from white prospectors from slave states who were in search of California’s gold. Owens, a former slave, had successfully purchased the freedom of him and his family. This practice was rare, and often occurred when a slave was able to save money earned from being hired out as a tradesman or with help from benefactors. Nevertheless, California joined the union as a free state, giving Owens and his family a true golden opportunity.

In 1850, the city was still a pueblo town. The now California residents of Mexican descent were listed as white in the 1850 census, with 12 black residents. Owens’ arrival (records conflict as to when, listing 1850, 1852 and 1853) coincided with Los Angeles’ first land boom, a result of the city having plenty of unclaimed property and no money. With no real map of the area, Owens was able to take advantage of the cheap land and purchased large swaths of property along San Pedro Avenue. It was there that Owens, his wife, daughters and only son would establish their roots as a Los Angeles family. Robert and his son Charles started a livery business, which would eventually have an exclusive contract with the United States government. It was through providing military posts with wood, horses and beef that the Owens family became one of the wealthiest in the city.

This wealth brought more land purchases as well as social prominence and influence. He made sure his children received an education and knew the value of money and investing. This influence would have Robert Owens crossing paths with Biddy Mason in 1854, a slave who had been brought to San Bernardino, Calif., five years earlier by her owner. When she discovered that slavery was outlawed in the state, her owner refused to free her and that year decided to return his family and slaves to Texas. It is believed that Robert Owens used his influence to convince the Los Angeles Sheriff’s to interrupt the caravan before he left the state. After Mason successfully sued for her family’s freedom, Robert Owens invited Mason and her three daughters to live with them. Two years later, her eldest daughter Ellen married Owens’ son Charles, joining what would become two of the most influential black families in Los Angeles.

Upon his death in 1865, Robert’s vast wealth was left to Charles. His father had already sold him a piece of property two years after his marriage for $1.00. He took over the livery business, which grew even larger as the population boomed. Charles would heed his father’s advice and made investing in real estate a priority, purchasing a great deal of land in what would become known as downtown Los Angeles.

Like his wife, Charles was born into slavery. However, unlike Ellen, his family’s wealth provided him with opportunities that included an education. While his mother-in-law would also amass a large real estate portfolio, it would happen after he and Ellen had been married for several years. Charles and Ellen had two sons, Robert C. Owens, named for his grandfather, and Henry. When their sons were old enough, he made sure Ellen received an education along with their sons by sending them to public schools in Oakland. It would be Ellen that would be responsible for the family Bible that kept the history of their families long after her husband’s death and saving their history.

Charles Owens would invest heavily in African-American institutions in Los Angeles, including the establishment of several black-owned businesses. He also helped his mother-in-law establish the first African-American church in Los Angeles, which began in Biddy Mason’s home. He financed the construction of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church which opened in 1872 and remains as the oldest black church in Los Angeles.

Charles Owens proceeded his mother-in-law in death, dying in September 1882. At the time, he was known as one of the wealthiest and most recognizable black men in Los Angeles. His estate would be left to his two sons, just as the next real estate boom in the city was beginning. The focus on education and investment by Charles and his father would be passed on to his own sons. Their legacy would continue well into the 20th century, with his eldest son, Robert C. Owens, being described as the most influential black man not only in California, but in all of the west.

Photo Credit: First African Methodist Episcopal Church at 312 Azusa Street via Little Tokyo Unplugged

39 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill1 years ago

Where are these stories in our history books? There are many such wonderful things that we should know. I looked up Frederick Douglas, wonderful, courageous man.

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Nellie K Adaba
Nellie K Adaba1 years ago

I mean, what schools and history books don't teach us.

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Nellie K Adaba
Nellie K Adaba1 years ago

History, what schools don't teach us.

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Nancy Wrightington

Thank you for the continuation of this great American history!

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Cela V.
Cela V1 years ago

tyfs

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Margie FOURIE
Margie FOURIE1 years ago

Good for them to make a better life for themselves.

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Peggy B.
Peggy B1 years ago

Very interesting article. I did not know this before. Now I do.

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Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohn1 years ago

Many thanks to you !

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Heather T.
Heather T1 years ago

Very astute business men and women.

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