To Right A Wrong: Ballard Mountain

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area


When we were traveling north to go to this golf course, and the guy said "They used to call that N-word mountain." I didn't- It didn’t bother me in that I didn’t know that that was my great-grandfather they were talking about. [laughs]

Uh, my name is Ryan Ballard. I am the son of Reginald Ballard, the son of Claudius Ballard who is the son of William Ballard, who is the son of John Ballard.

In the Santa Monica Mountains, just outside the western edges of the city of Los Angeles, there’s a 2,031-foot peak that rises above the rock-cropped hills of Malibu. From the top, you can glimpse the Pacific Ocean and inhale the cool, sea breezes. Early government topographic maps of the Santa Monica Mountains list this peak’s name as a racial slur. When a handful of individuals spoke up, their actions reverberated across the region.

It touched many, and ultimately, these actions would end up touching the Ballards, the descendants of the family whom the mountain was named for.

Leah and Paul Culberg have lived in a shadow of Ballard Mountain for 45 years. Early on, a neighbor gave them a lay of the land.

Bob one day was up here, and telling us about the area, and that uh, Saddle Rock is right over there. It’s a locally known landmark, and Mitten Rock you can see from here and then you come around and he said, “and you wouldn’t believe what that mountain is called.” And he told us, and we went “hmm” and started doing a little but of research.

Nick Noxon, who has since passed away, was a National Geographic TV producer and he first learned of Black homesteader John Ballard when he found a copy of a book in the Agoura Public Library describing the charismatic former slave. Both he and his wife Nikki, along with the Culbergs, felt compelled to act. They lobbied county officials to initiate a formal name change of the mountain peak in 2009.

Uh, you know, It just seemed like the right thing to do. I mean, it was a good idea. We hated the idea of what it was known as. And, and we thought that it- we needed to recognize this man.

It was around this time that the families met Moorpark College history professor Patty Colman. They heard her speak about the Ballard family at a National Park Service event. She had done extensive research on the history of the Santa Monica Mountains and the people who lived here long ago. Soon after, the Los Angeles Times ran a story about the proposed name change for the mountain. For over a century, John Ballard’s land and his mountain were known pejoratively, but that was about to change.

The front-page story caught the eye of one Los Angeles family, in particular. Reggie Ballard, Sr. remembered gazing at the grainy photo that accompanied the story. The older bearded gentleman with the broad, rugged shoulders and large, hulking frame in the picture looked familiar somehow.

It, it was. It was really destiny, I know that sounds oh so dramatic, but.... you know, here I am at work, getting the- the LA Times, you know, we read the paper you know, before the start of work. And obviously, I'm drawn to this cover story that has a guy who has my same last name. So, I called my dad and he said, “Ryan, I’m looking at this fella,” I immediately knew what he was talking about…. "who reminds me of somebody in my family."

Before long, their family -- other descendants of John Ballard – were drawn into this piece of local history.

Really this is a kind of history of a lot of African Americans. That is we don’t always know from whence we came or why we operate the way we do.

In the coming months, the Culbergs, the Noxons, Patty Colman and the descendants of John Ballard met. They formed strong bonds, and, to this day, they see each other as family. In 2010, Negrohead Mountain was renamed. Reggie Ballard, the great, grandson of John Ballard – Ryan’s father – was presented with the first printed map bearing the mountain’s new name – Ballard Mountain.

It’s just about people getting together and doing what’s right and- and sometimes it’s a whole lot easier than anybody imagines it can be, and so people shouldn’t be afraid to try.

Much of the land the mountain sits on is part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area managed by the National Park Service and the State of California.

This park was established to serve all the residents of Southern California and the Los Angeles area and specifically, um regardless of gender, race, ethnic background. We’ve always thought here it were- um, if our visitors don’t look like the- the city, and the county and the region, that we haven’t fully met our objectives. And um, the Ballard Mountain story is important because it shows that people of color have been a part- an integral part um of this area, um, for quite some time. And um, beyond that, I think it shows a century and a half of perseverance against um, almost overwhelming odds, against prejudice, violence in the form of um fires and other efforts to get John Ballard and his daughter Alice to leave the mountains um, and the fact that the family was not only able to survive this but to thrive and continue to contribute to both the country um, and to the local area um, and successive generations has been really inspiring.

You know, so often people will give attention to something because it, it’s media worthy, you know, but this was something that a group of folks thought was worthwhile. And, there was no thought about any uh, celebrity that might come along with it, so I definitely think it is uh, important and I hope that you know, for those who are just now giving ear or attention to monuments and names and understanding how important they are and the impact they can have um, I hope this is yet one other uh account that resonates in the hearts and the minds of people to reinforce what is happening in the, in the larger society.

John Ballard and his family have all contributed to making this massive, sprawling city a better place to live.

I’ve always known my family as native of Los Angeles. I’ve always known my father was a native of Los Angeles. My father was born in 1924. It was never a big deal to me but apparently to other people it was a big deal, so when I would say I was from Los Angeles people would always remark, ‘oh, yeah not a lot of people are you know, from Los Angeles.’ and I would say, 'well my dad is from Los Angeles too, he was born in 1924.' and they'd be shocked. I'd say, 'yeah my grandfather, and his father...' you know so I, I knew that much about my family, that we had a fairly long history, uh, dating back more than 100 years in the city of Los Angeles.

John Ballard left Kentucky and arrived in Los Angeles in 1859, back when this was a sleepy yet growing city. He had become active in civic affairs and was one of the founding members of the city’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1880, Ballard picked up his family and moved about 50 miles west to the Santa Monica Mountains. He purchased 160 acres of land. The family raised some livestock and a few crops. Ballard collected firewood and sold it in the city. He was described as an intelligent and literate man. He distinguished himself as an extraordinary individual who worked hard and persevered, despite attempts by others to drive him off his land. Despite his accomplishments, Ballard was mistreated by other pioneers due to the color of his skin. Thieves unsuccessfully tried to chase Ballard from his home. His cabin was set on fire twice, but he was not easily deterred. He rebuilt his home both times.

From the very founding in this country um, going back to the colonial times in the 17th century, laws and customs were in place to create a racial hierarchy and to strip black people of their humanity. And that’s why I think the story of John Ballard and what he accomplished is so incredible because while forces were trying to strip him of his humanity, he found ways to succeed against all odds.

Years later, one of his seven children, Alice Ballard, became a homesteader herself, an unusual feat for any woman, much more a woman of color. She claimed an adjoining lot and another 160 acres was added to the Ballard family land. She eventually married and moved to Los Angeles. Her father, John Ballard, died in 1905 when he was about 75 years old. The Ballard family continued to distinguish themselves over the decades. Claudius, John Ballard’s grandson, was a Berkeley-educated doctor who fought during WW1. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French for his bravery. Both of his sons fought in World War II. Albert “Lucky” Ballard and Reggie Ballard, who was a Tuskegee airman. Reggie helped desegregate the Los Angeles City Fire Department decades ago. He and his wife Margaret had six children. Reggie passed away on June 30, 2021. He was just shy of his 97th birthday. Reggie’s youngest child, Ryan, works as a special education teacher in Los Angeles.

After the name change, I still had to go to work, I still have to care for my family, and you know, but again, I- I get to tell my children that, ok, this- there’s something that bears your name, and with that comes responsibility, and so make sure you live up to it. We're just a regular family, not you know, anything special, uh but we're a part of the fabric of this society so, we're no less than, and we're no more than, and people I think can relate to that. This is, this is not, you know this story does not exist in a vacuum, there’s many others like this. This is a part of the American story.

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