Object Lesson

The J.D. Black Papers

A century ago, the completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, a 223-mile ribbon of water, slaked the thirst of an expanding City of Angels. Southern California was transformed, as was the Owens Valley, the water’s source. Click here to see images from the Owens Valley collected by J.D. Black.

 

To many who carved out livelihoods east of the Sierras, the aqueduct symbolized a predatory metropolis that destroyed their way of life and consumed their natural resources.

Owens Valley anger was long-lived. In 1924, about 700 citizens staged a five-day occupation of the Alabama Gates, a section of the aqueduct just north of Lone Pine, and routed the water back into the Owens River. And for several more years, the concrete waterway was dynamited by protesters.

Historians still investigate Owens Valley land and water rights transfers of the 1900s, and some recent studies suggest that aspects of Los Angeles’ perfidy may be exaggerated. But there is no question that social and economic devastation came to the Owens Valley — J.D. Black collected the evidence.

One of the committed opponents of “LAism,” as he called it, Black was a Big Pine, Calif., business owner — Black’s Cash Store was one — and a member of citizens’ organizations that lobbied for reparation payments by Los Angeles to local residents. Born in 1893, he lived his entire life in the valley. Black collected minutes and correspondence from reparations groups, photos taken by others (below), and newspaper clippings. He also took a valuable trove of black-and-white photographs of ranches and properties abandoned by the City of Los Angeles after acquiring them. Agriculture and fruit-growing particularly suffered.

Clay Stalls, manuscripts curator at the William H. Hannon Library Archives and Special Collections, says Black’s antipathy toward Los Angeles never abated: In the early 1950s, Black still protested L.A.’s presence in the valley through letters to President Harry S. Truman.

“A relative told me that when J.D. made Christmas visits to family who had moved to Los Angeles,” Stalls says, “he’d come and leave on Christmas Day. He hated L.A. so much he wouldn’t even stay the night here.” Black died in 1960 in the valley that was his home.

Black’s materials make up the J.D. Black Papers, which are part of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles Research Collection and are administered by the William H. Hannon Library Archives and Special Collections. In December 2012, the Annenberg Foundation’s Metabolic Studio gave a grant to LMU to fund the digitization of holdings related to California water history, including the J.D. Black Papers. The project is scheduled for completion by the end of 2013.

See Full Issue