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Negrohead Mountain is renamed after black pioneer

The 2,031-foot peak standing between Malibu and Agoura is now named Ballard Mountain, after John Ballard, a former slave from L.A. who homesteaded a valley in the Santa Monica Mountains.

February 24, 2010|By Bob Pool
  • Ballard Mountain, at left, is seen from a bluff above Kanan Road in Agoura. Two mountain residents initiated a campaign to change the peak's name in John Ballard's honor two years ago.
Ballard Mountain, at left, is seen from a bluff above Kanan Road in Agoura.… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)

It took years for work crews to tunnel through the edges of the 2,031-foot peak that stands between Malibu and Agoura.

It took a century for authorities to dig their way out from under the shame that came with the mountain, however.

But another work crew will soon erect a bronze plaque that changes the name of "Negrohead Mountain" to "Ballard Mountain" in honor of a black man who was a pioneering homesteader in the Santa Monica Mountains.

John Ballard was a former slave who ran a delivery service and was a co-founder of Los Angeles' first African Methodist Episcopal Church, but the city's rising property values and its class structure forced him to move his family 50 miles out into the mountains in the 1880s.

He homesteaded 160 acres in a valley marked by a bubbling hot springs and settled into a life of blacksmithing and gathering firewood to sell in the city. Ballard's prominence in the mountains prompted locals to refer to the volcanic peak rising above the springs as "Negrohead Mountain" -- although that was a 1960s refinement of the "N-word" that formed its original name. When the federal government surveyed the area, that name was used on officials' maps.

Two current mountain residents, Paul Culberg and Nick Noxon, initiated a campaign to change the peak's name in Ballard's honor two years ago. Last year, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the area, took up the cause.

On Saturday, about 25 of Ballard's descendants were among a crowd of 90 who watched as a replica of the plaque was unveiled in Seminole Springs, near the site of his onetime homestead. The real one will be permanently placed next to Kanan Road's north tunnel on the side of the rugged mountaintop.

Reggie Ballard, the 85-year-old great-grandson of the pioneer, said he was pleased to see the old name wiped away.

"I don't know what it means to Los Angeles as a whole, but it means a lot to me," said the retired Los Angeles Fire Department captain who lives in Banning.

"It's not often you get a chance to right an historical wrong," said Yaroslavsky, whose board colleagues appealed to the U.S. Geological Survey to make the name change official.

Marcia McNutt, the agency's director, traveled from Washington for the ceremony.

"It doesn't get any better than this. This is one of those days you live for," McNutt told the crowd.

Descendant Christopher Ballard, 19, of Long Beach said he and six others climbed Ballard Mountain in December, crawling over rocks and carving their own trail through brush.

When he reached its peak, he said, it felt like he was on top of the world.

bob.pool@latimes.com

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