Recorded interviews in the Research Library’s oral history collection give us a glimpse into the lives of two remarkable women who were members of the earliest African American families to settle in Ventura.

Annie Smith being interviewed by Museum of Ventura County docent Mary Johnston on April 11, 1979
Annie Smith being interviewed by Museum of Ventura County docent Mary Johnston on April 11, 1979. Clipping file, Museum Library & Archives collection.

One woman’s story is an example of selflessness and courage, caring for the sick during the deadly flu outbreaks that started with the 1918 pandemic and lasted into the 1920s.  She did all this as racial prejudice denied her the opportunity to work, as she had been trained, as a hospital nurse.

Both women experienced the suffering caused by the yearly flooding of the Ventura River.  Their stories also reveal the hurt caused to their families by a tragic fire and the circumstances that led to the death of two children.

The Nurse No Hospital Would Hire

Venturans seen wearing flu masks in 1918.
Venturans seen wearing flu masks in 1918. PN263, Museum Library & Archives collection.

According to her own and her family’s recollections, as well as a number of published sources, Cerisa House Wesley’s birth in 1898 was the first recorded birth of an African American child in the city of Ventura. The 1900 Census lists 20 “Blacks” in Ventura County.  By 1910 that number had increased to only 31.

As a young woman Cerisa traveled to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia to attend Storer College, one of the first African American colleges, where she studied to be a nurse. Cerisa said since she was a small child she had loved nursing, but she knew at that time it was difficult for African Americans to obtain the training. In the spring of 1918 an influenza outbreak spread worldwide from Army camps in Kansas.  With World War I still raging, parts of the U.S. and Europe fell victim to this fast-spreading, unusually severe form of flu.  About one in four Americans got the flu and 675,000 people died.  Smaller flu outbreaks continued into the 1920’s in Ventura County, most notably in Oxnard.  Cerisa returned to Ventura in 1923 as a qualified nurse, but since she was labeled as a “Negro” she was unable to find a job as a hospital nurse. She told Museum of Ventura County docents in a 1980 recorded interview:

Transcript excerpt: “No.  I never…I went back there, but anyway, at that time, you see, they didn’t have Black nurses like they do now.  Then, I remember, too, over in Oxnard, you know the time – I guess it was before you girls were born – when they had the flu where so many people were dying.  Well, I was nursing over there then, you know, just like a nurse’s aide, at that time…I did get some experience in doing nursing during the flu.” 

Cerisa worked with poor and dying influenza patients in Oxnard, caring for them in their homes. Neighbors and even family members were often reluctant to help, fearing they too might be stricken.  Leaders of the nursing profession today acknowledge that during this period, nursing jobs remained predominately limited to whites.  African Americans had only limited access to nursing education and employment.  These prejudices limited the supply of skilled nurses when they were needed the most.

Devastating Annual Floods

The Ventura River flooded in 1914
The Ventura River flooded in 1914. PN3921, Museum Library & Archives collection.

Annie Smith was another member of one of Ventura’s first African American families. Born in 1903, she was Cerisa’s aunt even though she was five years younger.  Both Annie and Cerisa remember the annual flooding of the Ventura River that would threaten their Front Street home in an area that came to be known in the 1930’s as Tortilla Flats.  Cerisa said flooding would come every year until levees were constructed on the river banks:

Transcript excerpt: “Every year we’d have to run from the river because the river would come up sometimes – now, Mama’s home – our house was built up a little from the ground, and I remember one year when the river came up, it came into the house. We all ran, and when we went back into the house there was mud that high in the house where the river had come in. We had chickens. Everybody had chickens then, and the yard, you see, the mud had come up that thick, and the chickens and everything you had just was killed.”

In a 1979 interview with Museum docents, Annie remembered a particular flood in 1909:

Transcript excerpt: “Well, anyway, my mother was pregnant, and we had this flood. It rained, oh, for almost a week, and the water came right up to our house. The Hartmans used to have a hotel right on the corner of Palm and Main on that side. Hickey Bros. was on this side. Well, when this flood came up and was coming in our house, why then they notified the Hartmans. They brought a double surrey and got hold of Mama, took us all out and took us up in their apartment. Then that night was when Rainey was born.”

The horses had to swim in to rescue Annie’s mother.  And her brother, Rainey, was named because of the storm. Annie said when Rainey died in 1974, it poured rain on the day of his funeral.

Children Lost in Tragic Fire

Ventura firefighters posing with their engines in 1919
Ventura firefighters posing with their engines in 1919. PN3540, Museum Library & Archives collection.

As well as flooding, Cerisa and Annie’s families had to contend with another threat, fire.  Their wood frame houses were particularly susceptible to embers spread by accident or scorching Santa Ana winds.  The tragedy of one particular fire scarred both families and the community for years.

Annie says she was six years old when her mother left her at home with her siblings, five year old Ventura and four month old Jimmy when she went across the street to visit with her sister.  When fire broke out in the house, Annie ran across the street to alert her mother.  The only problem was she couldn’t talk.

Transcript excerpt: “Couldn’t talk until I was eight years old. Ventura and little Jimmy, why, they stayed home while I go and tried to pull on Mama to tell her what happened, because the fire started from upstairs, and don’t know how the fire came to start because nobody didn’t smoke then. Then Mama says, ‘Well Fannie, let me go see what this child wants,’ so she come out and there she saw the house on fire. But little Ventura and Jimmy – little Ventura would not leave Jimmy because he was only four months old in the crib, and the window was too high for Mama to try to get them and save them, so they burned up.”

Cerisa remembers looking out the door and seeing Annie’s house go up in flames.

Transcript excerpt: “And when she rushed over there – they had, at that time, you know, like they used to bolt doors with like sticks, at that time, you know, planks. And she could hear the little girl crying to get out. She ran to the front door. The baby, when the house burned down, and everything like that, and when we went the next day there was nothing but just the platform, you know. Anyway, at that time they used to – if she hadn’t had the front door bolted and how sad it was seeing that after the little children had died…”

Both children were buried in the city cemetery, two of the now mostly-lost graves in Cemetery Memorial Park.

Surge of KKK Activity in the 1920s

Ku Klux Klan rally at Stanley Park Lodge south of Carpinteria.
Ku Klux Klan rally at Stanley Park Lodge south of Carpinteria. PN1220, Museum Library & Archives collection.

In their recorded interviews, neither Annie nor Cerisa described a great deal of racial tension in the first decades of the 20th century.  Annie described Ventura as “quiet, like a big family.”  Cerisa’s account is similar.  They also did not have much to say about a surge in Ku Klux Klan activity in Ventura County in the 1920’s.  Annie says she was never intimidated or harassed and didn’t remember much about the Klan.

Transcript excerpt: “Well, no, not too much. But they wasn’t here long though. They was trying to start, but I think they didn’t approve that because they know what they were after.”

In the Library’s microfilm records of the Ventura Free Press, there is a front-page article on a planned Klan rally to be held July 28, 1923 at the Stanley Park Lodge south of Carpinteria.  The article matter-of-factly describes what was billed as “one of the biggest open air demonstrations in the history” of the Klan. It concludes with a paragraph quoting, without comment, the “purported creed of the organization” including “the eternal maintenance of white supremacy” and the preservation of the “constitutional rights and privileges of a free born Caucasian race…”

Final Notes on Cerisa and Annie

Women meeting at the Olivet Baptist Church c. 1940
Women meeting at the Olivet Baptist Church c. 1940. Cerisa House Wesley and Annie Smith are the last two women on the right. Both are recognized as founding members of the church. Photo courtesy of the Black Gold Cooperative Library System

Cerisa House Wesley died at age 85 on September 8, 1983. Cerisa was never able to use her nurse’s training in a hospital. Instead, she took care of children and worked as a practical nurse. She told a newspaper reporter in 1974 that she didn’t bear any grudges against those who refused to hire her as a hospital nurse. Cerisa also turned down the same reporter’s request to take her picture. “People who know me know what I look like,” she said, “and people who don’t know me don’t care.” In 1974 she was honored by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors for her contributions to the county, including being a founding member of the Olivet Baptist Church, a longtime NAACP member and a volunteer with the County Medical Center auxiliary.

Annie Smith died April 20, 1987. She was 84. Annie worked as a housekeeper for 70 years. She was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star and the Avenue Senior Citizens Committee. She also helped with the Ventura County Fair for over 40 years. When she died, she had two grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.


Bibliography: African American Voices from Ventura County’s Past

Books

  • Goldwyn, Gail M. with Gibson, Jr., Leroy A.  Looking Beyond the Mirror.  The Untold Story of Growing Up African American in 20th Century Ventura County, California. 2017 Gail Goodwyn’s Books, Woodinville, Washington. (Not yet in the Library’s collection but available on Amazon.com.)
  • African-Americans On The Central Coast. A photo essay depicting aspects of the life of the African-American community in the counties of San Luis Obisbo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. 1993 Black Gold Cooperative Library  System.

Oral Histories

  • Interview  with Annie R. Smith. April 11, 1979. Conducted by Mary Johnston and Kay Murphy.
  • Interview  with Cerisa House Wesley. February 5, 1980. Conducted by Mary Johnston and Gerry Browning.

Newspaper Clippings

  • Wagner, Dennis. A quest for vanishing treasure. Ventura woman is saving precious memories of yesteryear. Ventura Star Free Press, September 25, 1980.
  • Obituary, Anne R. Smith. Ventura Star Free Press. April 23, 1987.
  • Mrs. Wesley dies at 85; first black born in  county. Ventura Star Free Press.  September 10, 1983
  • Wheeler, Eugenie. Docent’s re-creation does role model proud. Ventura County Star, February 25, 1999.
  • Holt, Bob. The Klan once had clout. Ventura Star Free Press, August 3, 1978.
  • Klan reached peak in 1920s. But as quickly as it flourished, it died. Ventura Star Free Press, April 8, 1979.

On Microfilm

  • Klan gathering this evening Stanley Park. Ventura Free Press, February 28, 1923.