Altadena Historic Society marks grave of unsung civil rights hero

By Matthew Rodriguez

Associate Editor of Pasadena Weekly

Ön the first federal recognition process, the Altadena Historical Society celebrated the life of Ellen Garrison Clark, daughter of an escaped slave and civil rights activist who died over a century ago.

June 10th is the annual celebration of the abolition of slavery on June 19, 1865. Last week the US government recognized it as a federal holiday.

“Today is the first time we celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday, and today is our first celebration of Ellen Garrison Clark,” said Veronica Jones, AHS board member. “Who would have thought that we have a key here in Altadena that will help us to get to know the true history of this country.”

After Clark died in 1892, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Altadena in the Mountain View Mortuary and Cemetery. The historical society honored her legacy by holding a ceremony and placing a tombstone on her grave.

“She was buried here in Mountain View Cemetery, and all these years her grave has been here without a headstone,” said Dr. Sandra Thomas, board member of AHS.

Clark dedicated her life to fighting for equality by training ex-slaves and fighting segregation.

“Your story is inspiring,” said Congresswoman Judy Chu. “The descendant of a runaway female slave and a freed slave girl, she grew up fighting slavery … She had a lifetime commitment to helping others on their way to freedom, and that meant education was a priority for herself and others. “

Clark was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1823 and came from an activist family. Inspired by the anti-slavery lectures Frederick Douglass gave in her hometown, Clark’s mother, Susan Garrison, helped found the Ladies’ Antislavery Society of Concord. Influenced by her mother’s pursuit of equality, Clark set out on her own path to justice.

“Miss Clark has made black education and civil rights her life work. That’s all she wanted to do, “said Thomas.

Before the Civil War, Clark fought for black American rights while living in Boston, focusing on desegregating railways and schools in Massachusetts.

“Ellen Garrison Clark had a reputation for advocating for others,” said Jones. “She said, ‘I think it is our duty as a people to spend our lives improving our whole race.’ Ellen Garrison Clark believed that all human beings deserve to be treated (equally). “

Towards the end of the Civil War, she worked for the American Missionary Association to teach newly freed slaves in the south, and her organization built schools for the formerly enslaved population.

“She spent 25 years of her life teaching in Freedman Schools,” said Thomas. “Freedman schools were pretty much set up for uneducated blacks, and they couldn’t be taught during the day. She did a large part of her classes at night because blacks were forbidden to learn too much reading and writing in some areas. “

After the end of the Civil War, Clark continued to teach in the south. In Baltimore, she fought again for desegregation after being kicked out of the ladies’ waiting room. She later returned and stood firm, and eventually filed a lawsuit. She lost to the railroad after a grand jury dismissed the case.

“She was Rosa Parks long before Rosa Parks,” said Thomas. “That was something unheard of. We’re talking about a different era … We stand on the shoulders of people like you. “

She stayed in the south for many years, living and teaching in a community of ex-slaves in Kansas. She eventually moved to Altadena, where she died and has been buried in an unmarked grave to this day.

Thomas, Jones, and the rest of historical society are determined to make Clark’s life story a lasting legacy.

“I will do everything I can to ensure that her memory and all the countless people this woman has touched in this nation are remembered,” said Thomas.

“I want to make sure she is never forgotten.”

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