Santa Monica Mountains home to a mountain with a racist name, until some people fought for change
Mountain renamed after black pioneers who lived in mountains; New documentary tells the story of the push for change.
It was both exciting, but heartbreaking news for a Southern California family.
They learned that one of their patriarchs was one of the region’s pioneers, and the name of a mountain was inspired by him. But, the mountain in the Santa Monica Mountains was named after the N-word.
"People have had to negotiate these terrible instances throughout these lives," said Ryan Ballard, the great-great grandson of John Ballard. "It's just part of the American story. And, it's not really a pleasant part of the American story. But it's truth."
Some people came together to right the wrong, and change the name, a story which is now being retold in a new National Park Service documentary.
The now mostly forgotten story of the renaming started in the late 2000’s. Paul and Leah Culberg live near the mountain, which is west of Highway 101 near Kanan Road, in the Agoura Hills area. Along with a friend, they decided to appeal to then Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky for help.
Then, there was a big coincidence. Moorpark College Professor and local historian Patty Coleman was doing research for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation area. She discovered that an African-American family moved to the mountains in the 1880’s.
She discovered that John Ballard was a true Southern California pioneer. He was one of the founders of LA’s famous First AME Church, and voted as soon as the discriminatory voting laws were changed.
She gave a lecture about her findings, and those involved in the renaming effort were there. They realized that John Ballard was the man whose family had lived near the mountain, leading to its name.
Then, the media provided an unexpected boost to the effort. The Los Angeles Times did a story about the mountain, and used a picture of John Ballard. Some of his descendants recognized the photo.
Coleman set up a meeting at Moorpark College, and more than a dozen members of the Ballard family came, and learned more about John Ballard.
So, it was decided to pursue renaming the mountain after John Ballard. Paul and Leah Culberg says things then moved quickly. The United States Geological Survey approved the name change to Ballard Mountain.
"It's the fastest renaming of a geographic location in the history of the USGS," said Paul Culberg. "It still kinds of chokes me up. For me, the most amazing part of it is this is a family that's been in Los Angeles for five generations."
A new documentary tells the story of the man behind the mountain, and how people came together to change the mountain's name.
Ana Beatriz Cholo, with the National Park Service, wrote and produced To Right a Wrong: The Story of Ballard Mountain. She says the idea came about in 2020 after she did a social media post about John Ballard, and realized few people knew the story.
Ryan Ballard says it’s important the story be told, and remembered. "It's just really a part of the American story," said Ballard. "It's not always a pretty story. But, we can make good come from it."