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The story of the first Black woman born in Ventura and how no hospital would hire her as a nurse

Cerisa potrait.jpg
Leroy Gibson
Cerisa House Wesley was the first African American born in the City of Ventura. The year was 1898. And this was the first documented birth at least. Her life is remarkable not just because of her historic birth, but because despite her being a qualified nurse she was never allowed to use her skills in a hospital setting because of the color of her skin. This is the story of a Black nurse no hospital would hire.

The story comes from KCLU’s podcast The One Oh One. You can listen to the full episode here.

The reading room of the Museum of Ventura County’s research library and archives is on the second floor.

The room has a couple of large tables with wooden chairs neatly placed around them for people pouring over old records and archives. There are many shelves and drawers filled with books, photographs and records.

This is also where you’ll find the museum’s self-styled way finder – Deya Terrafranca.

“So I don't know all of the answers, but I know the systems and the best ways to find the answers for people,” said Terrafranca, the museum’s research library and archives director.

Deya library.jpg
Michelle Loxton
Deya Terrafranca is the Museum of Ventura County’s research library and archives director. The museum’s self-styled way-finder is pictured here in the reading room of the museum’s research library and archives.

A couple of years ago the museum went in search of the stories from their records of groups of people who have gone unrecognized in local histories.

“It's really important to us to find and tell diverse stories for communities, for towns, but also for groups of people in Ventura County. And that is how Andy started to look into the history of African-Americans in Ventura County,” said Terrafranca.

Andy Ludlum is a library volunteer. He found Cerisa’s story through a variety of records and wrote about in a blog post for the museum. It’s where I originally found the story.

Terrafranca, the way finder, showed me the way to find artifacts of Cerisa’s life. First we head over to a large drawer that is filled with hundreds of cards.

“And I'm going to flip through these cards and look for ‘census’ so that we can pull out the census records of Cerisa's birth,” said Terrafranca.

With those details in hand we go in search of microfilm.

“You have to snake the film underneath a glass plate and feed it into another reel and then hand wind it for a second,” said Terrafranca.

And this is how the museum found out about the historic nature of Cerisa’s birth. They are also incredibly fortunate to have recorded, in 1980, an oral history with Cerisa.

Cerisa Cassette.jpg
Michelle Loxton
The Museum of Ventura County has 450 oral histories recorded on cassette tape in the 1970, 80s and 90s. Cerisa House Wesley’s oral history was recorded in 1980 when she was 82-years-old.

The museum has 450 oral histories recorded in the 70s, 80s and 90s. For Terrafranca this is an opportunity to go beyond what was captured in print records.

“The stories that get told in history are the stories they get captured in newspapers or they get captured in some other form. They're in the census. But people's lived experiences don't get captured and stories are lost unless we take the time to ask people about their experiences,” said Terrafranca.

She reminds us that history is written by the victors – without these recordings, the lived experiences of people like Cerisa would be lost.

“The lack of reflection in the official record, the lack of reflection of her life in other records that are in archives really shows how important her oral history is. That is really the key to us being able to tell her story, and it's really her telling her story,” said Terrafranca.

Cerisa’s life through her own voice

Cerisa House Wesley’s oral history, recorded on a grainy cassette tape, is filled with incredible details of her life growing up in Ventura. A life very different from today.

“And it's interesting to know that I was the first Black child born here in Ventura. And that was like I say, in 1898. I’ve seen Ventura grow up beautifully,” said House Wesley.

Cerisa shares stories of a time without modern plumbing and how she was fearful of the snakes that could be found lurking near the outdoor toilets.

She remembers cattle being brought but foot by cowboys to the slaughterhouse down the road.

“They used to be driven through the streets here, and we used to be afraid of the cattle because the cowboys walking along trying to get this cattle to do what they're supposed to do and that’s where our house was down there,” said House Wesley.

Cerisa recounted when the circus would come to town and great big tents would go up at the local fairground.

She even recalled how there was a time when the street lights were lit by a lamplighter.

She shared how things changed over the years, like for example when the first automobiles started to appear in town and when she saw the Wright Brothers’ airplane on display.

The interviewer, a white woman, asked Cerisa if she remembered much prejudice from those times. Cerisa, who was 82 at the time of the interview, seemed to brush the question aside.

“No, I didn't notice it, but I did know that it was… it was an existence. I know that.” said House Wesley.

But clearly, it impacted her ability to fulfill her aspirations.

“I always from a small child loved nursing and at that time, Black people weren’t trained to be nurses at that time,” said House Wesley.

She had to travel across the country – to West Virginia – to get her nursing qualifications, and then returned back to Ventura with these valuable skills. But she was never able to practice in a hospital setting as a nurse.

“At that time, you see, they didn't have Black nurses like you do now,” said House Wesley.

And just like a time we’re all too familiar with, it was an era that nurses were really needed. It was the aftermath of another pandemic – the Spanish Flu of 1918. She came back in 1923 when so many people were still suffering.

“Yes, people that were just dying in droves,” said House Wesley.

Persevering despite prejudice 

But Cerisa’s expertise didn’t go to waste. She took her skills where they were needed, in her own community, and she cared for her own family.

Leroy Gibson is Cerisa’s nephew. Everyone calls him Buddy.

“She did start administering as the doctor quote nurse of the family. And from that, we stayed pretty healthy,” said Gibson.

He confirms her credentials

“She did say she had certificates and also graduating diplomas that show that she was a full blown nurse and how she came back to Ventura to actually administer her nursing skills as she learned. But she never could get a job at any of the hospitals. They would not hire her because she was African-American,” said Gibson.

Michelle Loxton
Leroy “Buddy” Gibson is the nephew of Cerisa House Wesley. He’s pictured here in his home in Oxnard with the book he wrote about his family’s history. He said he did it for his grandchildren. Decorations are still up from his recent 84th birthday celebration.

I met Gibson at his home in Oxnard where decorations were still up from his recent 84th birthday celebration. Buddy has kept meticulous records of his family’s history including first person accounts, photographs and newspaper articles.

He says Cerisa’s services were badly needed at the time.

“We had a lot of death in our families. You know, being back in the day, you didn't have the medical treatments that you have today that gives you a little more a few more years. So she had to endure losing family members and raising a family at the same time,” said Gibson.

He’s immensely proud of his aunt.

“I've been here all my life in Ventura County, for the 84 years of my life, and I have not known during that period of time any other person to have achieved what she had achieved as far as being a professional. And she was a great, just a great person,” said Gibson.

He recalls she ended up also working with a coalition of relatives who served what he called the prominent white families of the time – as nannies, cooks and seamstresses.

“She had to work with what she had and not really who Cerisa totally was as a pioneer woman,” said Gibson.

Despite the tough times, Gibson also remembers Cerisa throwing elegant parties for relatives and friends.

“They would have their own parties and have the teacups and the china. The long dresses with the big rifle ruffles. And they would do this sometime in homes, a lot of time at parks,” said Gibson.

Leroy “Buddy” Gibson has written a book about his life growing up African American in Ventura County. He said he did it for his grandchildren.

It is filled with stories about Buddy, Cerisa and the rest of his family and their history in the area. There are happy stories and those of racism, like that which Cerisa experienced in the City of Ventura.

“We went through a lot of things. You know, the racism that still exists over there, here in Oxnard, everywhere you go. We still have to confront that. But it's not as bad because as you get older, you learn more about how to be on the defense or offense, you know, and make it the best of it,” said Gibson.

Why should these types of stories be told or retold?

So why is it important to tell stories like Cerisa’s?

Gregory Freeland is a professor of political science and global studies at California Lutheran University in Ventura County.

“Stories of the heroes who do not get recognized need to be told because these are important people keeping communities together,” said Freeland.

His office is filled with photos and books related to his teaching and the places he’s visited with his students.

Freeland is all for the telling of these types of stories because they show the resilience and strength of people who did not give up despite their circumstances, he says.

“We hear all the stories about, you know, Florence Nightingales and so on. But these are individuals who really, really, really struggled in spite of all odds,” said Freeland.

The professor has investigated his own family’s history.

“I neglected that whole history for so long. I was not denying it, I just didn't think it was so important. But now I think it is,” said Freeland.

He came across an interview with his great-great-grandmother, who passed away before he was born, and realized how little attention he had paid to her story or his family’s history, when he was younger.

“You love your grandparents this way that you know. You go see them, you give them the presents, and you hug them and so on,” said Freeland. “But you never want to sit down and listen to their stories. Some of them were more than likely to tell you what they remember, but once they passed away, you know, they're gone. And I don't have a story to repeat to my kids, you know, because I missed that opportunity.”

Freeland is trying to make up for that by doing research on his family and has even contributed to an article in The Atlantic entitled ‘Stories of Slavery, from those who survived it’.

In the article he told the author Clint Smith he’s quote “trying to keep this history alive, because it’s getting further and further away,” end quote.

Through the Federal Writers’ Project, which his great-great-grandmother took part in, he’s learned more about her life. Like she didn’t know her exact age.

Stories like Gregory Freeland’s and Cerisa House Wesley’s need to be retold and retold, says Freeland. Or for many – told for the first time.

“These stories need to be told, and some of them have been neglected in history because many people feel they are not important. Any retelling of these historical kind of stories, I'm all for it,” said Freeland.

California Lutheran University is the parent of KCLU.

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