The Area’s First Black College Graduate
Alice Rowan Johnson

(Photographs and text from the 1983 "Heritage Tales".

Published by the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society.)


Alice Rowan, December 1888.
Photo courtesy of Alice Johnson Black.

Alice Rowan Johnson was the daughter of Elizabeth (Lizzy) Flake Rowan and Charles Rowan, who were married in 1860 and lived at 361 "D" Street near downtown San Bernardino. Lizzy was a former slave, who at age four was given away as a wedding present to James and Agnes Flake. In 1851 Lizzy came to San Bernardino with as part of a wagon train of Mormons. Alice's father ran a barbershop for almost 40 years inside the Southern Hotel.

Charles Rowan, (Alice Rowan Johnson's Father) at left, in front of the Southern Hotel, ca 1888. The other men are unidentified. Photo courtesy of Alice Johnson Black.

Elizabeth Flake Rowan, (Alice Rowan Johnson's Mother) ca 1885. Photo courtesy of Alice Johnson Black, Elizabeth Rowan's granddaughter


Despite the fact that Elizabeth had been a slave of the Flake family during her youth, she had developed an appreciation for learning early in her life, and later drilled this attitude into her children. As a result, Alice Rowan Johnson, the Rowan's only daughter, became the first black college graduate in the area and the first known black to teach white children.

In many respects, Alice Rowan Johnson, who graduated from Los Angeles Normal College in 1888, had broken a significant barrier. She stood as a symbol of the potential of her people. While schooling and literacy were not nearly as essential then as today, black families strongly urged their children to succeed by going to school, and their efforts bore some fruit:

In 1899, for example, Grace Harrison was the first black to graduate from San Bernardino High School, and in 1903, Winnie Davison won that distinction in Riverside by graduating from Riverside High. Some years earlier, Bert Williams had graduated from the 14th Street grade school in Riverside, and in the early 1900's was performing on stages in New York City. But the Rowan's daughter had achieved the greatest success of any of the children of San Bernardino's original black pioneers.

Alice's two brothers had also done very well. The eldest brother, Bryon T. Rowan, was teaming contractor at Daggett, in partnership with Bill Courtwright, a Caucasian. Byron had worked in San Bernardino prior to his business in Daggett, and he lived and maintained successful businesses in both San Bernardino and Daggett at various times. According to Kate Carter he was well liked by both races and owned and operated a garage north of Daggett where the railroad forks, one branch going south to Los Angeles and the other to San Francisco.

Byron Rowan followed in his father's footsteps. In 1887 he was listed in the city's directory as the proprietor of the Pioneer Barber Shop, located on 3rd Street between "C" [Arrowhead] and "D" Streets.

Charles Rowan II, the younger brother, was working for Santa Fe Railway as a clerk. In an age when most blacks performed only menial labor, the position of clerk was viewed with high regard.

Alice Rowan, born to Charles and Elizabeth Rowan in 1868, was one of the most successful black persons in the area. According to Kate Bradley Stovall, she had the good fortune of being able to attend a local academy, where Mary Goodcell, one of her instructors, notice she was a student "fitted for the profession of teaching". This was fortuitous for Alice. Based on Mrs. Goodcell's recommendation, Alice was accepted into college at the State Normal School in Los Angeles, at which time Alice was 16 years old. She was the first member of her race to enter the school, and "on December 25, 1888, she was graduated in a class of 16". Assessing her experiences in college, Alice later stated that she was treated with respect by both faculty and students.


Alice Rowan, second from right in back row, with Los Angeles Normal College graduation class - December 1888.
Photo courtesy of Alice Johnson Black.

After graduation she applied for a teaching position in the Riverside School District and was accepted with good recommendations. State Normal School Principal Ira Moore, in his recommendation, spoke of her as "...a young lady of excellent character in morals and manners, and we confidently recommend her to districts which are liberal enough to overlook the question of color, as one to make an eminent success of the school in which she is employed". Miss Rowan may have been the first black person to instruct a predominantly white class in California.

Through the next several years Alice Rowan distinguished herself as a teacher. During that time she met a young man who had recently moved to Riverside, Frank H. Johnson. Born in Atchison, Kansas, November 6, 1869, Johnson came into the area in the 1880s, and earned a living as a carriage repairman and blacksmith.


Frank H. Johnson, ca 1900. Photo courtesy of Alice Johnson Black

In 1892, Frank and Alice decided to marry. The date was set for Christmas day. On December 24th, the Redlands Citrograph reported: "A wedding of more than ordinary prominence among the colored people of this city, will be solemnized on Christmas day at the M. E. church. The contracting parties are Frank H. Johnson of Riverside and Miss Alice Rowan of this city. The bride-elect is well known for her intellectual accomplishments, and not long ago carried off honors at the State Normal school --- Times Index". The wedding was mentioned in every paper in the valley. It was one of the most celebrated social events in the San Bernardino black community during the 1890s.

Frank Johnson, who married Alice Rowan, purchased a great deal of land on what is today called the Eastside in Riverside. Alice Johnson Black, Frank and Alice's oldest daughter, states that Frank's mother-in-law, Elizabeth Flake Rowan, influenced him in the decision to purchase property. Frank later subdivided his land into housing tracts, naming one of the streets Langston Place---for John Mercer Langston, the 19th-century dean of Howard University's Law School. Langston Place, which runs between 12th and 14th Streets east of Victoria, is probably the first street in the area to be named for a black man.

Henry and Mary Inghram [the parents of Dorothy Inghram] finally completed a campaign to open the first African American Methodist Episcopal Church in San Bernardino. St. Paul's A. M. E. Church was established on Easter Sunday, 1904, in a small house on 5th Street near "D" Street. Frank Johnson, Alice's husband, was called to be the first minister.

Alice's husband, Frank, was a successful businessman, however Alice was an even bigger success. Education in the 19th century was vastly different from what it is today. For a youngster to obtain only 8 years of schooling was not uncommon and high school graduation was rare. Alice Rowan Johnson, in terms of education, attained the highest position held by a black in the area before the 20th century.

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