Reflections from an LMU senior on J.D. Black, her great-grandfather and the Los Angeles Aqueduct

Last Fall, the Hannon Library published three digital collections to commemorate the centennial of the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct on November 5, 2013. The Library received generous funding from the Metabolic Studio to accomplish the digitization of the materials in its collections relating to the history of water in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Digital Library Program collaborated with the Department of Archives & Special Collections to digitize portions of three collections from its holdings for this grant – the J.D. Black Papers, Big Pine Citizen Newspaper Collection and the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection. You can read more about the collections at Los Angeles Aqueduct at 100.

J.D. Black played a significant role in the water wars that resulted between the Owens Valley and the City of Los Angeles due to the construction of the LA Aqueduct. The J.D. Black Papers collections yields a historically rich resource for studying the Owens Valley and its history due to its chronological breadth (spanning the 1880s to the 1950s), J.D. Black’s close ties to the valley led him to collect photographs of the Owens Valley and surrounding areas, and his active participation in and documentation of one of the key political events in California in the 1920s, the water wars between the City of Los Angeles and the valley’s people over water rights.

Given the significance of this historically important event, the Head of Archives & Special Collections and the Digital Program Librarian reached out to Shannon Christner, great-grant daughter of J.D. Black and a senior at LMU in Fall 2013 to share her family’s history from a very personal account. Shannon very graciously agreed and talked to her nana, Barbara Black Fitzpatrick, J.D. Black’s daughter over the holidays about the history of the Black family and the Owens Valley in the early 1900s.Shannon Christner and Barbara Black Fitzpatrick

We are thrilled to share Shannon’s story that she wrote herself for this blog post! The true wealth of the J.D. Black Papers collection and the region’s history is now enriched even more by Shannon and her nana lending their voices about their family’s history.

Here is Shannon’s story:

Ever since I was a baby, my family has taken a summer vacation to Mammoth, followed by a trip through my family’s history of the Blacks. On our way home, we would stop by the Bishop cemetery where my family has been buried, and stop at my Aunt Peggy’s house in Big Pine. Little did I know – at the time – how significant my family was in the history of the Owen’s Valley and the fight over water rights. In the early twentieth century, my great grandfather, J.D. Black, was the main combatant against the Department of Water in Los Angeles. His family owned much of the property in Bishop and Big Pine and, after his father died, J.D. took charge of protecting that property, especially when it was threatened of losing all of its water. My nana, Barbara Black Fitzpatrick, who still clearly remembers her childhood in the Owens Valley, claims that, “Ever since I was born, my whole life has been about water.” J.D. Black fought throughout my nana’s childhood and into her life of young adulthood. When my nana was in college and dating my grandfather, J.D. asked my grandfather, Howard Fitzpatrick, to get some public information for him at City Hall in downtown L.A. (J.D. refused to go to L.A. and called any of the city dwellers “Flat-landers”). When my grandfather went to retrieve the information, just a young college boy, he was shut down by those at City Hall the moment J.D. Black’s name came up. This just goes to show how serious this war was between my great grandfather and the city of Los Angeles.

Ironically, much of the Black property was burned down as a result of the Los Angeles acquisition of Owens Valley water. “There wasn’t enough water to put the fire out,” my nana reports. An entire block including a hotel, restaurant run by Wing Fu, a post office, a bank, and a women’s clothing store connected to a men’s clothing store selling Levi Strauss and Stetson hats was lost in the fire. J.D. Black, after years of bitterness and fighting, died of a heart attack – according to my Nana, the water wars killed him. My Nana and her sisters, not wanting any more part of the life that revolved around the water wars, let the other half of the Black family take over, which was J.D.’s sister, Rosalind. Her daughter, my Aunt Peggy, and her husband, Uncle Bill, were the ones left in the family taking care of the Black’s property in Bishop and Big Pine. Thus, every year, I would come and visit my Aunt Peggy and Uncle Bill in the town of my family’s history, never being able to fully grasp what had occurred. With my Uncle Bill and Aunt Peggy, along with my Nana’s sisters, having passed away, my Nana is the only living survivor of the Black family. She continues to keep the oral history of our family alive, having a sharp memory even at the age of 93.