Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Some twenty years or so ago, I and a colleague were at the Seaver Center for Western History Research looking at materials relating to the Workman and Temple families and came across a photograph of the interior of the Temple and Workman bank (the subject of several posts this month.)
The image, shown here, captures the impressive carved and polished wood counter, the substantial vault, and several persons at the the counter. These include managing cashier Henry S. Ledyard (far left), cashier Thomas W. Temple (right) and three prominent residents of Los Angeles, including James R. Toberman (Los Angeles mayor from 1872-74 and 1878-82), city attorney and later Superior Court judge Aurelius W. Hutton, and former county district attorney, state senator (1859-60) and future mayor (1882-84) Cameron E. Thom.
The names of each of five men are inscribed on the photo, as is a sixth individual standing at the back of the room next to the door leading to the office of bank president F.P.F. Temple. The inscribed name is “‘Green’ the Janitor,” and a magnified view shows a black man.
Circa 1995, the Internet was very new in terms of research and information on who “Green the Janitor” was proved tough to track down. Over time and with the volume of information available on the Web, more has been learned about Lewis Gomez Green.
Green was born in 1827 in North Carolina and the earliest documentation so far unearthed is in 1844 when he was a seaman with the United States Navy aboard the U.S.S. Portsmouth. How he came to enlist and whether he was a free black or not isn’t known, but Green remained with the Navy for just under a decade. An 1889 history of Los Angeles County noted that he served on several ships during his tenure at sea.
In 1846, he was with a ship that came to California as part of the American invasion of the Mexican “department.” Horace Bell, in his 1881 memoir Reminiscences of a Ranger, stated that, when the American flag was raised at Monterey on 7 July 1846, which became an official date of conquest, there were, Bell claimed, “at least five hundred persons who claimed the honor individually and non-collectively, the last of whom is Captain Lewis G. Green, the colored janitor of the Los Angeles Court House.”
When the war ended, it appears Green remained in military service, but sometime in the 1850s came to Los Angeles, where he became a barber. In September 1859, he married Maria Yancey. The couple had one son, John, who appears to have died in the early 1880s. Green worked as a barber for quite a number of years and his 1860 census listings (there were two for some reason with slightly different information in each).
Green operated as a barber for between fifteen and twenty years, as in 1874 Robert M. Widney, a real estate promoter and attorney, along with unnamed others, successfully petitioned the county Board of Supervisors to appoint Green as janitor at the county courthouse, located in a building constructed in 1859 by Jonathan Temple. The date of the Temple and Workman bank photo is not known, but it may be there he was working as a janitor on the side as well as serving as a barber.
In the small black community in Los Angeles, Green was an active and engaged member. In the early 1860s, he was a local agent for a briefly published black newspaper from San Francisco called the California Appeal. He was founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church in Los Angeles. But, his most important role was in helping to get blacks to register to vote upon the passage of the 15th amendment to the Constitution in 1870, as post-Civil War civil rights issues became prominent.
Historians Ralph Shaffer, Patty Colman, and others have written that, upon passage, Green was assisted by Robert Widney in filing a civil case against county clerk Thomas D. Mott to force Mott to allow Green, who was likely the plaintiff on behalf of other Los Angeles blacks, to register.
Celebrations in April among Los Angeles blacks on the ratification of the amendment included a rousing address at the court house by Reverend J.E.M. Gilliard. The same day, Green tried to register to vote but Mott refused to allow him to do so claiming that there was no enabling legislation in California permitting registration.
A week later, Widney began legal proceedings, but then Congress passed an enforcement act for the amendment that forced Mott, almost certainly reluctantly, to give way. On 21 June, Green was the first black person in Los Angeles to register to vote and was soon followed by others.
Green had other prominent community positions, including membership in a local paramilitary group called the Temple Guards, in which he was a captain. This led him to be referred to as Captain Green in newspaper articles and notices.
He also continued his involvement in political matters. In 1875, at a mass meeting of black Angelenos who were plotting out their future support of the Republican Party for the following year’s presidential campaign, his name was put forward to serve on an executive committee.
In September 1882, he secured an appointment to the Republican State Central Committee of the Colored Citizens’ California State Union, to meet in San Francisco a few weeks later. The Los Angeles Times stated that “Captain Green is a representative citizen, and his appointment to the Central Committee is a very worthy one.”
Yet, two years later, there appears to have been a change in Green’s political sensibilities, as reported in the Los Angeles Herald of 16 September 1884. The short piece covered the black Republican Club’s meeting to select a delegate to the party’s county convention and a brouhaha that erupted. The paper stated that “the colored people should follow the illustrious example of Captain Green and join the Democratic party.” What would have motivated Green to switch parties is not known, however.
Green also had the distinction in serving in the 38s, one of the early Los Angeles volunteer firefighting companies before the professional Los Angeles Fire Department in 1886. The 38s were chartered in 1874 and, along with William Workman’s nephew, Elijah, and others, Green was an original member, albeit as a steward, or attendant, rather than as a firefighter. He continued to be elected to serve in that position for about a decade.
He was also a member of the junior division of the 38s and served as its president in the early 1880s. As a token of their esteem, the regular members also voted in June 1883 to present Green “an elegant ebony cane, surmounted by a gold head.” Inscribed to him, the cane was said to have been highly prized by the recipient who “will hand it down to posterity as a trophy of the heroic deeds of the torch boys of the 38s.”
On 21 May 1885, Green, who was then about 58 years old, was reported by the Times to be “lying dangerously ill at home.” Notably, he was referred to as “the colored janitor of the Courthouse during the Democratic administration,” though it is clear he was a Republican until at least 1882. In any case, there was no further news found about Green’s illness, though the 1889 Los Angeles County history stated that he died “about 1885.”
It is unfortunate that someone who had such a long, varied and interesting life like Lewis G. Green did not merit an obituary or some other mention of his death. But, as a pioneering member of Los Angeles’ small, but vibrant and persevering, black community, Green’s story deserves to be remembered.