Anti-slavery activist to get headstone on Altadena grave 129 years after her death

Ellen Garrison Clark lived a vibrant and meaningful life, as a Black anti-slavery activist, civil rights advocate and educator, but was buried 129 years ago in a nondescript grave without a headstone in Altadena.

That gets corrected Saturday, June 19, an event purposefully timed for Juneteenth, the day celebrating the post-Civil War release of the last slaves in 1865.

Originally from Concord, Massachusetts, Clark taught literacy to Black people. A direct descendant of freed slaves, she was fond of saying, “We must lift as we climb.”

She was also one of the first people to test the Civil Rights Act of 1866, according to The Robbins House, a nonprofit based in Concord which teaches and raises awareness for Black history.

The law, which passed by overturning Andrew Johnson’s veto, represented the first time Congress acted to protect civil rights. It mandated that “all persons born in the United States” — with the exception of indigenous peoples — were “hereby declared to be citizens of the United States.” The legislation granted all citizens the “full and equal benefit of all laws and proceedings for the security of person and property.”

Clark was among the first to test that law after she was forced out a segregated waiting room for women at a Baltimore train station because of her skin color, suing the railroad under the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Her case was dismissed by a grand jury, according to The Robbins House.

“This is real history that happened,” Veronica Jones, a board member of the Altadena Historical Society, said in a phone interview. “When we start telling the truth about our history, we won’t allow Black men to be taken away until they die. We won’t Black children to be disadvantaged in schools. We won’t allow institutional racism to be acceptable.”

Clark eventually settled in Altadena. She spent the final years of her life in the Altadena-Pasadena area teaching Blacks to read and write, Jones said. She died Dec. 21, 1892 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena.

On Saturday, however, a headstone will be installed to mark Clark’s final resting place. A celebration of her life is also planned, where guests can learn more about her life and her influence in Altadena.

“This celebration that we’re doing is one where you become mindful,” Jones said. “You’re being mindful of what happened in our history and our past.”

The Historical Society, local Black residents and the Mountain View cemetery raised the funds for Clark’s headstone.

“Altadena’s Black community has a long and significant history,” Altadena Historical Society President Eric Mulfinger said in a statement. “Artists, writers, business leaders and activists have made this area their home for many decades, and now we have an opportunity to recognize and honor one who has been long neglected.”

This year, Juneteenth will be a nationally-recognized holiday, but it’s hardly new, Jones said, who has been commemorating the day for 34 years. She hopes newcomers to the holiday take the time to learn about Black history.

“It’s about time history is corrected and told,” she said.

The event will be held 11 a.m. Saturday, June 19,  at the Mountain View Cemetery, 2400 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Altadena. It will also be livestreamed on YouTube.

Anti-slavery activist to get headstone on Altadena grave 129 years after her death