Finding Yourself in the Groves: Reimagining Representation at California Citrus State Historic Park
By Megan Suster
The unofficial mantra of Riverside, California by the beginning of the twentieth century was ‘Citrus is king!’ Starting with Valencia oranges in the California missions in the southern half of the state, and further catalyzed by the Bahia Navel orange that came to town in 1873, the citrus industry became central to how Riverside, and surrounding cities like nearby Redlands and faraway Pasadena, identified themselves. As a result, there is an unwavering nostalgia in Southern California for its citrus heritage, and California Citrus State Historic Park aims to preserve some of this in the form of nearly 300 acres of groves, as well as a small museum.
But what opportunities might the park present for us to better understand this facet of California’s history? More work needs to be done to represent the stake of various communities — including the multiracial labour force, agriculturalists, and landowners — and to reframe a narrative that has historically privileged Anglo citrus industrialists and city leaders. As such, the California State Parks have partnered with the University of California, Riverside (UCR), to offer an alternative narrative, with the theme of migration as a guiding focus. Undergraduates from UCR are working on the project, and the diversity of their classrooms reflects the diversity of the state of California and its histories. In the same ways in which the National Park Service has endeavoured to diversify its audience by employing more people of colour, the State Parks hope that by partnering with one of the most diverse campuses in the nation, they can tap into bodies of knowledge and life experience which will enable better understanding and representation of all the communities that utilize the parks, and will foster interest in the parks as paths of employment for these students of history.
Yet perhaps the most pressing goal for the project is to design and deploy research findings at the park in order to render history relevant, engaging, and useful in addressing issues of current and future significance to the region. Research findings regarding African Americans in the ‘Inland Empire’ mark a first step towards this goal. Take, for example, the story of Israel Beal. Born into slavery in Virginia in 1849, Beal was one of the earliest black settlers in the Redlands area in the 1870s, and would quickly become an influential leader in the community. Upon his arrival, he got a job working on an orange ranch, before purchasing the land on which he and his wife Martha would build their home in 1877. One of the first African Americans to own property in the area, and called ‘one of the leading horticulturists in his neighbourhood’, Beal was one of very few African American grove owners, with 60 acres of land to his name. As an emblem for health and prosperity in the region, owning a successful citrus grove not only provided Israel Beal with economic capital, but also signalled his social and cultural capital in the Redlands community.
So how can we better share stories like these with the public, both at the park and elsewhere? The California State Parks have put together a ‘Transformation Team’ which strives in part to offer a departure from past strategies of commemoration by ‘emphasizing the co-production of programming with the community and non-traditional partners rather than for the community’. The Transformation Team thus seeks to engage a variety of communities who made profound contributions to the citrus industry and its legacy in Riverside and Southern California so that these groups may be able to find themselves represented at the park. For example, we will also be investigating: Native American histories of removal and displacement in addition to their engagement as a labour force for the industry; the contributions of Asian American labourers and growers; the extensive Latino and Euro-American involvement in labour; and contemporary issues such as food insecurity and drought which resonate with this research. As the only State Park in Riverside, the site is dedicated to citrus for a reason, and we hope to emphasize the hidden histories that have helped to make citrus king in California.
Megan Suster is a PhD candidate in the Public History program at the University of California, Riverside. She worked at California Citrus State Historic Park for a year as the Volunteer Program Coordinator before taking on her current role as the Public Humanities Fellow for the California State Parks Relevancy and History Project, which is part of a new partnership that aims to enhance the relevance of the past for Californians today. If you’re interested in learning more about the project or have information which might be of use, Megan can be contacted at PublicHistory@ucr.edu.
Main Image: Today, there is a park named in Beal’s honour in North Redlands (photo by author).
 The Inland Empire encompasses several communities of Southern California: Riverside, Redlands, and San Bernardino, to name a few. The area earned its title because of its location about 50 miles ‘inland’ from Los Angeles and because of its prominence as the state’s ‘Orange Empire’.
 The Colored Citizen, July 1905, Collection of A. K. Smiley Library; not only did Beal play a crucial role in the early agricultural development of the city by owning his own citrus grove, he was also an investor in and co-director of the Lugonia Fruit Packing Company, started by Redlands city founders E. G. Judson and Frank E. Brown, which specialized in peaches and apricots.