The community center in downtown Santa Cruz
The community center in downtown Santa Cruz will be the first site to be renamed for London Nelson from its current Louden Nelson signage.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Santa Cruz sites honoring London Nelson will get correct spelling in time for Juneteenth

Although updating existing signage from Louden to London will take time, the downtown community center will officially be recognized by its new name Saturday and celebrated with a Juneteenth event at neighboring Laurel Park that day.

A decades-old spelling error on Santa Cruz landmarks and sites honoring London Nelson — a freed slave who made significant contributions to the city’s school district — is set to be corrected in time for this year’s Juneteenth celebration.

At the center of the misspelling is Nelson’s first name. The city’s Louden Nelson Community Center has borne his name spelled with a “u” since the late 1970s — a decision made based on his grave marker in the city’s Evergreen Cemetery, which reads Louden Nelson. But historical evidence, including his last will, shows his name as London Nelson, spurring a push to correct the spelling.

Nelson — who was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1800 and was moved from a plantation to California to work as a blacksmith before eventually purchasing his own freedom — is also recognized on a monument at Louden Nelson Plaza near the Santa Cruz City School District offices at 133 Mission Street and on a mural at Mission Hill Middle School.

The school district board jointly passed a resolution to change the landmarks honoring Nelson to reflect the correct spelling, city officials said in a news release Monday. City leaders last week signed off on the name change to the community center at Laurel and Center streets.

“Nelson’s contributions to the City of Santa Cruz are significant,” officials wrote in the release. “Nelson, a freed slave, bequeathed all of his belongings to the Santa Cruz City School District upon his death. With the sale of his land by the San Lorenzo River, the school district was able to purchase the property where the current Santa Cruz City Schools Administrative Office is located, the former site of Mission Hill School.”

Although updates to existing signage will be phased in, the city said, the community center will officially be recognized by its new name on Saturday and celebrated with a Juneteenth event in neighboring Laurel Park that day.

London Nelson's grave in Evergreen Cemetery in Santa Cruz.
(Via the MAH)

A push to correct the name

After buying his own freedom, Nelson became a traveling cobbler, repairing shoes. He spent the last four years of his life in Santa Cruz, farming his land along the San Lorenzo River, selling produce and cobbling. He died in May 1860, leaving his belongings — including his land — to the school district.

In 1979, locals led an effort to name the former Mission Hill School site after Nelson. That same year, the community center was named after him.

Several years later, historical documents surfaced showing Nelson’s name to be London. (“Louden” was a nickname, according to some members of Santa Cruz’s Black communities). In 1984, an effort to rename the community center ended after opposition from Black residents.

But last summer, amid a surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement, the issue took center stage again. More than 1,000 people signed an online petition started by Santa Cruz resident Brittnii London — who had attended camp and events at the center as a child — asking for the landmarks to be renamed. And earlier this year, a group met for several months to research, review historical documents and discuss the issues associated with renaming the sites.

A monument honoring London Nelson at 133 Mission Street, near downtown, will get a spelling fix soon.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The group unanimously agreed that the city should rename the school site/plaza, community center, Nelson’s headstone in Evergreen Cemetery and a plaque on Water Street — and provide a more robust history of Nelson where possible.

In April, Santa Cruz City Council voted to send the issue to the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to review the advisory group’s decision and make recommendations on how to proceed. Because the community center was built in 1930 and is a historic structure, any change requires approval from the Historic Preservation Commission.

Last week, city council adopted a resolution to authorize the name change, pursue a more accurate depiction of the history of Nelson and explore further education efforts on his contributions to Santa Cruz.

According to city documents, altering the community center sign, updating the logo, and purchasing new staff uniforms could cost between $8,000 and $10,000. A larger rebranding effort, including sign and marquee replacement, is expected to increase the cost to between $25,000 and $32,000.