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The real story behind the LA street named for a Confederate general’s son

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The history of Johnston Street has largely been forgotten

Via Google Maps

In little more than a week since white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the planned removal of a Confederate statue, activists and politicians have worked to denounce racism by scrubbing Confederate monuments from cities across the country.

In a report published last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center tallied more than 1,500 Confederate symbols nationwide in public spaces like parks, schools, and highways. That number does not account for symbols on private properties such as Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where owners removed a monument to Confederate soldiers on Wednesday following a petition and an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times that argued Confederate monuments aren’t just a problem for the South.

The nonprofit civil rights organization counted six Confederate symbols in California, including one in Los Angeles: a little-known byway in Lincoln Heights named Johnston Street.

But now the author of the report, Alex Amend, says Johnston Street shouldn’t have been included. That’s because it was named after the son of a prominent Confederate general, and not the general himself.

Born in Kentucky, Albert Sidney Johnston began his career serving in the Black Hawk War, battling Native Americans fighting to reclaim their land, as well as the Texas Revolution and the subsequent Mexican-American War.

A panorama of Lincoln Heights, photographed in 1910.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

He moved to San Francisco in 1861 to fill a position as commander of the Army’s Department of the Pacific, where he “took steps to protect whites” against an “Indian uprising” in Northern California, according to the biography Albert Sidney Johnston: Soldier of Three Republics by Charles P. Roland.

After Sidney Johnston’s adopted state of Texas declared its secession from the Union, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Sidney Johnston be removed from his post in the Army, suspecting he was part of a conspiracy to surrender California to Southern forces.

Sidney Johnston, whose loyalty was with Texas and the Confederacy, had already resigned by the time he received Lincoln’s orders, according to Roland. Unemployed and unable to support his children, Johnston headed to Los Angeles, where the family stayed with his wife’s brother, John Strother Griffin, a physician who owned a ranch in the area now known as Lincoln Heights.

When Civil War broke out in April of 1861, Sidney Johnston joined the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles—the only renegade militia from a free state that fought for the Confederates—and traveled across the country to Virginia. He died in the Battle of Shiloh a year later, on April 6, 1862.

Meanwhile, Sidney Johnston’s son, Hancock M. Johnston, was working with Griffin to lay the foundation for East Los Angeles, which was then mostly rural farmland.

Along with former governor John Gates Downey, the three men subdivided 2,000 acres of land that Griffin had purchased from the city just in time for the construction of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which brought with it a boom in population and housing.

An early view of Hancock Street in Lincoln Heights.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection

Together, the trio developed the East Los Angeles Tract in 1873 and named several of its streets after themselves, including the main thoroughfares of Griffin Avenue and Downey Avenue, where Johnston lived until his death in 1904.

(Downey Avenue was renamed North Broadway in 1908 when construction began on a bridge over the LA River—now known as the North Broadway Bridge—connecting two streets between downtown and East LA, according to the Los Angeles Herald.)

At roughly 1.5-miles long, Johnston Street runs north and south through the heart of Lincoln Heights, beginning in a cul-de-sac at East Ave 28 and dead-ending at Alhambra Avenue, just before it hits the railroad tracks.

The inclusion of Johnston Street on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of Confederate monuments likely came as a surprise to local historians.

They say that Johnston Street and Hancock Street, which run parallel to each other, were both named for Hancock M. Johnston—not his father, according to city planner Blair Smith. The city’s archivist, Michael Holland, says it is a possibility that Johnston Street was named in honor of Hancock M. Johnston’s family, including his late father, the Confederate general.

“A lot of the developers—a lot of the men, mostly—who had large tracts out here, they in one way or another did name something in that tract after themselves or after the family,” Holland says, noting that there are few planning records from this time period and nothing he can find in writing to confirm.

“There’s lots of examples of that here in Los Angeles, but I think in this particular case, I’m comfortable with the argument that it’s named after a Confederate general,” Holland says. “Sympathies during the Civil War definitely belonged to the Southern cause.”

Amend, the author of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report, says he wasn’t aware of this history until he got an email from a reader on Monday asking for a correction.

That Johnston street was named at the time of its construction and by its developer separates it from many of the other public streets and highways listed in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s report. Amend found that the construction of Confederate monuments and other symbols peaked during two time periods, each of which occurred long after the ending of the Civil War: The early 1900s, when states were enacting Jim Crow laws, and the 1950s and ’60s, during the civil rights movement.

On Monday, the University of Texas at Austin removed a statue of general Johnston and another, of general Lee, from its campus. The university’s president, Greg Fenves, said the decision came in response to violence at the Charlottesville protest. An elaborate memorial to Sidney Johnston remains at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, Texas, where he is buried.

Today, Lincoln Heights is more closely associated with Sidney Johnston’s adversary, President Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln High School opened in 1913, when the area was still known as East Los Angeles. It’s unclear whether the decision to name the school after Lincoln, who died 48 years earlier, was an attempt to downplay the influence of Johnston and the neighborhood’s Southern roots.

“It could very well be that someone got the idea that, ‘Yeah, we could be patriotic and do that,’” says Holland. “Technically speaking, we are talking about the cusp of the first World War, so ... that that may have been the reason.”

In 1917, the city took a cue from the school and voted to rename the surrounding area after Lincoln, giving birth to the neighborhood now known as Lincoln Heights.