Mission Hill was home to many of Santa Cruz’s early schools. One of the earliest, Mission Hill School, was at what is today’s 133 Mission Street. In the 1860s there was a two-room wooden school house there. It struggled with funding and was not able to stay open all the time.
London Nelson: An ex-Slave Funds the Schools
Behind where the post office is today was the farm of London Nelson. He came to the Californian Gold Rush as a slave, and purchased his freedom by working in mines. He settled in Santa Cruz and bought a small plot of land near the river where he grew vegetables and worked as a cobbler.
The story is told that in the 1860s, Nelson used to enjoy watching the school children walk past his cabin on their way to school on Mission Hill. He could also see the top of the school where sessions at some point stopped due to lack of money.
At that time, Nelson was only in his early fifties but he became very sick. He made a will, giving “his fortune” to the public school system to benefit the children of Santa Cruz. After he died his friend Elihu Anthony handled the estate, but did not settle Nelson’s affairs until 1875. By then, the school had been rebuilt and reopened with public and private funds. Anthony used the $300 from the sale of Nelson’s estate to purchase a small lot on Mission Hill near the school, giving access to an administration building.
Nelson has been honored for his generosity in several ways by the citizens of Santa Cruz. First, according to a 1942 Sentinel article, children from Mission Hill Middle School used to make an annual field trip to clean and decorate his grave site at Evergreen Cemetery where a large headstone says, “He was a colored man and willed all his property to Santa Cruz School District No. 1. Rest in peace.” Second, there is a memorial at the top of the stairs to the old Mission Hill School. Finally, the Louden Nelson community center is named in his honor.
All the Nelson’s commemorations perpetuate an unfortunate typographical error. Historians have concluded that sometime in the 1930s someone misread a handwritten notation of his first name, and transcribed “Loudon” instead of the correct name of “London.” The error persisted.
Schools Come and Go
Mission Hill School was both the grammar and high school until a new high school was built on Walnut Avenue in 1893. It was then just the grammar school until todays Mission Hill Middle School was built in the 1920s. In 1929 the old Mission Hill School was torn down.
Right across the street was Holy Cross School. For generations, children in Santa Cruz, Catholic and Protestant, went to school across the street from each other, and both schools were prominent landmarks on Mission Hill.
Many thanks to the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History for use of their historical photos.
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This piece is part of the Mission Hill Staircase Tour made possible by local history researcher Linda Rosewood. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- Lot Was Next to Leslie Building, Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 3, 1942.
- Old Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Sentinel, October 19, 1952.
- A Brief Biography of London Nelson, Phil Reader, MAH Research Forum,
accessed April 5, 2015.