Social Networks in Early Orange County
For some reason, from the winter of 1892 to the spring of 1897, local papers dedicated several news cycles to covering the alleged debauchery and exploits a negro named Alexander Adolphus Toppin of Fullerton, charged with adultery. According to the California Great Register of San Bernardino County, Toppin was born in 1869 in Lousiana and worked as a cook. Other sources list him as being born in Jamaica or the West Indies in 1870. Readers were fascinated with the story of Toppin, who had married a negro girl named Maggie McCoy (a laundress) in Los Angeles County and then moved to Fullerton. Maggie was born in Texas around 1878 to a father (Bolson, b. 1819) from Georgia and a mother (Lucretia, b. 1847) from Alabama. Together, Alexander and Maggie had several children, including William Gaylord Toppins (b. 1889 in Fullerton), and John Nelson Toppin (b. 1894 in Fullerton), and eventually Gladys M. Toppins (b. 1902 in Fullerton). After marrying Maggie, Toppin left her to marry her sister Victoria (b. 1876) and ran away to San Bernardino. Births and christening records indicate that Alexander and Victoria welcomed a son named Adolphus Toppin on July 3, 1893. Meanwhile, Maggie gave birth to Toppin’s son named John, worked as a washerwoman, and then moved with her mother to Santa Ana settling on West First Street (the census data indicates a residence in Fullerton). The McCoy family owned their home. Papers suggest that Toppin and Victoria had three children of their own in San Bernardino, but their marriage was rocky. Victoria moved Fullerton with their third and only living child, at which point Toppin moved to Santa Ana with a third wife, a “yaller gal” named Hall. Toppin then accosted his first wife Maggie, attempting to get custody of his son John, resulting in “the little pickaninny” becoming “closely guarded so that the unnatural father could not get forcible possession of him.” He then sent his third wife to Los Angeles, staying in Santa Ana to demand custody of his child with Maggie. Visiting again, he injured Maggie before traveling to visit Victoria in Fullerton. Upon his return, he was arrested for adultery. All the while, the LA Times made sure to emphasize that “the little black ‘coon’ who answers to the name of John, enjoys a humble life with his mother.”
As with any black family tree, the Toppin saga is difficult to fully track, as names are changed, dates of birth uncertain, and places of residency unclear. Census data seems to suggest that Alexander and Maggie first married in 1890 in Los Angeles. No record of his marriage to Victoria has emerged, although there is one record for their child, Adolphus, who does not appear to have lived long. A marriage of a Victoria McCoy to James Murratt in Fullerton appears in 1897. In 1900, Victoria is recorded as living with her sister Josephine in San Bernardino with two children, Delilah Moran (b. 1890) and Herbert Moran (b. 1894), while Maggie is listed as living in Los Angeles according to a 1901 directory. In 1910, Maggie, her daughter Gladys and son John, Josephine, and Victoria’s child Delilah are listed as living with the McCoy matriarch, Lucretia, in Fullerton. Although Alex was charged with adultery, it is unclear whether or not he served time, and appears that in 1898 or 1899 he married another woman named Alice Jordan (b.1879 in Georgia) in Riverside, with whom he had several children. In 1920, Gladys graduated from Fullerton High School and is listed living with her brother John N. Toppin in Fullerton. Yet in the census data from subsequent decades, she is recorded as living with her father Alexander and step-mother Alice in Riverside. In 1940, for example, she is recorded as living with Alex and Alice, alongside their daughter Janet, who graduated from Riverside Polytechnic High School in 1941.
The story of this “frisky colored gentleman,” at the papers referred to him, not only reveals a fascination with scandal and black crime but also sheds light on the existence, on some level, of connectivity within Southern California's black communities even in the early years of settlement. Black Americans could travel and find one another, forming their own social networks in the Southland. Though employment could be uncertain, black migrants could own homes. Taken together, although these records do not give a glance into the lives and lived experiences of these sojourners, into what motivated them to migrate or how they adapted to their new homes, they do reinforce that despite the sizes of and distance between communities, African Americans created intimate, and intersecting social networks.
[Left] Gladys Toppin Yearbook, 1920, Fullerton High School
[Right] Janet Toppin Yearbook, 1941, Riverside Polytechnic High School