When Agua Caliente tribe members needed a friend and ally, they found one in Lawrence Crossley, a successful Palm Springs businessman who came to town in 1924—and quickly realized he was the only (and apparently the first) Black person to live there.
He would be the valley’s only African American until the late 1930s, when John Nobles and his wife, Miranda, acquired a ranch in the city of Indio. Their ranch eventually became a neighborhood with homes, apartments, churches and stores; the Nobles’ success helped fellow Black pioneers settle into the Indio area. In 1994, Indio’s Date Avenue was renamed John Nobles Avenue.
For all of Nobles’ success, he arrived in the Coachella Valley more than a decade after Crossley, who was remarkable in so many ways. Undaunted by his minority status, and following in the footsteps of mentor and employer Prescott T. Stevens, Crossley simply forged ahead—buying property, investing and attaining a stature where he was in a position to help others.
Born on a Mississippi farm in 1899, Lawrence Crossley was raised in New Orleans, where he played the trumpet in jazz bands. He came to California in 1924, going to work for Palm Springs entrepreneur P.T. Stevens as a chauffeur and handyman. After a month in Palm Springs, he sent for his Creole wife, Martha, and their daughters, Margaret and Yvonne. Martha became the Stevens’ maid and cook.
Crossley eventually became Stevens’ right-hand man. Crossley invested in the El Mirador Hotel, designed and built the El Mirador Golf Course, and took over the Whitewater Mutual Water Company as manager. He invested heavily in Palm Springs, and in the early 1930s acquired about five acres near Ramon Road and Sunrise Way. He established the Eagle Canyon Trailer Village, and built a trailer park in Cathedral City called Tramview Village—a full two decades before the tram was built.
Crossley also owned a laundromat, a restaurant and the Crossley Courts, a 20-acre subdivision that’s now the site of part of Ramon Mobile Home and RV Park. The subdivision was targeted primarily to African American families, and featured affordable three-bedroom, two-bath homes in a variety of floorplans. Crossley Road became the name of the main road in the part of town he developed.
In addition to being successful and accomplished, Crossley also had a big heart. He chose to spend much of his time with Agua Caliente tribe members. They took to him immediately, sensing the “kindred spirit” of another non-white person, and recognizing the sheer sincerity and generosity of Crossley.
During those decades, most Agua Caliente tribe members were living in Section 14, the downtown Palm Springs land allotted to them. However, they had not yet been granted true ownership of any specific land, nor had they been given any other benefits awarded to them by the federal government. They mostly lived in tents and shacks made of available materials: cardboard, pieces of tin, irregular pieces of wood and branches. Their only sources of revenue were the small fees charged for use of the hot springs at the southeast corner of Section 14, and fees for entrance into the Indian Canyons. Occasionally, some would find work for movie companies shooting Westerns and needing “Indians.”
Crossley was genuinely touched by their plight and, over the years, was taken into their confidence. Crossley spent time with the Native Americans, talking to them in their homes, comforting them, helping them and learning their rites and culture.
Martha Crossley, who shared her husband’s zeal and compassion, was also highly regarded by Agua Caliente members. She regularly participated in their rites and helped provide food and supplies to those most needy.
The “round house” was the special gathering place of the Agua Caliente tribal leadership, and Crossley was the only non-Native American invited in to discuss tribal matters, much to the awe of whites, who were barred from entering.
Chief Francisco Patencio, who was known as a strong medicine man, became one of Crossley’s closest friends. Crossley learned much from Chief Francisco and even reported witnessing a few unexplainable incidents of telepathy attributed to the chief. Once, in the middle of a conversation, Chief Francisco became still, stopped talking and got up, saying, “He needs me,” before running into a canyon an hour and a half away. There, they found and assisted an American Indian man who had fallen and broken his leg!
Chief Francisco also shared with Crossley the secret of “blood tea,” a bright red drink made from certain mountain plants. Wanting to share this particular product with others, Crossley formed a company and marketed it as Nature’s Desert Mystery Tea. His company also produced a facial clay.
By 1953, Crossley had determined that he wanted to do even more for the area’s American Indians. Around the same time, attorney Hilton H. McCabe was assigned by Gov. Earl Warren to be judge of the newly opened branch court in Indio. Once on the job, helping Palm Springs’ Native Americans became a dominant theme in McCabe’s life.
McCabe’s task, as he saw it, was to rescue these “millionaire-poor” American Indians from decades of denials, delays and inattention that left them in a substandard existence in Section 14. One of his first tasks was to find someone to serve as a liaison—and no one was better equipped than Lawrence Crossley.
With Crossley’s help, Judge McCabe began chipping away at bureaucracy and red tape, assuaging naysayers and special-interest groups. The 1876 treaty and the granting of Section 14 to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which had been signed by President Ulysses Grant, was, at last, beginning to have meaning. Finally, the tribe was properly given the land, and each member was awarded property and cash from a fund.
New businesses were able to lease land from the Agua Caliente in Section 14, and the state-of-the-art Spa Hotel opened on the site of the original hot springs. On hand at its opening in November 1962 were Eileen Miguel, head of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians; Ulysses S. Grant IV, grandson of the president who signed the original treaty; and McCabe.
Lawrence Crossley had passed away the year before, but not before preparing and presenting a petition to Judge McCabe, signed by 41 Agua Caliente tribe members, thanking him for his tireless efforts that finally ended almost 100 years of inattention and inactivity regarding the tribal lands.
Both the Crossley daughters were well=liked in high school, and both married Los Angeles businessmen. Crossley left a legacy in Palm Springs of which they can be proud.
In 2020, following a Palm Springs Planning Commission recommendation, the City Council voted to rename Golf Club Drive and adjacent Crossley Road as Lawrence Crossley Road. The thoroughfare—named for a successful, sincere and generous valley pioneer—now connects Ramon Road to Highway 111 on the city’s east side.
Sources for this article include Golden Checkerboard by Ed Ainsworth (Desert Southwest, Inc., 1965); Palm Springs: First 100 Years by Mayor Frank M. Bogert (Palm Springs Heritage Associates, 1987); and Palm Springs Legends by Greg Niemann (Sunbelt Publications, 2006).