Nine-year-old Fuchsia Ward was playing in the front yard of her family's new home just off Cottonwood Road one day in 1954 when she stopped and, perhaps for the first time, carefully surveyed the southern horizon.
She screamed like she'd never screamed before.
Her father, Arthur Ward, came scrambling out of the house. "What's the matter?," he sputtered, perhaps expecting a lurking stranger or a pack of wild dogs.
Fuchsia pointed south, her index finger trembling: Cotton, as far as the eye could see, interspersed with distant stands of corn. This was California, not Arkansas, she cried, and she had no intention of picking cotton ever again.
For the thousands of sharecropper families that came west to postwar California — black, white and Latino — that was a central part of the dream: No more poverty, no more subjugation, no more backbreaking labor. No more of the Arkansas "plantation," as Fuchsia called it.
California didn't always deliver for them.
Fuchsia Ward was one of the relative few for whom it ultimately did: As a teen, she did indeed pick some cotton — by her own choice — but she escaped Cottonwood Road for college and the opportunity for what became a long, rewarding career in education. But she came back to rescue some of those she'd left behind — or, more accurately, better their lives by helping to transform Cottonwood Road itself.
Today, Cottonwood has a whole host of Fuchsia Wards.
It has the good people who run the Friendship House Community Center, which has fed, clothed, educated and motivated four generations of families from Cottonwood Road and beyond.
It has Jerusalem Mission Church, at 924 Cottonwood Road, where for 49 years the Rev. and Mrs. Freddie L. Thomas have preached the love of Jesus and the power of transformational thinking.
And it has local activists — like Arleana Waller, a lifelong member of Jerusalem Mission — who have engaged elected officials in a long-neglected cause: Bringing new residential, commercial and industrial growth, and the jobs they would represent, to a section of the city that has suffered from the stigma of drugs, gangs, poverty and crime for too long.
For decades, tragedies like that have been a persistent and painful part of the Cottonwood story. Well-intentioned residents have just as persistently tried to intervene; some, like longtime resident Isaiah Crompton, one of the founders of the Stop the Violence gang intervention group, heroically so. It may seem to many, though, including those who have called Cottonwood home, that the rest of Bakersfield is content to leave it be.
"When people hear the words of Dr. King, they can envision the possibilities for their life and their community. Words matter, if we truly listen to them and feel their power," he said. "That's what we must do in this community."
Words, life-changing though they may be, matter more when they are accompanied by action.
Fuchsia Ward is happy to see both in play today in Cottonwood.
"Good people live here, proud people, determined people," she said. "I see it every day."