“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
― Marcus Garvey
Our NAACP Founders
In 1908, a deadly race riot rocked the city of Springfield, eruptions of anti-black violence – particularly lynching – were horrifically commonplace, but the Springfield riot was the final tipping point that led to the creation of the NAACP. Appalled at this rampant violence, a group of white liberals that included Mary White Ovington and Oswald Garrison Villard (both the descendants of famous abolitionists), William English Walling and Dr. Henry Moscowitz issued a call for a meeting to discuss racial justice. Some 60 people, seven of whom were African American (including W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell), signed the call, which was released on the centennial of Lincoln’s birth.
On February 12, 1909, the nation’s largest and most widely recognized civil rights organization was born.
Echoing the focus of Du Bois’ Niagara Movement for civil rights, which began in 1905, NAACP aimed to secure for all people the rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution, which promised an end to slavery, provide equal protection of the law, and the right for all men to vote, respectively. Accordingly, the NAACP’s mission is to ensure the political, educational, equality of minority group citizens of States and eliminate race prejudice. The NAACP works to remove all barriers of racial discrimination through democratic processes.
The national office was established in New York City in 1910 as well as a board of directors and president, Moorfield Storey, a white constitutional lawyer and former president of the American Bar Association. Other early members included Joel and Arthur Spingarn, Josephine Ruffin, Mary Talbert, Inez Milholland, Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Sophonisba Breckinridge, John Haynes Holmes, Mary McLeod Bethune, George Henry White, Charles Edward Russell, John Dewey, William Dean Howells, Lillian Wald, Charles Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Fanny Garrison Villard, and Walter Sachs. Despite a foundational commitment to multiracial membership, Du Bois was the only African American among the organization’s original executives. He was made director of publications and research and in 1910 established The Crisis, the acclaimed publication of the NAACP.
Sonoma County’s First Black Residents (1850 – 1860)
The first black residents of Sonoma County were slaves who came from the South with the families that “owned them. With the admission of California as a free state in 1850, they were supposed to become free men and women. According to the 1850 census, there were only two blacks in the entire county: 1
Joseph Silver, 28, a freeman from Pennsylvania and his wife Louisa, 18. They worked as household servants for Dr. Elisha Ely, a Sonoma physician.
In 1852, Mary Ann Israel-Ash mortgaged her Sonoma County home and took donations to purchase an entire family of slaves. She paid the sum of $1,100 to the slave owner to prevent his slaves’ return to the South. 2
JOHN RICHARDS| Born in 1824, John Richards secured his own freedom in the early 1850’s. After living in Canada for a time, he settled in California in 1854 and came to Santa Rosa from Shasta County in 1856. “The clearly defined area encompassing the thirty square blocks known today as South Park is bordered by the Sonoma County Fairgrounds on the east, Santa Rosa Avenue on the West, Bennett Valley Road on the North and Aston Avenue on the south, was originally purchased by John Richards in the late 1850’s. Its 130 acres once served as a refuge for former slaves left homeless after emancipation. A successful entrepreneur, Richards opened a barber shop on the corner of Second and Main Streets,3 next to Santa Rosa House, the town’s hotel and stage stop. Richards prospered. His barber shop became the social center of the community. He opened similar businesses in Ukiah and Lakeport. His household was a haven for freed slaves during and after the Civil War.
Richards was well respected within the community, and at the time of his death, in 1879, he was honored with a large funeral, with burial in Rural Cemetery. One writer for the Democrat, callously wrote: “it was well worth the visit.”
Within seven years of their death, both John and Philena Richards, the estate was in the hands of real estate speculators. (story, Sept 24, 1887).
South Park Auction: Between four and five hundreds of people arrived on the special train from San Francisco and were driven direct to the scene of the day’s business in numerous vehicles which were in waiting at the depot. Bidding was somewhat uncertain at first but as the sale proceeded the bidders gained confidence and the auctioneer and his clerk were kept busily engaged in meeting the demands of the buyers. One hundred and ninety-five lots were sold, at an average price of $165. The sale was a success in every particular and has been the means of adding to Santa Rosa’s prominence as a booming city.4
1-3 Gaye LeBaron: A 19th Century Town
4Delilah Beasley, The Negro Trail Blazers of California
Sonoma County Black Residents and the Press (1860 – 1890)
By 1860, there were 20 blacks in the Santa Rosa town limits. Eight of the 20 lived in John Richards’ household., one of them was Samuel Clark, who worked for Richards as a barber. Others listed were:
Priscilla Ewing, a 20-year old “mulatto” working for Frank Shattuck, the County Clerk;
Ann Fisher, a 24-year old working for Edward Fisher, a farmer;
Ann Watson, 22, gardener for Barney Hoen;
H. W. Ely, 23, and Elizabeth Hudson, household of John Hofman, a farmer
“The Sonoma Democrat, probably backed with Confederate money in preparation for the Civil War, was published, edited and written by Virginia-born Thomas Thompson. Epithets like “nigger” and “coon” flowed easily from Thompson’s pen. “It is difficult to know whether the newspaper reflected the feelings of the community, but indications are that it did. And a competing newspaper, the Santa Rosa Times, later the Republican, established after the Civil War, took the same hard line against Abolitionists, against Negro suffrage and did not attack Thompson for his racist views.”
1864: An Abolitionist lecturer soliciting funds for the Freedman’s Relief, was taunted in a newspaper story because he could collect no more than $19 in Santa Rosa, “only four gentlemen contributed,” writes Thompson, “three of them of African descent.” The same lecturer, collected $123 in Petaluma.
1865: An editorial discussed the news that some California towns were actually including Negroes in 4th of July celebrations.
1866: Report of Freedman’s Aid Society lecturer being pelted with rotten eggs in Healdsburg.
“Headline on a story indicating that the county clerk will not register coloreds to vote, saying he ‘can’t see any change in the Constitution’.”5
The fact that a “colored school” is tolerated in Petaluma, and during the term which recently closed was maintained at a cost of $200 a year for each of the two pupils in attendance . . . has excited a good deal of comment throughout the State. . . Our “colored school” is a luxury that we cannot afford to maintain. It ought never to have been established, and the first official act of the Board of Education before the commencement of the next school term, should be the abolishment of this useless and very expensive attachment to our otherwise good school system. 6
1870: a story about Negroes being ”permitted to vote” in a Petaluma municipal election where ‘radicals were in charge. ‘7
1876: school census reports “one colored scholar ” in Santa Rosa, “taught separately, during recess, who does not occupy a school seat.”
1878: Rosa, a “humorous” local brief announcing: “Several Negroes for sale here in Santa Rosa. They are used as hitching posts. “8
1880: Santa Rosa Republican editorial advising: “colored immigrants” to stay away from California because they were “not fit to do battle with the self asserting, rough population of the state.”
1880 census: County population 24,623; 60 Negroes
It appears that the newspaper had two favorites:
Henry “Shine” Davidson, a bootblack at Koch’s Barber Shop, was born in 1819, in Savanna. His mother was a slave from Jamaica, his father an Englishman. At 13, he left the South for New York City and at 18, he joined missionaries from Oberlin College on a trip to Jamaica. There, he taught Jamaicans for the London Missionary Society.
After a trip to Panama, as head steward for the Panama Railway, he returned to Jamaica and married the daughter of a planter. In 1856, he accompanied Gen. William Walker on his expedition to Nicaragua, made another trip to Panama and came to Santa Rosa in 1870.
When Davidson died in 1899, the Press Democrat paid for him to be buried beside his wife in the Rural Cemetery rather than in potter’s field. His death was page one news, under the headline that read “Shiner Gone Home.”
The story makes fascinating reading, between the descriptions of the “little old tottering colored man,” and the fact that “he subsisted for several years almost entirely upon the charity of friends he made in better days,” we find an account of the fascinating life of a black adventurer whose life touched places and events well beyond the scope of the people who patronized him.
1890 census – Negro population 45.
Edmund “Uncle” Potter, a former slave from Maryland, came to California right after “the war” set him free. “In 1896, the subject of a pen sketch by the Democrat’s artist, was published with the following tribute:
“Uncle Potter is 76 years old and black as coal but his mind is bright and his heart is as kind as any white man. He has a keen wit which he punctuates with the apt originality pertaining to his race. Many of his bright sayings have appeared at various times in the ‘Gossip’ column of the Democrat..
“If he had his way he would colonize all the colored race in Africa where they could work out their own destiny by themselves. Uncle Potter is wonderfully well up in the Scriptures and is a strict constructionist of the word. He has built his house of faith upon the rock and not upon the shifting sands of doubt.. “9
6 Petaluma Argus Courier: Our Colored School, December 15, 1876
5, 7-8 Gaye LeBaron: A town’s history is not always what we’d like it to be. Santa Rosa Press Democrat January 17, 1988. 9Gaye LeBaron’s Notebook, January 17, 1988