Just before Memorial Day in 1911, one-fifth of Santa Rosa’s entire African-American community died on Fourth street. His name was John Williams.
At only 31 years old, Mr. Williams was too young to die of a heart attack. He worked as a bootblack at the downtown Overton Hotel barber shop but apparently when the chest pains began that spring evening, he was at home in the small rooming house above Frank Muther’s cigar store at 513 Fourth (about the current location of Tex Wasabi’s). He went downstairs and used the store’s phone to summon a doctor, which is what anyone did in those days if there was an emergency. He collapsed after making the call and died in the storeroom of the tobacco shop, attended by two physicians. The Press Democrat reported his last words were, “Goodbye boys, I’m dying. Goodbye.”
He lived alone but was married; his wife, Lucy, worked as “a domestic in the country,” according to the PD. In the census taken almost exactly a year earlier we found him in another rooming house and again alone. The census takers recorded only four other blacks living within city limits, a group so small that we can name them here and maybe help some descendant fill out a family tree. There was Ruben Safford (a barber) and Aleck Houston (a cook), hotel chambermaid Bertha Christopher and Lu Ann Edwards, a 63 year-old housekeeper.
That year African-Americans were the smallest racial minority in Santa Rosa (there were 37 Japanese and 70 Chinese in the census). Never before or since has Santa Rosa had so few black residents – there were even four times more blacks ‘way back in 1860, when the town was little more than a dusty crossroads with a county courthouse. Among those living here in those pre-Civil War years was John Richards, a former slave who became a successful businessman here and owned the property that became the South Park neighborhood, near the intersection of highways 101 and 12. (Gaye LeBaron has written several times about Richards and other black Santa Rosans in the 19th century; one such column can be read online via the SSU archives.)
In 1910, however, there was probably no great surprise that the census-takers found only five blacks in town – Santa Rosa was then about the whitest community in the whitest county in the whitest state. Look at the numbers: John Williams and the others represented just .06 percent of the town’s population. There were only 43 “negroes” in all of Sonoma County, less than even neighboring Marin and Napa (0.1, 0.6 and 0.2 percent, respectively). Overall, fewer than one person in a hundred in California was African-American.
(RIGHT: One of several advertising cartoons that appeared in the 1908 Santa Rosa Republican that featured a servile African-American youth. The drawing was from a series created by Richard F. Outcault, the cartoonist behind The Yellow Kid)
As the shoe-shiner in Santa Rosa’s best hotel, Williams was “a well known colored man about town,” according that Press Democrat item about the last few minutes of his life, which is really all we know for sure about his years here. We know he was light-skinned because he can be found as a baby in the 1880 census for Paris, Texas listed as “Mulatto”. The instructions to census enumerators that year specified, “Be particularly careful in reporting the class mulatto. The word is here generic, and includes quadroons, octoroons, and all persons having any perceptible trace of African blood. Important scientific results depend upon the correct determination of this class…” The notion that there were “important scientific results” riding on accurate labels was racist nonsense, as shown by John Williams’ family. His father John was listed as black and his mother, Gracy, as mulatto. Of John junior’s four brothers and sisters, three were designated as black plus one sister as mulatto. Scientists, sharpen your pencils and prepare to write really important monographs about what that could possibly mean.
And although we may think of the “mulatto” designation as a lingering throwback to Civil War-era mentality, it was still deemed somehow important in 1910 to fine tune African-Americans by their skin tone (1920 was the last year it was required). The census instructions for that year ordered, “the term ‘black’ (B) includes all persons who are evidently full-blooded negroes, while the term ‘Mulatto’ (Mu) included all other persons having some proportion or perceptible trace of negro blood.” The Santa Rosa census further shows the absurdity of requiring census takers to draw conclusions about race; John Williams was now designated black and the town had one mulatto – who was actually from the Philippines.
For the government to care whether Mr. Williams was a “full-blooded negro” or a “mulatto” reveals one of the many threads of racism woven into American culture in those days. There was (probably) little overt discrimination in 1910 Santa Rosa – we know anecdotally that black men were welcome at downtown saloons, which were the primary social centers for males in that era. He didn’t seem to face housing discrimination; the other three boarders in the 1910 rooming house were whites. He apparently was receiving good medical care as he was dying and when he died, John Williams was not buried in the Potter’s Field graveyard as was required for anyone Chinese; he is one of at least ten African-Americans in Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery. (The location of his grave is unknown, but that’s a common problem in the Fulkerson section.) It would be wrong to presume this was a bastion of racial harmony, however – a few years earlier, another black man was beaten for the offense of simply tipping his hat to a white woman.
While Santa Rosa wasn’t really a Jim Crow town, it was nevertheless deeply part of a culture that dished up routine unkindness. Nearly everything that appeared in the local papers about African-Americans sent the message they ranked beneath whites and would never catch up. The Press Democrat was usually worse about this than the Santa Rosa Republican, but both often published offensive ads such as the one shown above. Neither Santa Rosa newspaper spewed racist epithets against blacks – as they sometimes still called Asians “Chinks” or “Japs” – yet the editors thought it great fun when whites smeared their faces with burnt cork and performed “Coon” songs.
Amateur minstrel shows became quite a fad around 1910; every few months some club or society, both male and female, would put on a show somewhere in Santa Rosa. The January, 1912 performance by members of the Elks Club was the biggest one yet, with several advance articles in both papers promising the audience a really swell time, illustrated with original caricatures of prominent men in costume and makeup. As discussed earlier, minstrel shows of this type were a far cry from the real thing, which had been seen here just a few years before. The turn-of-the-century minstrel show was an all (or mostly) black ensemble of top performers such as “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy and Billy Kersands, who basically invented tap dancing. They performed before biracial audiences and included cultural references specifically for blacks that whites wouldn’t get. There were few of those companies still around by 1910 – now attending a minstrel show meant watching members of the Chamber of Commerce shuffle about the stage telling watermelon jokes, acting foolish and laughing at the disenfranchised. It was mean-spirited and condescending, bordering on cruel. Strike that: It was cruel.
The difference between the two Santa Rosa papers was only apparent when it came to national news content. The Republican stayed true to its party-of-Lincoln roots by keeping Southern lynchings and other racial violence at the forefront. Over at the Press Democrat, shameful examples of prejudice abound. Some examples:
|During the 1904 presidential election, PD editor Ernest Finley expressed alarm that Teddy Roosevelt was inclined to promote racial equality, even having a black child stand onstage next to a white child during the convention. The following year the PD had even more of a fit when Teddy appointed an African-American to the position of collector of the Port of New York, because “Not one man in a thousand having business with the collector of the New York port is a negro.”|
|When black workers from Los Angeles were brought here to break a strike in 1906, the race of the men was the predominant issue for the PD, not that the local contractor bringing in scab labor.|
|A PD editorial warned about African-American “uppishness” if Jack Johnson were to beat a white boxer in a 1910 match for heavyweight champ.|
But maybe the ugliest example of racism was also the softest, and goes back to the PD item on John Williams’ death:
|…Suddenly he raised his arms and cried out: “God have mercy.” He staggered back… [realizing] that the end was coming. He raised himself and said: “Goodbye boys, I’m dying. Goodbye.”|
That’s the kind of breathless, melodramatic prose that could have been found in a pulp magazine story, or maybe an old-time novel such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It shows no respect for his loved ones to repeat details about his begging to God and staggering about, clearly in mortal pain. In the eight years I have been reading Santa Rosa newspapers from this era, I don’t recall a single instance where a banker or businessman or other prominent had his or her final moments described with pathos or even finely detailed at all, except for gentle euphemisms about “entering into peace” or such. But it’s likely editor Finley and the reporter didn’t think for a moment that they were demeaning John Williams by not extending to a “colored man” the same courtesies. After all, their unkindness grew out of long habit.
GOODBYE BOYS, I’M DYING–DIEDJohn Williams, Colored Man, Dies Suddenly in Storeroom on Fourth Street Last Night
John Williams, a well known colored man about town, who was for sometime employed as bootblack in the Overton barber shop and in other locations here, died very suddenly last night.
Williams walked into Frank Muther’s cigar store shortly after nine o’clock and asked Mr. Muther if he might use the phone to call Dr. Jackson Temple, as he was feeling ill. Permission was readily given, and Dr. Temple, who had retired, said he would come as quickly as possible. Lying down the phone, the man again complained of his illness and walked out into the store. Suddenly he raised his arms and cried out:
“God have mercy.”
He staggered back. Mr. Muther rushed to his assistance and helped him into the inner room and laid him down. Then he and William Brown, the latter the man’s old employer, did what they could for him, and medical assistance was summoned. Dr. S. M. Rohr was on Fourth street at the time and he came at once to the store. Mr. Temple also arrived quickly, and the physicians did what they could for the dying man. The latter realized that the end was coming. He raised himself and said:
“Goodbye boys, I’m dying. Goodbye.”
He laid back and expired. He has a wife who is employed as a domestic in the country.– Press Democrat, May 27, 1911