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JOHN RICHARDS’ MONUMENT RESTORED

richards2We can all use some good news (heaven knows) so let’s celebrate the restored good looks of John and Philena Richards’ monument at the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery.

Volunteers Steve Lovejoy and Jonathan Quandt spent the better part of July 13 scrubbing off decades of accumulated moss, lichen and grit. Lovejoy says the biological solution they used will continue to kill the algae growth as it seeps into the stone and the marble should further whiten up with time.

John Richards, who died in 1879, was Sonoma County’s first civil rights activist and tireless advocate for the education of African-American children, even funding a teacher for them because the town would not allow them into public school. Richards was profiled here as part of the series on notable African-Americans in 19th century Santa Rosa.

As mentioned in that article, this monument was originally so distinctive the town newspaper encouraged readers to visit the cemetery to see it. The stonework company even signed its name at the base of the steps, something I’ve not seen elsewhere at the cemetery. From the description transcribed below it has been considerably vandalized; there were urns with doves perched on the rim, all in white Italian marble, with a statue of a “faithful dog” at its base. It surely must have been something to see.

 

Work performed by Steve Lovejoy and Jonathan Quandt (wearing the safety vest). Photos by Carole Quandt
 

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A Handsome Monument, the marble work placed above the remains of the late John Richards in the Santa Rosa Cemetery deserves more than a passing notice. The lot is enclosed with a wall of Folsom granite, two feet in height and handsomely finished. The base of the monument is of Folsom granite two feet in height, surmounted by a moulded marble base eighteen inches high, then comes the die cap, two and a half foot in height, and surmounted by a cap ten inches in height, and above this is an urn two feet two inches in height, the whole forming a most handsome piece of monumental work, and all except the base is of Italian marble. From the base of the monument to the entrance of the lot is something we have not seen in another cemetery in this county, a marble walk forty-two inches wide and thirteen feet in length. It adds greatly to the appearance of the grounds. There are two urns about three feet in height, tastefully disposed about the lot representing a laver. on the rim of each is perched a dove, all of beautiful white Italian marble. At the foot of the grave is a foot stone with the initials “J. R.” tastefully worked, and at the head is one of the urns above mentioned, and a statue representing a faithful dog deposing at the base of it. The whole grounds are most tastefully arranged, the marble and granite work, costing not less than $2,000, and are well worth a visit. The workmanship is that of A. C Thompson. Petaluma, who took the first premium at the recent exhibition of the Sonoma and Marin Agricultural Society.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 25 1879

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THE STARTLING LIFE THAT ONCE HE LIVED (Hidden Lives III)

It came to this: He was afraid to step outside at night because they might be waiting for him in the dark.

His attackers during 1886 were a troupe of Santa Rosa boys who thought it was great fun to pelt Henry’s little house with stones and other objects, with Henry sometimes being struck himself. The boys made a project of it, curating rotten chicken eggs and spoiled fruit along with heavy-but-throwable rocks, hauling this ammunition stockpile down to the poorest part of town on First Street. His door was their target, but sometimes the missiles went through windows.

The harassment had gone on for a while – weeks, maybe months – while his pleas for help were ignored by the authorities. “The Marshal told him that the boys would not do it if they did not think it annoyed him, and they do it to hear the old gentleman complain”, reported the Democrat newspaper in January. Another item about the ongoing attacks appeared nine months later, with the comment it was too bad that it was happening because Henry and his wife were such good Christians.

The boys likely picked on the Davisons because they were African-Americans. Santa Rosa in the 19th century never had much tolerance for its non-white residents, and 1886 was particularly bad – on a downtown street that summer, a youth repeatedly beat a Chinese man in the head with an iron bar; no arrests were made and the newspaper waved it off with the same “boys will be boys” attitude.

Henry was also an easy target because he was elderly (67) and had the humblest job in town, shining shoes at Gus Koch’s barber shop on the corner of Mendocino and Fourth Street. His nickname was even “Shiner” – and let’s not overlook that was also racist slang for anyone with a black complexion.

Another reason they may have gone after him was because he had to be a liar or a fabulist. There were stories told about him which couldn’t possibly be true – such a frail, old shoeshine man in a farmtown like Santa Rosa couldn’t have known famous people, taken part in historic events or done any other remarkable things. It all had to be made up. Right?

This is the third and final installment in the series “THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA.” Each of the other profiles had lost or fragmentary chapters where we don’t know much about the early parts of their story. For Henry Davison, the pages in the whole middle section of his book are ripped out.

Henry William Davison was born in Savannah on August 12, 1819. Lloyd Belton, who researched Davison’s genealogy as part of his PhD work on black abolitionists, believes his mother was a Jamaican house slave and his father was her white English slaveowner. Both Henry and his brother George were likely slaves at birth.

We first meet Henry as a teenager in New York City. How he got there is unknown; he and George might have escaped or been released from slavery. What we do know is that he was smart, articulate and a radical abolitionist – which meant he believed all slavery in the U.S. should be abolished immediately, some arguing it should be done by any means necessary including violence (John Brown being that most famous adherent).

Despite his youth, Henry was a firebrand within the early American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), the first national group fighting to end slavery. This was cutting-edge activism in the 1830s, years before the more famous figures we celebrate today such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman.

There was a schism within AASS from the beginning; on one side were the radical abolitionists led by William Lloyd Garrison, a white printer who was also an early advocate of women’s rights. Opposing them were those who believed in the older colonization movement, which thought white Americans would never welcome freed slaves as equals and thought it was best for them to emigrate to Liberia in Africa or maybe Central America.1 That faction also opposed allowing women to vote or even join in anti-slavery societies.

Henry Davison was firmly tethered to the Garrison camp, and while still eighteen founded the black-only “Garrison Anti-Slavery Society” in New York City, the use of the name to probably signal there was no question about which side of the fence they stood. A few months later a letter from Henry was published in The Liberator (the weekly abolitionist newspaper published by Garrison in Boston). There Davison denounced colonizationists as “apologists,” a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” and called their associated church a “nest of unclean birds” (nice phrase, that). This drew sharp responses from leaders of that movement.

Despite his youth Henry was a rising star in AASS, being part of the New York state delegation at their 1839 convention when the organization had over a quarter-million members nationwide. There he must have rubbed shoulders with the men and women who were founding the Underground Railroad.

His life as a radical abolitionist shifted in his twenties as he became an AASS organizer in Jamaica, working under the umbrella of Oberlin College. This was right after full emancipation was granted in the British West Indies, and the Herculean task was helping the former slaves build an autonomous society while staving off efforts by the planters to dominate. He went to work for the London Missionary Society, which was more experienced in culture building (culture imposing might be a better way to say it) and was affiliated with another British charity focused just on public education. (The pay was likely better than AASS, too.)

Now we’ve come to the part of his lifestory where the middle chapters are missing. In 1849 he married Jane Rachael Malliet, the daughter of a Jamaican planter and who is buried next to him at Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery. But little is known from 1850 until he arrives in Sonoma county in 1870 aside from a few lines in his obituary, which seem to be badly garbled. Our loss is that the writer drops the intriguing tease that Henry “had some startling experiences.”

Some of it involves the Panama Railroad. Before the transcontinental train, people were desperate for a faster route between the East Coast and San Francisco – the best anyone could do in the mid-19th century was building a railroad across Panama, which shaved months off the trip of sailing around South America. Construction began in 1850 and would take five years to complete; it was brutal work and involved many Jamaican laborers, which might have been Henry’s connection to the initial project. The obit stated he was “appointed head steward by the chief engineer.” Years later, after the trains began running he was supposedly involved with the railroad again; during that time there was at least one incident where abolitionists used the trip to assist slaves escaping their slaveholders.2

Davison’s “startling experiences” supposedly happened in 1856, when he “accompanied General Walker to Nicaragua.” This is not the place to dig into the complicated (and very weird) story of William Walker; all Gentle Reader needs to know is he was an American freebooter who invaded Nicaragua that year, had himself named president and re-legalized slavery, all part of a plan to annex the country to the U.S. as a new slave-holding state. For more there’s Wikipedia, an entertaining animated short video that rushes through most of his story and a first-rate thesis which should be turned into a book (PDF).

No matter how hard one tries, there’s no way to square the circle on this story – an African-American abolitionist like Davison would have no truck with a rabid white supremacist such as Walker, who not only wanted to bring slaves from southern states but reboot the African slave trade. While I’ll easily believe Henry could have been in Nicaragua at the time and had come away with some ripping yarns about the chaos there, methinks the obituary writer must have gotten the details upside down.

Whatever startling experiences he had there, that marks the beginning of his untraceable years. What happened to their children? We don’t know (their youngest, Henry Jr. was born in Jamaica the year after he was in Nicaragua). Why did they come to Sonoma county – did they have friends here? We don’t know. Once they arrived in Santa Rosa, why did he (apparently) have no connection with the network of Bay Area civil rights activists, even though some of the East Coast abolitionists from his past were in San Francisco? We don’t know.

Intersection of Mendocino and Fourth streets in Santa Rosa c. 1870, when Henry Davison arrived. The courthouse and jail are seen at left; on the opposite corner is the Roney Building, which was where Davison shined shoes in Gus Koch’s barber shop. This is likely another drawing by African-American artist Grafton Tyler Brown (see intro). Image courtesy Sonoma County Library
Intersection of Mendocino and Fourth streets in Santa Rosa c. 1870, when Henry Davison arrived. The courthouse and jail are seen at left; on the opposite corner is the Roney Building, which was where Davison shined shoes in Gus Koch’s barber shop. This is likely another drawing by African-American artist Grafton Tyler Brown (see intro). Image courtesy Sonoma County Library

He was 50/51 in 1870 when he and Jane landed in Santa Rosa and until he died almost thirty years later, he led a nondescript life.

He made 25¢ for four shoeshines – to just earn as much as a California farm laborer, he needed to shine a minimum of 46 shoes every day. It was barely enough to live on; his obituary stated he “subsisted almost entirely upon the charity of the friends he made in better days.” Still, he needed to beg for public charity. The year before the boys began pelting the Davison’s home with rocks and rotten eggs, the Board of Supervisors authorized the treasurer to make his rent payment (such grants to the destitute were not unusual).

Besides having his house stoned – and the police refusing to do anything to stop it – Davison endured other indignities in Santa Rosa.

Right after he arrived in 1871, Henry registered to vote. The Registrar of Voters began requiring a physical description in the 1890s; while the data for 1892 appear correct, in 1896 Henry was identified as a blue-eyed blonde in the Great Register. It probably was just a racist prank, but we can’t rule out it might have been a ruse to block him from casting his ballot.

Then there was the fundraiser for the San Francisco Midwinter Fair. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago had been such a hit that it was decided to have a big exposition in Golden Gate Park to boost California, including an exhibit of Sonoma County products (Healdsburg’s contribution was a prune bridge). This project consumed the county and particularly Santa Rosa; hundreds of articles appeared in the Democrat about meetings to plan planning meetings and committees formed to form subcommittees. It kept much of the town busy for months.

To help pay the necessary expenses, there were three nights of entertainments by local people presented at the big Athenaeum theater at the corner of Fourth and D. The first half of each show was like an amateur vaudeville bill, with a string of singers, piano players and fiddlers (I confess surprise at finding one act was a “trapeze performance by the Cole family”). The second part of the program was a rehearsed production, of sorts. One evening it was the portrayal of a schoolday with the “Mud-Alley Kindergarten” which was apparently as adorable as it sounded, and another night it was “Ye Old Folk’s Concert.” But the evening that was most popular, according to the Democrat, had a revue done in blackface:

The second night of the Midwinter Fair entertainment in the Athenaeum was in every way worthy to follow its predecessor. There was not the burlesque which characterized the first evening’s performance, though the audience found much to laugh at in the admirable and varied makeups of the ladies and gentlemen who took their daintiest steps for the cake. To say that the aggregation of counterfeit Africans was elite would be bare of hyperbole. There was nothing shabby or rowdyish in the character representation. The elegance of the costumes and toilets added a zest to the fun of guessing the identities which were concealed beneath the curled hair and prepared cork. The march which preceded the walk for the cake abounded in graceful evolutions, all ot which were paired off in a manner appropriate to the occasion…C. B. Kirkpatrick, as “Shiner,” was a feature of the cake walk. Campbell should take out patent papers on his admirable impersonation of the character.

henrydavisonMaybe that was not the lowest depth to which our 19th century Santa Rosa ancestors ever sunk, but mocking an impoverished 74 year-old man has to rank near the bottom. The worst part is that I doubt any of them even considered the cruelty of having a good laugh at his expense.

Henry W. Davison died in 1899, nine years after Jane (she had no obituary, nor even a single-line death notice in the paper). As an indigent, he was about to be buried in the Potter’s Field when the Press Democrat stepped in and paid to have him laid to rest next to his wife in the regular part of the cemetery. I don’t believe the newspaper ever did anything like that again, and it’s unknown why they offered this act of charity – although the paper slipped some PR into his obituary by pointing out “…the additional expense of the interment consequent to his being placed where he wished being borne by the Press Democrat.” This doesn’t completely explain why, but keep in mind the journal was no longer the old Democrat edited by the racist Thompson brothers, but now helmed by a new generation of young men who grew up in Santa Rosa. I have a theory which needs more background to explain than is appropriate here, and will be explored in the story about the origins of the PD.

Of all the mysteries whispered in the old Rural Cemetery, the story of Henry Davison stands among the most haunting. He should not have ended up here as he did; he should not have ended up here at all. Henry Davison should have ended up as one of the storied men in the quest for slavery’s end and then the long struggle for equal rights. But something happened and we’ll probably never know what caused his retreat. When Act II of his life took place in the Caribbean, Henry Davison was an educated man who likely had considerable leadership abilities and political skills. When the curtain rose for Act III in Santa Rosa, we saw on stage a man with his back bent low over the feet of less notable men, working at an unskilled job usually held by boys, or men with damaged wits. There must be a story there that none know.

 


1 Abraham Lincoln was a colonizationist before the Emancipation Proclamation, and in 1862 pushed forward a plan to resettle District of Columbia’s freed slaves at the Chiriquí province of Panama, which the Republican Press suggested should be called “The Colony of Linconia.”

2 In “The Negro Trail Blazers of California,” researcher Delilah Beasley tells the story about abolitionists in 1856 intercepting a family of slaves who were being taken by a Virginia slaveholder to work on a ranch near Petaluma (!) but en route plans were made for the family to escape once the journey ended in San Francisco. The crews on the steamers were supposedly entirely black, and the train porters were probably black as well.

 

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Court-house.- From and after this day the undersigned will give the best polish with first-class blacking – no acid — at 4 shines for 25c. His old friends and customers are requested to call and patronize the pioneer old man, H. W. Davidson.

– Daily Democrat, November 10 1877

 

On motion of Supervisor Coulter the Board ordered that a warrant be drawn on the County Treasurer in favor of Proctor, Reynolds & Co., for payment of house rent occupied by Henry W. Davidson, (colored) alias “Shiner.”

– Sonoma Democrat, December 12 1885

 

Malicious Mischief.

Henry Davis, better known as “Shiner,” has made a complaint to the city authorities against a gang of hoodlums of tender years, who take delight in bothering the old couple. They throw large stones and missiles of every description against the old gentleman’s cottage door, and he further states that he is afraid to stir outside of his house after dark, as he has frequently been struck with stones, decayed vegetables, and antiquated hen fruit at different times. The Marshal told him that the boys would not do it if they did not think it annoyed him, and they do it to hear the old gentleman complain. It is carrying the joke a little too far, aud some of them may get hurt when the old gentleman gets up his ire.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 23 1886

 

Not Pleasant.

Old Uncle Davidson (colored) alias “Shiner,” complains that his aged wife and himself are very much annoyed by a few young hoodlums who make a practice of throwing rocks and other missiles against their door, and on one or two occasions through the windows, while they are engaged in their religious devotions. The old couple, although a littie off color, possess as white hearts as the average of mankind, and are very strict in what they term their religious duties. The old gentleman says there is not a day passes that they do not read their Bible and say their Litany; and it is not hard to agree with him that it is not pleasant to have rocks, decayed fruit, etc., hurled through the door, when it is open, and against it, when it is shut, while the inmates are thus engaged.

– Sonoma Democrat, September 4 1886

 

The second night of the Midwinter Fair entertainment in the Athenaeum was in every way worthy to follow its predecessor. There was not the burlesque which characterized the first evening’s performance, though the audience found much to laugh at in the admirable and varied makeups of the ladies and gentlemen who took their daintiest steps for the cake. To say that the aggregation of counterfeit Africans was elite would be bare of hyperbole. There was nothing shabby or rowdyish in the character representation. The elegance of the costumes and toilets added a zest to the fun of guessing the identities which were concealed beneath the curled hair and prepared cork. The march which preceded the walk for the cake abounded in graceful evolutions, all ot which were paired off in a manner appropriate to the occasion…C. B. Kirkpatrick, as “Shiner,” was a feature of the cake walk. Campbell should take out patent papers on his admirable impersonation of the character.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 23 1893

 

SHINER GONE HOME
Found Dead in His Room Here Thursday Horning
The Little Old Man Laid to Rest at Eventide Beside His Wife in the Cemetery

Henry W. Davison, known, however, to every man, woman and child in Santa Rosa at the present time and for many years past as “Shiner” Davis, the little, old, tottering colored man, is no more.

Thursday morning shortly before 11 o’clock, Bert Gardner, in a room of whose house on First street old “Shiner” resided, discovered the old man lying on the floor beside his bed quite dead, and he had been so apparently for several hours.

Everything was very still in the old man’s room on Thursday morning. A little before 11 o’clock Mrs. Gardner went to the door to see if he wanted something to eat.

She called to him, but received no reply. Becoming alarmed she called her husband, who was outside, who, in company with a neighbor Mr. Thompson, went to the room and found Mr. Davison had passed away. He was partially undressed.

Undertaker Pedersen was notified, and so was Coroner Pierce, who held an inquest later in the day, the verdict being in accordance with the testimony. A Press Democrat representative ascertained from Mr. Gardner that the old man had frequently expressed a wish to be buried in Rural cemetery by his wife, who died here in 1890. Mr. Pedersen, who has the contract for burying the county indigents, was consulted. It was found there would be extra expense beyond that allowed by the county if the old man’s wish was complied with, and his remains buried in his lot at the cemetery beside those of his wife, instead of in the potter’s field.

Late in the afternoon the old man’s body was laid to rest. The funeral was a quiet affair but the old man was not buried in the lonely potter’s field. Old “Shiner’s” last wish was gratified, the additional expense of the interment consequent to his being placed where he wished being borne by the Press Democrat.

Henry W. Davison was born in Savannah, Georgia, on August 12, 1819. His father was an Englishman and his mother was a native of the island of Jamaica. At 13 years of age he left Georgia and went to New York, where shortly after becoming of age he secured a position with the missionaries sent out by Oberlin university to Jamaica. He taught the Jamaicans under the direction of the society for some time, and later became associated with the London missionary society. Returning to New York he joined the Congregational church, and in 1848 started for Aspinwall, having been appointed head steward by the chief engineer of the Panama railroad. The following year he returned to Jamaica for his health, and the same year, 1849, was married there to a daughter of Jean Marjeatte, a planter.

In 1B56 he accompanied General Walker to Nicaragua, and had some startling experiences while with him. Later he returned to New York, went thence to Aspinwall again, and in 1870 came to Petaluma, moving to Santa Rosa the same year, where he resided until the day of his death. For many years he ran a bootblack stand in Koch’s barber shop. His wife died in this city on April 4, 1890. “Shiner” was a kind hearted old man, and for several years had subsisted almost entirely upon the charity of the friends he made in better days.

– Press Democrat, February 18 1899

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THE SISTER OF THE WHITEWASH MAN (Hidden Lives II)

Quiz: Name the woman in 1870s Santa Rosa who was a successful real estate investor. Answer: It’s a trick question (sorry!) because we don’t know her real name. Oh, and by the way: She was a former slave.

On her tombstone at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery she is Elizabeth Potter. Legally she was C. E. Hudson, which was the only name on her will and how she bought and sold land – except for once when she identified herself as Charlotte E. Hudson. The 1860 census named her as Elizabeth Hudson, and her death notice in the local newspaper stated she was known as Lizzie Hudson. Whatever her name, Elizabeth/Charlotte Potter/Hudson was a remarkable woman. The reason you’ve never heard of her before is certainly because she was African-American and Santa Rosa’s 19th century Democrat paper had a single-minded determination to erase the presence of its black citizens, only mentioning them when there was a shot at grinding them down with ridicule.

(This is the second installment in the series, “THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA.” It will be helpful to read the introduction for background.)

Most of what we know about her comes from her tombstone and mentions in her brother’s obituary (there was no obituary for her – she received only that two-line “Lizzie” death notice, which appeared for a single day). From real estate transactions we can guess her net worth was about $7,000 before she died in 1876; at that time in Sonoma County, $10k was the threshold for being considered wealthy.

Her birth name was almost certainly Elizabeth Potter and she was born a slave in Maryland, 1826. Bondage ended when she escaped a slaveholder in Virginia and somehow made her way to Santa Rosa, California. Speculate if you want that “Hudson” was related to a deceased husband, but note she never once used “Mrs.” with any form of her name, as was the custom at the time for widows.

We first meet her locally as Elizabeth Hudson in the 1860 census, where she is part of the household of civil rights activist John Richards, counted as a servant. (A servant was defined as a paid domestic worker.) She was listed as 37 years old and from Maryland. But a few days later, she was listed a second time as a servant for John H. Holman – but this time from Virginia. A double-count mistake like that is unusual, but not all that rare; the respondent for the household was almost certainly one of the Holmans and not Elizabeth herself.

potterplotRIGHT: The Potter family plot at Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery

After the Civil War she managed to reach her older brother who had remained in captivity until emancipation, having been sold four or five times in his fifty-odd years. At her urging, Edmund joined his sister here in 1872 and two years later, they became co-owners of 50+ acres north of town next to the county poor farm. Presumably all or most of the $1,200 price was contributed by Elizabeth (this land deal was the only time she used “Charlotte”).

There Edmund and his wife, Martha, made a small farm. Elizabeth may have lived with them as well; it was where she died in 1876.

Elizabeth knew she was dying and a few months prior sold one of her investment properties for the first time, getting $1,700 for a downtown parcel. She also tried to lure more of her family to Santa Rosa; in a poignant bequest in her will, she offered 13 of an even more valuable lot to “any cousin of mine who may come out from the East and attend me in my last sickness and may be here before my burial.” No one came. When she passed away just before Thanksgiving, her 59 year-old brother Edmund – who could read but not write – inherited everything.

Edmund and Martha’s sunset years looked secure. The parcel he inherited was at the foot of Fifth street (where the Post Office would be built decades later) and sold in 1879 for $3,100, which should have been enough for them to comfortably live on for the rest of their lives. The next year the Potter farm was valuated at $1,600, although they had made no improvements – it was still all meadowland. They had a pig and a couple of dozen chickens.

Tragedy struck as Martha died in a 1880 fire (she fell asleep while smoking) and the Democrat newspaper described her agonizing death in lurid detail. This was not at all unusual – the paper routinely spared no ink in describing how African-Americans died; in the following profile it was even reported the old man was found “partially undressed.” It was another routine exercise in racism, as deaths of white members of the community were almost never treated in such a demeaning manner. And it wasn’t limited to the 19th c. Democrat; the same treatment can be found in the Press Democrat as late as 1911.

whitewasherRIGHT: Illustration from “City Cries: Or, a Peep at Scenes in Town” Philadelphia, 1850

What happened during the next few years is a mystery, but apparently he lost his farm and everything else. No legal notice of the property being sold can be found in any newspaper, nor was there any clue as to what happened to his sizable nest egg. He was next spotted in 1884, when the city paid a bill he submitted for $4.02. That likely meant he was now the whitewash man.

Whitewashing was among the lowest menial jobs traditionally held by 19th century African-Americans. It was messy work particularly as ceilings were often whitewashed but it was not dangerous – ignore internet claims that old-time whitewash contained lead – though there were several variations in the formulas (PDF).

He was now living in town at 528 First street and married again in 1890 to Louisa Hilton, a woman 25 years younger who had four daughters. The minister in the ceremony was Jacob Overton (see intro), one of the Bay Area civil rights activists who had earlier kept John Richards and others here in touch with the movement’s progress. There’s no evidence that Potter or his sister (under any of her names) were actively involved in the fight for equality, but it’s still noteworthy he had some sort of connection with a man as hooked-up as Overton.

Living in Santa Rosa proper exposed the Potters to the unquenched racial hatred that still burned here thirty years after the Civil War. In his collection of character sketches “Santa Rosans I Have Known,” Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley recalled being sent on an errand to ask Potter’s daughter for help with housework at his parent’s house. Finley didn’t know the neighborhood and asked Judge Pressley for directions. (Pressley was the Superior Court judge at the time and an outspoken racist, having infamously once said he came to Santa Rosa “to get away from the carpet-baggers, scalawags and ni***rs of South Carolina.”) Naturally, the judge used the boy’s simple question as an opportunity to throw in a racial slur:


One time while a small boy I was sent down to Uncle Potter’s house to notify the aforesaid daughter that her services would be required at our house the following morning. I had difficulty in finding the place, and as Judge Pressley lived in that neighborhood I rang his doorbell and when he appeared, made inquiry. I must have been somewhat embarrassed or confused, for I said, “Judge Pressley, is there a negro lady who lives somewhere near in this vicinity?” Judge Pressley, a southerner of the old school, replied somewhat testily, “There are no negro ladies living around here, but Uncle Potter’s house is just around the corner and I think you will find Mandy or her mother at home.”

His “Uncle Potter” nickname probably emerged soon after he moved to Santa Rosa, and make no mistake, this was not a term of endearment or respect as “Tío” is used in Spanish-speaking cultures. In Jim Crow America, addressing an older African-American man as “uncle” was just the flip side of calling a younger adult “boy.”

As noted in the intro, racism in Santa Rosa’s Democrat newspaper during the later 19th century was usually passive – ignoring the existence of people like Elizabeth Potter and less often flinging around “n word” type slurs. Not so with Edmund Potter; the paper portrayed the 80 year-old man as the town’s laughable resident character.

“Uncle Potter” first appeared in the Democrat on April 13, 1895: “De trouble wid de ladders ob success in use now-er-days,” said Uncle Potter at his home on First street, “am dat they ain’ strong enough in de j’ints. When yoh gets pooty clos ter de top, dey’s liable ter break and drap yer.” Over the following 2½ years there would be dozens more of these aphorisms, metaphors and snarky quips about politicians, all written in pseudo-plantation patois – Gentle Reader may be justly skeptical that a literate man born in Maryland would speak like a Mississippi field hand. More examples:

“De man dat calls hisself a fool will nebbah forgive another for agree!n’ wid him.” “When yoo poke a toad philosophically you can’t tell which way he will jump nor how far, an’ its about the same way wid de avrage jury.” “Politicians am like corkscrews, de mo’ crooked dey am, de stronger their pull.” “De man ain’t been born dat kin live an’ love on bad cookin’. Good cookin’ keeps lub in de house much longer’n good looks.” “Political economy seems to me it’s a sickness kinder like the grip. It comes on with a weakness fer office, and you can’t get shet of it, no way. Bime by it brings on a third-term fit — that’s skeery, I tell you, and there ain’t no economy in that fer po’ folks who do the votin’, and there ain’t no economy for the other fellow, for he ginrally gets beat any way.”

The blame for this shameful “humor” falls entirely on Robert A. Thompson, brother of the paper’s founder and Confederate flag-waver, Thomas L. Thompson. Robert was editor and publisher of the Democrat in those final years before it was sold to Ernest Finley & Co. in 1897. He’s since been portrayed as a serious scholar for having written two important early histories of the county and town.*

What Robert was doing in the mid-1890s was just an updated version of what his brother did with racially-charged language a generation before – titillating the white supremacists in the paper’s audience. Readers would have recognized the “Uncle Potter” dialect and backwoods insights as being in step with the popular “Lime-Kiln Club” stories of the 1880s, several of which appeared in the Democrat and were collected in a 1882 top-selling book, “Brother Gardner’s Lime-kiln Club”. With foolish characters such as Pickles Smith, Boneless Parsons and Elder Dodo, the stories portray African-Americans as dimwitted and/or childlike, seeking (and failing) to mimic whites and white society. And, of course, watermelons were stolen. When teaching about the history of Jim Crow, the destructive impact of this white superiority crap in popular culture merits far more attention than it gets, in my opinion.

potterportraitRIGHT: Drawing of Edmund Potter from the Sonoma Democrat, July 25 1896

While the Lime-Kiln Club was fictional, “Uncle Potter” was not. Edmund Pendleton Potter was a very real, very elderly man trying to make a subsistence living to support himself and his stepdaughters – his second wife had died in 1895, just a week after the first “Uncle Potter” item appeared. Everybody in this small town would have known the whitewash man by sight, and it seems likely the clever sayings attributed to him would have made him target for cruel boys and mean drunks seeking to bully someone for sadistic kicks. Any torment could only have gotten worse after the Democrat printed a drawing of him the following year along with a description that “…He has a keen wit which he punctuates with the apt originality pertaining to his race… He is quite a character and an entertaining talker. Like all his race he has a lively imagination and a highly developed emotional nature…” It was an invitation for people to expect him to perform on request.

Edmund Potter lived to be 91, dying in 1908 and continued whitewashing up to his final day. Obituaries appeared in both the Republican and Press Democrat, although neither paper could be bothered to get his first name right. He is buried in the Rural Cemetery, Main Circle 1, next to Elizabeth and his two wives, although he has no grave marker. His funeral service was conducted by Jacob Overton, the rights activist who had a recurring role in his life which was never explained.


* Robert A. Thompson, brother of Thomas L. Thompson, was County Clerk 1877-1884, then appointed U.S. Merchandise Appraiser in San Francisco 1885-1892. He ran for Secretary of State in 1898 and lost by 0.7% of the vote; he said he would call for a recount but nothing became of it, perhaps due to the expense or because Democratic party officials wanted no part in would have been the first contested office in state history. He first edited the Democrat in 1871 and apparently continued to be involved sporadically until it was sold in 1897. Robert authored two well-regarded local histories and an essay on the Bear Flag Revolt, all of which are available online. At his death he was working on a history of California. Thompson had a renowned library which supposedly contained many unique diaries and other primary sources, but what happened to it is unknown (my personal belief is the family donated it to the California Historical Society in San Francisco and it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake). He died Aug. 3 1903 and is buried in the Rural Cemetery Main Circle 184.

Top photo: Pamela Fowler Sweeney/findagrave.com
 

NEXT: HENRY W. DAVISON
 

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HUDSON-Near Santa Rosa, Nov. 21, 1876, Lizzie Hudson (colored), aged about 50 years. Funeral from her late residence tomorrow (Tuesday) at 2 o’clock. Friends are requested to attend.

– Daily Democrat, November 20 1876

 

BURNED TO DEATH.—On Sunday afternoon, May 23rd, Mrs. Martha Potter, wife of Edward Potter, a colored man who lives on a ranch near the Poor Farm, fell asleep with a pipe in her mouth, from which her clothes caught fire, burning her so severely that she died from the effects on Saturday evening. Her husband, who was asleep in an adjoining room, heard her struggling with the flames and going to her assistance, tore the clothes from her person, but she was so severely burned about the abdomen that death resulted as above stated. She was sixty-nine years of age,

– Sonoma Democrat, June 5 1880

 

Mrs. Potter’s Birthday Party.

Mrs. E. Potter celebrated her fifty-second birthday, at her home on First street, Wednesday night. About twenty of her friends and neighbors were present and sat down to a fine supper. Mrs. Potter’s health was toasted and every one wished her many happy returns of the day. Afterwards music and songs were rendered. All those who were fortunate enough to be present at this birthday party will long remember the happy occasion.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 6 1895

 

The above is a picture of Edmund Potter, better known as “Uncle Potter”, a highly respected citizen of Santa Roaa, from an excellent pen sketch made by our artist. 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. Uncle Potter was born in Maryland and came to California soon after the war set him free. He has lived in and around Santa Rosa for a number of years. Many of his bright sayings have appeared at various times in the “Gossip” column of the Democrat. He is quite a character and an entertaining talker. Like all his race he has a lively imagination and a highly developed emotional nature, 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.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 25 1896

 

Edmund Potter, the gentleman of color, better known as Uncle Potter, wants to go to Liberia in Africa, where many men and women of his own race and color are located, who speak the English language. Potter thinks he can do them good and he is circulating a petition to raise money enough for transportation. On his arrival in the dark continent he will devote himself to missionary work.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 13 1897

 

UNCLE POTTER DIES SUDDENLY
Well Known Negro Lived to be 91 Years Old

Edwin Pendleton Potter familiarly known about this city as “Uncle Potter,” the well known negro, passed away suddenly at his home on First street Thursday morning. He was in his usual good health early in the morning and had arisen and was about the house when he was taken with a pain in his back just over the heart. He lay down for a time and seemed to be getting better when he was taken with an attack of coughing and attempted to rise up, but sank back, and his step daughter ran to his side, but it was seen that the end was near. He died in a few minutes and before Dr. G. W. Mallory, who was hurriedly sent for, could arrive.

Deceased was born in Caroline county near Denton, Maryland, and was 91 years of age. He came to California and settled in Santa Rosa in 1872 and has resided here ever since. At the time of the war he had a sister who had been a slave in Virginia, but had run away, and after everything became righted he got into communication with her from this city and it was on her account that he was brought here. He was a slave himself and was sold some four or five times. He was twice married and both his wives were buried in the local cemetery and it was the old man’s wish that he be laid away by their side.

At one time “Uncle Potter” was one of Santa Rosa’s wealthy men and formerly owned the site where the new postoffice is soon to be built. He was also owner at one time of the ranch which is now the county farm and hospital. he was a very active man and right up to the time of his death was engaged in business. He was planning for another job of whitewashing on Wednesday and would have made some of the arrangements about his spray machine today.

“Uncle Potter” was of the Baptist faith but had joined the Holiness band here and was one of Elder Arnold’s great admirers. Hie was a great hand to attend church and took a great interest In religious affairs.

The arrangements for the funeral have not yet been made but will be announced in a day or two.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 4, 1908

 

‘UNCLE’ POTTER HAS GONE TO HIS REST
Aged Colored Man Who Was for Many Years a Resident of Santa Rosa Dies Thursday Morning

“Uncle” Edward Pendelton Potter will no longer be seen trundling his little cart and its whitewash outfit along the streets of Santa Rosa on week days. Neither will he be noticed, dressed in his best black suit and wearing his silk hat, tottering along towards the little Holiness Chapel on Humboldt street where for years he was one of the most regular of Pastor Arnold’s flock on Sunday.

The old colored man, for so many years a noted character about town, is dead. His life of ninety-one years ended suddenly at his humble cottage on First street Thursday morning where a step daughter has kept house for him. A sudden fit of coughing came on, Dr. Mallory was sent for, but before he could reach the house, “Uncle” Potter was no more.

The deceased had lived In Santa Rosa for almost thirty-seven years. Years ago he owned considerable property, but it all slipped through his hands. He was a good old man. and no one could be found about town on Thursday. but what spoke of him kindly, and with words of esteem. He was a Christian and in his humble way he lived his religion. He was a native of Maryland and in the days of slavery he knew what it meant to be sold as a slave four or five times. He was twice married and in the local cemetery he has a family plot where on Sunday afternoon he will he burled. The funeral will take place from Moke’s Chapel at two in the afternoon.

“Uncle” Potter was a very poor man when this world’s gifts are considered. Dr. J. J. Summerfield. as the representative of many of the old man’s friends, who are anxious that he shall be given a decent burial in his own plot, last night started out with a subscription list to collect enough money to have everything neat at the funeral. The people Dr. Summerfield approached last night were only too glad to give a donation towards the burial expenses.

– Press Democrat, June 5 1908

 

“UNCLE” POTTER SLEEPS IN SILENT TOMB

In the family plot in the old cemetery on Sunday afternoon they laid “Uncle” Potter to rest. Many old-time friends of the venerable and respected man gathered at the graveside to witness the last rites. The casket was covered with flowers and these in turn were laid on the newly made grave. The funeral took place from Moke’s chapel and the services were conducted by Elder J. M. Overton.

When the band accompanying the Woodmen’s parade met the funeral procession a halt was called, and while it passed by the band played “Nearer My God to Thee.” The sentiment of the hymn was particularly appropriate in view of the Christian character of the deceased and also because it was one of his favorite hymns.

– Press Democrat, June 9 1908

 

The colored citizens of Santa Rosa offer their heartfelt thanks to Dr. Summerfield and the friends of our departed and much respected fellowman “Uncle Potter,” who so kindly respected his memory with flowers, subscriptions and by giving him a good Christian burial.

The tribute paid by the Santa Rosa band and the W. O. W. touched our hearts. Trying to emulate the life of that grand old Christian, we are, very gratefully.
The Colored Citizens, by
Willis Claybrooks, John W. Dawler, Committee.

– Press Democrat, June 9 1908

 

At the Holiness Chapel at 11 o’clock this morning there will be a memorial service for the late “Uncle” Potter.

– Press Democrat, June 14 1908

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