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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.

 

sources
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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