“I firmly believe, from what I have seen, that this is the chosen spot of all this earth,” wrote Luther Burbank in his first letter from Santa Rosa in 1875. But then he added a qualifier: “…as far as Nature is concerned.”
Something about Santa Rosa apparently didn’t sit well with old Luther, but we’ll never know what. The town was welcoming to “immigrants” such as himself, yet it was still rough around the edges – a Chinese man had just been shot in the back and no one seemed very interested in finding out who did it. It was also a saloon town, where men argued endlessly about race horses and politics, topics which didn’t hold any interest for Burbank. Or maybe he didn’t know what to make of a “humor” item which appeared in the local newspaper around the time he arrived. It went like this: An ex-slave encountered a friend of his former “Massa” and said all the changes since the Civil War had left him sad. While he managed to save enough before the war to buy his freedom, now he wished he kept the money instead. The punchline: As a slave he was worth $1,000 – now he wasn’t worth a damn.
The weekly Sonoma Democrat regularly offered racist items like that – so many that it would be easy to mistake it for a newspaper published in the Deep South. That vignette, in fact, was reprinted from a paper in Mississippi.
This article is a coda to the series “THE HIDDEN LIVES OF BLACK SANTA ROSA,” which explored how the Democrat in the late 19th century ignored African-American townspeople, even when they were men and women of distinction. It disappeared them by rarely offering obituaries and not mentioning weddings, deaths, births, arrivals and departures. But that doesn’t mean the paper ignored African-Americans; it published something about them almost every week – albeit only things which ground them down by reinforcing the ugliest racist stereotypes.
Blacks in the late 19th century faced myriad problems nationwide, although today we focus mainly on the dramatic acts of violence and overt acts of discrimination – lynchings, the Klan, Jim Crow laws and the like. But reading the old Democrat it’s shocking to discover how normalized racism was in Santa Rosa. Those toxic little stinkbombs in the paper reminded African-Americans they were inferior and fair game to be pushed around, and they sent a clear message to whites that blacks deserved lowly status. And probably worst of all, it taught white children all this was just the way of the world. Coming soon: White Supremacy, The Next Generation.
Let Gentle Reader be forewarned that this is not the sort of historical amusement usually found here, and what follows will stray into uncomfortable territory – reading (or writing) about hateful speech is No. Fun. At. All. But we can’t discuss Santa Rosa’s history without being honest about how ugly some of it really was. We can debate how much this material shaped the town, but we can’t deny it existed. And we can’t pretend this problem stopped when the Sonoma Democrat folded in 1897; the Press Democrat continued dishing out offensive racial jokes and short fiction well into the 1930s, only not as vigorously.
We can also argue whether this article is guilty of presentism (judging the past by modern standards). Read through the sections below before taking a position on whether the material in the Democrat deserves “Huckleberry Finn” considerations. No, the Democrat certainly wasn’t alone in portraying African-Americans in a derisive way; after all, most of the insulting stuff they printed came from other newspapers and magazines, and not just those from Dixie land – sources below included leading Democratic party tub-thumpers such as the New York Sun and Washington Post, so it’s fair to say racist material was regularly found in print media that had a politically conservative bent. What still sets the Santa Rosa paper apart, however, is how much bilge our little 8-page weekly managed to serve up on a regular basis.
One way we can try to measure that is by using the search engine at the California Digital Newspaper Collection to find how often the “n word” appeared in the Democrat between 1860 and 1897. The answer is 369 times, but that’s certain to be a gross undercount; an entire year of the newspaper is missing and the collection’s mediocre OCR misses words when there imperfection on the scanned page. Also, the noun sometimes did not always refer to people; Brazil nuts were commonly called “n***** toes” (seriously!) and “n***** baby contest” was the general name for a ball-throwing game at carnivals, most commonly a dunk tank. Finally, some of the most offensive content did not contain the “n word” at all.
Nor is it practical to compare what appeared in the 1860s to items from later in the century. During the Civil War and the years immediate afterward, editor Thomas Thompson was absolutely vicious in his racist hatred – he spat out the “n word” often and his writings were laden with disgust for African-Americans, suggesting they were to blame for the South’s misery after the war and shouldn’t have been allowed to stick around. His brother Robert edited the paper during the final years and race stories published by him often displayed a smug air of superiority; his favorite meme seemed to be tales about bemused rich white men encountering destitute former slaves. Same white supremacist garbage as his brother produced, just with less frothing and flying spittle.
The selections below come just from the 1890s, and are a small sample of what was printed in the Democrat during those years. Although the race articles from that period could be considered “racism lite” compared to the 1860s, the Democrat consistently followed four boilerplates: Blacks were described as happy under slavery, ignorant, clownish or criminal.
Let me forewarn again: All of this material is offensive – but try not to look away, and don’t forget this trash (and more of its kind) was in our hometown weekly newspaper, likely read in every Santa Rosa household where it would have impacted white and black children alike.
(In the examples I’m only providing snippets because I’ve seen search engine results which imply bigots have visited, seeking racist material to fulfill their fantasies of the master race. Dates are provided so image scans of the original article can found.)
The intro to the “Hidden Lives” series mentioned an 1889 item titled “Slavery’s Sunny Side,” and the article which appeared around the time of Burbank’s arrival are other examples of the “plantation porn” genre.
“Prince’s Well” (January 21, 1893) a longer fictional story from the New York Press about a white hunter encountering an elderly former slave who is hoping the man who once owned him will return as an angel to guide him to heaven.
| As I approached the open door of the hut a feeble voice from within called: “Is dat you, Marse Steny?” and then halting steps sounded on the rude plank floor. “Master, is you come fer ole Prince at las’?” In the doorway stood the bent and decrepit form of an aged negro. His hair was white as snow, and his thin hands were extended before him in supplication. His eyes, now dim, seemed dazzled by the light, but tears of joy flowed down the furrows of his cheeks as be eagerly tottered forward. “I’ze watched for you. Marse Steny,” he said in broken accents. As he took my hand in his feeble fingers he bent to kiss it. I gently told him that I was not his master. For a moment he seemed stunned: then raising his eyes and peering closely into mine he dropped my hand, and turning away hobbled back to his hut.
“The Darky and His Three Wishes” (May 30, 1896) A reprint from the New York Sun.
| The following anecdote well illustrates the spirit of contentment prevalent with the negro in the south before the war: Jack was once asked by his young master to make three wishes…‘Marse Joe, if I had a pa’r of boots and a plenty of fat meat, I doan’ want nothin mo’.” This happy negro I knew personally. He was born a slave and has always lived in Virginia.
The most common racist trope against African-Americans was a short “humor” item that portrayed someone as ignorant and/or lazy. Dialogue was always spoken in a nearly incomprehensible Stepin Fetchit dialect, which Democrat editor Robert Thompson used to create the “Uncle Potter” caricature of Edmund Potter
“Knowing a Heap” (July 12, 1890) from the Washington Post.
| “Hello, Uncle Mose,” said a colored boy on Pennsylvania avenue, “readin’ de papah?” “Yes, sah; dat’s what I is,” said the venerable negro, as he adjusted his spectacles and shook a fold out of the journal that he held. “Hez yoh notussed dat yoh hez it upside down?” “Hum—er—yassendeed; yer hez ter know er heap ’bout readin’ foh yo kin do dat.”
“His Quiet Mind” (April 11, 1891) from the New York Evening Sun.
| De good Lo’d looks out fo’ me, honey. In de summer time he sends along de wotermillion ships wif de millons too ripe fo’ de w’ite man. An’ be gives ’em to me. Den he makes de docks so dat I sleep in ’em. Den de winter time comes along and de good Lo’d builds de po’ house, an’ dar’s whar I live in de winter time till de wotermillions come agin. Read yo’ Scripture, honey! Yo’ ig’rance s’prisin’.”
“The Negro’s Idea of God” (January 25, 1896) from the Charleston News.
| His religion is almost entirely emotional. He believes that God is a prayer-answering God, and that the petition of the man with the strongest lungs will reach the throne of grace first. His conceptions of the Deity are frequently remarkable. There was one old negro named Stephen Donnald in the school who was in his place every Sunday and deeply attentive to all that the preacher and the teachers said. One Sunday, after the school had been in operation for about six months, my father thought that he would find out what progress this old man had made, and so he asked him: “‘Stephen, what is your idea of God?’” The answer came swift as a shot: “‘Well, Marse William, I think He’s kind of cross between a horse and a steam engine.”
Besides popularizing the notion that all African-Americans spoke like illiterate Alabama field hands, the best-selling “Lime-Kiln Club” books portrayed blacks in other “comic” ways. Stories presented absurd situations where the characters behaved ridiculously; a favorite plotline was having members of the club seeking (and failing) to mimic whites and white society. The Democrat printed some of the original tales in the 1880s as well as stories by later imitators.
“Saturday Night in Santa Rosa” (Sept. 15, 1894) Even without the racist segment, this article was so clueless I can’t imagine why Robert Thompson published it. A reporter ogled young women walking downtown and ranked their desirability, along with providing a general location of where each lived: “Santa Rosa is not old enough to have its exclusive set yet, and all types of humanity may be seen jostling each other on Fourth street Saturday night between 8 and 9 o’clock…The society reporter noted particularly a tall, stately blonde with a magnificent carriage and a superb figure. She was dressed in exquisite taste. It is said she lives on College avenue near Mendocino street…” Four “exquisitely posed heads” later, the article wrapped up with a scene describing an African-American couple using the thickest dialect (“I’ze jest dyin’ fur lub o’ yo’”) and ending with a sound effect of the sort heard in old cartoons.
| …After her in the parade came a lady of color, who looked in the crowd of white faces and light dresses like a huckleberry in a bowl of milk. She was accompanied by a swain of ebony hue. He wore a gray suit that will fit him perfectly when he grows a few feet taller and a few yards broader; a large bouquet and sunflower decorated his coat lapel. His wool was clipped short and was highly scented with barber’s oil. When he smiled, his face was all mouth…Just then the loving pair turned down B street. He looked all around to see that no one was near, and as they got opposite Mr. Eardley’s office the reporter could hear a sound as distinct and loud as when a cow pulls her flat foot out of the mud. What’s in a kiss?
“Ben’s Wedding Shoes” (March 15, 1890) a short story reprinted from Youth’s Companion magazine, was about the struggle to convince the groom to wear shoes at his wedding.
| …Ev’y knot er ha’r wuz kyarded out, en one er marster’s ole beaver hats wuz settin’ on top er his head. His sto’ cloze wuz bran, spankin’ new, en, mo’n dat, he had on er b’iled shirt en collar. “But, grashus, honey, down at de bottom dar sot his ole black feet spread out flatter’n er pancake on de do’steps. I des tuck’n retch under de bed en fetch put de shoes…“
Besides scouring out-of-town papers in search of insulting racist humor, the Democrat in the 1890s found and printed hundreds of news items about crimes allegedly committed by African-Americans nationwide. The paper’s bias was shown in favoring reports of black-on-white violence, particularly when it was a sexual assault and/or the black person was subsequently murdered by a mob.
Closer to home, we have two events from the 1890s which showed local police targeting black men for suspicion of crimes. The first event took place over two months in 1892, and is told below in three snippets. The other incident is the most unsettling item found here, as it describes an officer tracking an African-American man around Santa Rosa as if it was a hunt for an animal. The Democrat strained to portray this as a humor story – and failed.
| A 17-year-old negro boy who killed a white boy. near Miller, Ga., was taken from the sheriff by a mob, tied to a tree and riddled with bullets. (Nov. 1, 1890) Larned, Kansas—A negro by the name of James Thompson made a brutal attempt to outrage Miss Mabel Welch at her boarding house yesterday. She fought him for two hours, and he finally fled. Last evening he was arrested in a swamp. A few hours later he was taken from the jail by a mob, and hanged to a telegraph pole. He confessed his guilt and said that his soul would go to hell. (Sept. 17, 1892)
“Shrewd Detective Work” (April 16, 1892) Officer Hankel saw an African-American man who he thought matched the written description of someone wanted for a murder in Louisiana. Hankel took the surprised man to the station and ordered him to remove a shoe in order to see if he had a scar matching the suspect. On finding a scar, Hankel locked the man in jail and contacted authorities in Louisiana.
| Some time ago the police department of this city received a description of a negro who had committed a murder in Louisiana. Among those who had been furnished with a copy of the description was Officer Hankel. Saturday, while the auctioneer was holding forth at Third and B streets, Hankel noticed a negro sitting up on a wagon, an interested spectator of the auction proceedings. The more the officer looked at the negro the more he became convinced that he was the man wanted, as he tallied perfectly with the description. Finally Hankel walked up to him, tapped him on the side, and told him he wanted him. The negro looked surprised, but accompanied the officer to the jail without any trouble. On reaching there Hankel asked him to take off his shoe. “Oh, yes,” said the negro, “you want to see that scar on my ankle.” “Yes, that’s just what I want to see, and I think you are the man I want,” said the officer. The scar was there, sure enough, and Officer Hankel feels sure he is the man wanted by the Louisiana authorities. He has telegraphed back there for instructions, which he will await with some anxiety. He says the prisoner answers the description in each and every particular, and if he should prove to be the man wanted, the officer deserves no small amount of commendation for his shrewd detective work. The prisoner gave the name of Johnson.
“The Alleged Murderer” (June 11, 1892) Almost two months later, an Arkansas sheriff arrived with extradition papers for an African-American who was accused of shooting and killing a white neighbor during an argument. A photo taken of the man in custody had been sent back to Arkansas, where several people identified him. The suspect being held here acted very nervous when asked to show his scar to the sheriff. Another witness who had accompanied the sheriff from Arkansas said the suspect looked like the man he had last seen about two years earlier, although “…he is a shade or two lighter. This discrepancy is accounted for on the supposition that the mulatto’s incarceration would cause him to ‘bleach out’ somewhat.”
| Sheriff Sewell, of Columbia county, Arkansas, arrived in this city Sunday provided with the necessary papers for taking Johnson, the mulatto, who was three times arrested on suspicion of being a murderer, back with him to Arkansas. Sheriff Sewell was accompanied by J. B. Stevens, who identifies Johnson. The real name of the alleged fugitive from justice is George Frazier…When Sheriff Sewell went to see Johnson, alias Frazier, in the jail Sunday evening, the latter was very nervous. When asked to remove his shoe and stocking and show the scar on his foot, he started to remove the habiliments from the wrong foot, and when his attention was called to the mistake, in his excitement he bared both feet. Mr. Stevens, at whose house Frazier stopped a year ago last fall, was pointed out to the negro and the sheriff asked him if he had ever seen the gentleman before. Frazier replied that Mr. Stevens’ face was familiar to him, and that he thought he had seen him in the jail a few days ago. Mr. Stevens says Johnson, or Frazier, is exactly like the man he knew back in Arkansas, except that he is a shade or two lighter. This discrepancy is accounted for on the supposition that the mulatto’s incarceration would cause him to “bleach out” somewhat. Johnson, or Frazier, persists that he can prove an alibi.
“Johnson Liberated” (June 18, 1892) When a habeas corpus hearing was finally held, the defendant had no problem at all in proving he was not the man being sought. George Johnson had lived in Sonoma and counties for four years, including several periods in Santa Rosa. Six local witnesses testified to having known him over the years, as did the Calistoga town marshal. Had anyone from the Santa Rosa police made a phone call or sent a telegram to the marshal in Calistoga or interviewed the many people who could corroborate his identity, George Johnson would not have needed to spend over two months behind bars waiting for that hearing.
The muchly arrested man, Johnson, alleged to be Frazier, the Arkansas murderer, was discharged Saturday on conclusion of the testimony offered on the writ of habeas corpus…E. S. Mitchell said he had known the defendant as George Johnson in Sonoma county since 1888. Peter Wiley knew defendant in Santa Rosa for three years as George Johnson. Marion Sullivan testified to knowing defendant as George Johnson for over a year. Mollie Helton had also known defendant as Mr. Johnson for three years. The defendant was next called to the stand. He gave his name as George Walker December Johnson…He lived in Calistoga during 1883 and 1889, cutting wood for E. S. Mitchell in 1888, and afterwards rented a ranch near Calistoga. He came to Santa Rosa in the spring of ’9O, and again in April 1891. In January ’9l he was in Modesto. Came back to Santa Rosa again in 1892. He said he never was in Arkansas or Louisiana. On cross examination he testified that when the murder was committed in April 1891, he was working in Stanislaus county. C. H. Nash, the marshal of Calistoga, testified that he hnd known the defendant as George Johnson since 1889. Charles Wilson testified to rooming with Johnson in Santa Rosa iu 1890. A. M. Butler said he know defendant in this city in April 1891, when the murder was committed. The case was submitted without argument, and the court discharged the prisoner.
“A Long Chase” (Dec. 23, 1893) To 1893 readers of the Democrat there was no subtlety in this writeup about chasing a “coon,” as the paper often mentioned wild animal hunting or trapping (including at least four items earlier that year about raccoons). This item alone destroys any illusion that Robert Thompson was less of a racist than his brother Thomas.
| “There is a new coon in town,” and Officer Kennedy made a strenuous effort to see the color of his eyes, Wednesday morning. This particular coon is said to be a bad coon, who was compelled to leave Oakland for conduct which rendered him amenable to the laws of the State and municipality. Officer Kennedy was told of his presence here in town and Wednesday morning he started out to find him. He obtained first trace of him at the Occidental Hotel, where his coonship succeeded in getting his breakfast free of expense. Subsequent investigation by Mr. Kennedy led to the discovery of the colored gentleman in the rear of Mrs. Kidd’s house on Seventh street. Officer Kennedy also found the doors of the empty house all open, and he suspected the Oakland coon had gone through the place. The coon evidently divined the official suspicions which were entertained against him, and when Officer Kennedy looked up he saw the former legging it down the street. It was a stern chase and a long one, and led the officer all over the western and northern part of the city. They went from the slaughter house on the northwest to Pacific Methodist College on the north. From the latter piece the chase took in the Southern Pacific station, and from thence led south again to the Fourth street schoolhouse. The coon went in one door and Officer Kennedy in the other. When Officer Kennedy came out the coon was nowhere in sight. Several of the teachers and school children who were watching the chase had not seen the coon leave the building, though it was evident he must have done so…Officer Kennedy describes the man as being a three-quarter negro, with a slight mustache. He wore dark clothes and a black stiff hat. The two men who saw him leap the school fence say he was laughing to himself…