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LESSONS ON WHO IS SO MUCH LESSER THAN YOU

“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.)

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HAPPY SLAVES   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.

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IGNORANCE   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.”
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CLOWNISH   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…“

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CRIMINAL   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…

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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.

 

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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