With all the interest in correcting the historical record by pulling down monuments to racists and traitors, let’s talk about honoring someone, too: He was Sonoma County’s first civil rights activist and a lonely patriot in Santa Rosa’s swamp of Confederate sympathizers. His name was John Richards and he had a radical notion: African-American children were entitled to receive a basic education.
Nothing apparently was more important to Richards than the “colored school” but under 1860 California law, “Negroes, Mongolians and Indians shall not be allowed into public schools” so parents like John and Philena Richards had to pay for a private school or send their children away to board with someone where a school was available. Petaluma was among six communities in Northern California that bucked the law and created a public school for black children in 1864, and nothing stopped Santa Rosa from doing likewise, if it had the will.1
Since Richards was a man of means, he hired teachers to educate the town’s black children, including his two adopted kids, Ella and Frank – even though he was also paying $70 a year in county taxes to underwrite public schools for whites.2
By trade Richards was a barber, which was one of the better occupations open to African-Americans in 19th century white America. Santa Rosa’s weekly newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat, typically flung racist epithets at blacks as a race, white abolitionists and Lincoln Republicans, but Richards was never demeaned in editor Thomas Thompson’s Democrat, likely because his business was a regular advertiser and he was a wealthy man. But just because the Democrat didn’t target Richards does not mean Thompson treated him with respect. In an 1869 screed against the Democratic Party not sufficiently defending a “White Man’s Government,” a contributor sneered he “would rather marry John Richard’s wife, if a widow, than the widow of a democrat.” Thompson added helpfully, “[This is a negro family in Santa Rosa.]”
Instead of openly insulting Richards himself, Thompson ghosted him by ignoring his remarkable deeds. The only time Richards’ school was mentioned in the newspaper was a grudging nod via reprinting a tribute from one of San Francisco’s African-American weekly newspapers. It was written by Judge William Churchman, a local abolitionist – which Thompson exploited by adding a preface claiming it showed the town wasn’t as hateful as everyone said: “It may seem a little remarkable to some intensely loyal people, but the fact is nevertheless true, that Santa Rosa which has long enjoyed the reputation with loyalty of being a perfect hot bed of traitors and negro-haters should afford one of the best schools for the education of negro children to be found in the State.” The Democrat did not even acknowledge, however, that Richards was sponsoring the school.
And, of course, Thompson didn’t reprint another part of the same article that revealed some white Santa Rosans were apparently attending the graduation ceremony looking to pick fault with the children’s learning, yet came up short themselves:
You may have heard of John Richards before; he was rediscovered in the late 20th century, although most of the nice things written about him weren’t very accurate and continued to skip over his school and other deeds which were truly noteworthy. The most familiar part of the story told today about John Richards is that he was a barber who took in former slaves.
As shown in the fifteen-year series of Democrat ads, his business was mainly a bath house – a far more important service at the time than cutting hair – and also note that the ads quickly turn to mention that the barbering was done by “experienced workmen.” In his later years he also opened branches at Ukiah and Lakeport; the Ukiah operation appears to be only a bath house (although there are too few newspaper resources available from that period to be sure). So calling him simply a barber is like saying an entrepreneur who owns a chain of restaurants is just a cook.
As for hosting ex-slaves, the 1860 census shows two people living in his house from slave states and in 1870 there was one. Eda Sanders, a 19 year-old male from Kentucky was one of the 1860 residents along with a California-born 3 year-old girl and a baby boy, all named Sanders. It was these children who the Richards’ would adopt.
In 1873 Richards also owned 134 acres next to the modern fairgrounds which would later become the South Park subdivision. It’s been claimed in recent years he turned that into some sort of refuge for destitute ex-slaves, but I find no record – and surely the Democrat would have howled in outrage if it were so. An article transcribed below has him describing the crops he grew there and it was legally recorded as farmland at the time of his death. He additionally had a chunk of undeveloped land in Petaluma at East Washington and Baylis streets.
His main property in Santa Rosa was his home and business, which occupied half the corner block facing Main Street between First and Second (where the Bank of Marin building is now). This was prime real estate during the 1860s as it was next door to Santa Rosa House, the saloon/hotel which was the town’s stagecoach stop. Yet all was not smooth for Richards in Santa Rosa; for reasons unknown, in 1862 he spent months trying to sell the business and lease the building through ads in a San Francisco newspaper. He also apparently lived in Lakeport during the mid-1870s, although he remained listed as proprietor of the business here.
Richards was born a slave in 1824 Kentucky. According to a sympathetic obituary in another Santa Rosa newspaper, he escaped and went to Massachusetts, where he met his wife Philena. In the early 1850s he bought land in Springfield, Mass. which he still owned at the time he died. He and Philena also lived in Ontario and Michigan (where he had something to do with steamboats on the Great Lakes) before coming to Santa Rosa in 1856.
Richards made a considerable amount of money by heavily investing in U.S. government bonds during the Civil War – a move which had to be motivated by patriotism as much as financial gain, as the government had trouble selling them.3 From the Santa Rosa Times:
During the war there was another passive-aggressive swipe at Richards in the Democrat paper, this time concerning the 1864 charity appeal for slaves freed by the Union army sweeping through Virginia and Georgia. Donations were needed to help feed and shelter the “contrabands” and $19 was raised in Santa Rosa (Richards contributed $5, which is about the equivalent to $150 today). The Democrat mocked that abolitionists should be more generous because they “brought those sad calamities upon the unfortunate negroes.” Yet without a fleck of irony, in the same issue and even on the same page, Thompson reprinted a lengthy plea to “collect funds for the relief of the sick and suffering rebel prisoners.”
Between 1865 and 1873, civil rights activism took up much of John Richards’ time, as he traveled around the Bay Area and to Sacramento – but you didn’t hear a peep about those doings in the Democrat or find mention in any of the modern profiles of his life.
He was the Sonoma county representative at many conventions or meetings to advance the cause of equality; he was elected vice president of the Phoenixonian Institute in San Jose, which was the only secondary school in the state for African-Americans (open to male and female students). He was involved with (but apparently did not attend) the 1865 state convention of the “Colored Citizens of California” and an 1872 appeal to the state supreme court for public funding of schools for all races.
Probably his greatest achievement was his role at a 1873 convention at Sacramento for the purpose of electing delegates to the historic National Equal Rights Convention to be held at Washington that December. He was the co-representative from the county along with Jacob Overton (see the intro article) and elected to the finance and education committees. Richards was among those nominated to be a national delegate.
John Richards died in 1879. “A number of colored friends of the deceased came up from San Francisco to serve as pall bearers,” the Democrat reported, demonstrating again his prominence in the larger African-American community of the Bay Area. Philena died the following year.
The monument by their graves was so distinctive it became a topic of its own in the Democrat – garnering more column inches than the paper ever spent on Richards. 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.
Time is long overdue for Santa Rosa to give John Richards a measure of the respect he deserves for being our own civil rights trailblazer during some of America’s darkest years. It’s probably too much to ask for a street to be renamed, for the city to commission some work of public art or even order an interpretive plaque, but it certainly would be nice if Parks & Rec could find a few dollars to clean his monument at the cemetery. Properly done, it will call out to us like a beacon of hope and courage. (UPDATE: Volunteers have cleaned the monument.)
On Tuesday morning last, about 10 o’clock, our citizens were suddenly called into the streets by the fearful cry of “fire.” We dropped our “stick,” seized a bucket and hurried to the place of alarm, where we found, as might naturally be supposed, the wildest excitement; for although our citizens will not heed the old adage, “In time of peace prepare for war,” when the enemy is upon us they try to meet him to the best of their ability. The fire, on Tuesday, proceeded from a frame building on the corner of Main and Second streets, owned by a colored man, named John Richards, part of which is occupied as a barber shop. The room adjoining the shop is a bed-room, and a little girl, three years old, the child of one of the occupants of the house, was alone in the room at the time the fire broke out. A box of matches had been left on a table, close to the bed where the child was, and it is supposed that the little one in attempting to light a match, set fire to some articles of clothing, which were on the table, and it was soon communicated to the canvas ceiling. The child ran out of the room, screaming, which alarmed the inmates of the house — and on entering the room to see what was the matter, Richards found almost the entire ceiling in flames. He immediately commenced tearing down the canvas, and that, together with the force-pump and hose, of Mr. Colgan, of the Santa Rosa House, soon extinguished the flames. We could call the attention of those who have ridiculed the idea of having a Fire Engine in this place to the service rendered by the hose of Mr. Colgan, on Tuesday. No particular damage was done to the house, but Richards had his hands badly burned in tearing the canvas from the ceiling.
– Sonoma Democrat, September 20 1860
Mr. John Richards, of Santa Rosa, is in town. Parties wishing to bargain with him for the lease of his Barber-Shop and Bathing Rooms, can see him at our office.
– Pacific Appeal, May 3 1862
FREEDMEN’S RELIEF. Last week one of the Burlingame tribe, who at one time resided in this county, and was an abolition candidate for representative — but didn’t get elected, visited Healdsburg and Santa Rosa, soliciting contributions for the relief of starving contrabands. At the former place he delivered a lecture, but his old friends couldn’t see the point, and the pitiful sum of four or five dollars was all that the miscegenationists of Healdsburg contributed. He came to Santa Rosa next, and although he had been announced to address the public in behalf of his cause, from some reason best known to himself he did not do so, but suddenly took his departure, thereby disappointing a large number of our citizens who would really have been pleased to hear what he had to say. As we are informed by a highly respectable Pub, but not a miscegen, only four gentlemen contributed anything here, as follows: W. A. Eliason, $10; John Richards, $5; Jeff Cocke, $3; and Green, his son, $1; the latter three of African descent. We think Capt. Eliason’s position in the matter is the correct one. It is but just that those who brought those sad calamities upon the unfortunate negroes, should alleviate their terrible sufferings. The Captain is at least consistent. Burlingame and Dr. Haynes lectured at Petaluma on Monday evening and realized from that loyal city only $123.50. Petaluma probably contains fifteen or eighteen hundred persons who have prayed and payed and begged for the abolition of slavery, and yet they only contribute $123 to save half million of their wards from starvation. How unpatriotic! [Ed. note: The same issue contains a lengthy appeal on efforts to “collect funds for the relief of the sick and suffering rebel prisoners”]
– Sonoma Democrat, June 11 1864
School Examination in Santa Rosa.
We have received the following communications, describing the examination of the colored school in Santa Rosa. This school is now in charge of Miss A. E. Vincent, whom all acknowledge is a very capable and efficient teacher. We publish the communications with pleasure, and only wish there were more of the same sort.
Santa Rosa, Feb. 11, 1866.
Mr. Editor:—Permit me through your columns to express the gratification I experienced at an examination of the colored school in Santa Rosa, on Tuesday, February 6th, taught by Miss A. E. Vincent. This is the second examination of the colored school in this place I have attended within the past year, the first being taught by Mr. Amos Johnson, and if pleased with the first (which I was), I was no less delighted with the second; and whilst Mr. Johnson laid the foundation, the superstructure has rapidly advanced under the able and evidently indefatigable zeal of Miss Vincent, to whom too much praise cannot be awarded for her untiring devotion in raising the young minds under her charge to the proper standard, and implanting and cultivating those germs of future usefulness and honor, of which the colored portion of our wide spread population have heretofore been unjustly deprived.
The scholars in Miss Vincent’s school have rapidly advanced, and show a precocity of intellect and an analetic [sic] understanding that is truly praiseworthy, and deserves the highest commendation, as to both teacher and pupils. The examination in orthography was good; in reading, arithmetic, and grammar, better; and in geography and history, best of all; while in penmanship, drawing, composition and declamation, and singing, it was excellent. Miss Vincent certainly has the faculty of imparting knowledge and governing a school to such an extent as to recommend her as a teacher to the colored population of our State, and elsewhere.
Santa Rosa, Feb. 12.
Mr. Editor :—The protracted quietude of this little town was agreeably interrupted on Tuesday last, February 6th, by an examination of a school under the superintendence of Miss A. E. Vincent, which I had the pleasure of attending. Exercises commenced at 10 o’clock a. m., as follows: Vocal music, orthography, practical and mental arithmetic, and grammar, geography, history, and reading. The scholars answered with rapidity and accuracy the many questions that were put to them. It was interesting to see the different classes take their place at the black-board. The first class worked with a great deal of care and thought, which reminded one much of the old adage, “Slow, but sure” while the second and third classes were not only interesting, but amusing. They were very expert in figures, worked to excel each other, and made but one mistake. After the course of examination was finished most of the scholars lead their compositions. The first subject, “The Scholar’s Hope,” by P. G. Cox, was a well written essay, and read accordingly. The last composition, read by Miss W. J. Cox, subject, “Valedictory.” This young lady portrayed in her composition the love and pride for her instructress and school-mates, exhibited her regret at bidding her teacher and school-mates a long farewell. Her composition was indeed quite interesting, and was based upon facts — knowing the many changes which we creatures of a moment are liable to. The scholars received the most rapturous applause for their compositions. After the reading of the last composition, the scholars sung “Love of School,” and then the declamation of each scholar, which was interspersed with many favorite songs — such as ‘Northern Star,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Glory, Hallelujah,” etc. “The American Union,” by Master F. Richards, the smallest boy in the school, and as heroic I as you would wish to see a boy. If he continues he bids fair to be a man of high intellectual endowment, and useful in society. The children all spoke very well, and received much credit and encouragement. The examination was surprising to both parents and spectators to realize the progress which they have made under their noble teacher, in the different branches of studies, since August last, — Miss Vincent has not only taught her scholars the above, but, after school hours, she has given them many useful lessons in industrial habits, and has made herself generally useful, during her stay with us, in our Sabbath School; so that it is evident that this young lady has not spared her moments.
After the examination was closed, there were some remarks made by Hon. Judge Churchman, Rev. P. Killingworth, John Richards, and your humble servant. Judge Churchman remarked that he was at the examination prior to this, and he supposed might be called a judge in the matter, and that if he should say that the children had not improved he would speak falsely; and that they had improved, and he was surprised and truly gratified to find such an advancement in the children, especially in grammar, arithmetic, geography and history. Too much praise cannot be awarded the young lady for the faithful discharge of her duty as teacher; also, her kind and gentle manner to the children under her charge, by which she has gained the love and affection of her scholars. Judge Churchman was quite lengthy in his remarks, and elicited much encouragement for the education of the rising generation, and how very essential it is that all parents and guardians should endeavor to have their children educated. There was quite a number of white friends present, as also a number of ladies and gentlemen of the Copperhead order. One lady that I know is a personal negro-hater, as the writing-book and drawing of the scholars was passing around for inspection, she handed it to a gentleman that sat beside me, and pointing to a map of North America, drawn by the scholars, asked him what kind of a flower that was. I never did believe that our race was more ignorant than any other, nor were beyond redemption; and I now verily believe that there are those whose comprehensive facilities are inferior to ours, and they need education as much as we do. No, we are not alone in ignorance, and never will be.
On Wednesday evening 7th inst., Mrs. Richards and Mrs. Cox, gave the children a farewell tea-party, which was superintended by Miss Vincent. As some of them were preparing for their respective homes, Mr. Johnson and myself, were invited to participate in the festivities of the evening. Mr. Johnson favored us with good music which was an quite an addition to our little group, and the hours whiled away like minutes. We then marched around the table which was so sumptuously spread, and the children were as merry as birds singing Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” We had a merry time indeed. Miss A. E. V., also looked very sweet and charming.
T. B. Pinn.
– Elevator, February 16 1866
Mr. John Richards has recently refitted his bath-house and barber shop and fixed everything up in first-class style, so that persons wishing baths can be accommodated with as much comfort and style as in San Francisco. College students and others will do well to observe the very liberal terms offered to clubs of six. For further particulars see now advertisement In to-days paper.
– Sonoma Democrat, February 22 1873
A State Convention of the colored citizens of California was held in Sacramento Tuesday and Wednesday, November 25th and 26th. Sonoma county was represented by John Richards and Jacob Overton.
– Russian River Flag, December 4 1873
John Richards of Santa Rosa seems to be doing a good business, his shop occupies a prominent position on the main street of the town.
– Sonoma Democrat, July 18 1874
John Richards now visiting Santa Rosa, informs as that the storm was very severe In Lake county.
– Sonoma Democrat, October 31 1874
John Richards who is down from Lakeport informs us that Jerry Ridgway Jr has purchased the Taylor Hotel in Upper Lake…
– Sonoma Democrat, February 13 1875
We continue the publication of the assessment roll of Sonoma county, by townships, giving the names of all persons who pay taxes on assessments amounting to $10,000 and over;
John Richards (colored) $10,447… [Ed. note: His highest assessment was in 1887 for $12,685]
– Sonoma Democrat, August 7 1875
There is one colored scholar attending the public school here. He is taught separately, during hours of recess, and does not occupy a seat in the building during school hours. His teacher receives additional pay for instructing him. He is reported to be a very smart boy.
– Sonoma Democrat, January 29 1876
On his way home [Captain T. Bundy] dropped in to see us this week with John Richards and we enjoyed a brief chat with him on the subject of Clear Lake and its picturesque piscatorial and other attractions.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 8 1877
Harvest Notes.— John Richards threshed the grain cut from fifteen acres of wheat and eight acres of barley, and has 138 sacks of wheat, 100 sacks of cheat and 113 sacks of barley. On our inquiring what use the cheat was he informed us that he seeded the low damp land with it for hay, and intimated that it was a common practice among the farmers here.
– Sonoma Democrat, July 27 1878
DEATH OF JOHN RICHARDS
The deceased came to Santa Rosa about the year 1856, and has resided here ever since. For a few years his health has been failing, and he thought there were premonitory symptoms of paralysis, heart disease, or other troubles beyond the reach of medicine. Not more than a week ago he was on the street, but quite feeble. His death was unlooked for by all but himself. The doctor had been called in and administered a potion, but soon after he sat up on the side of his bed and exclaimed “I am going,” calling upon those present to chafe his limbs. Immediately after he bade all good bye and expired. His death occurred on Sunday, the 20th inst., and his funeral took place on Tuesday following from the Baptist Church, of which he was a member.
John Richards was a notable man in his generation. He was born a slave, in Kentucky, about fifty-six years ago. Escaping from his master, he made his way to Massachusetts, where he soon after married. It is said his estate owns property there yet. He was a man of good common sense and judgement. His manner was inoffensive and quiet and he was much esteemed by all who knew him. During the war of the rebellion his faith in the triumph of the Union was so strong that he invested nearly everything he owned in the bonds of the United States, at rates of from 35 to 50 cents on the dollar, and held them undismayed through the dark days of the struggle. His fidelity was rewarded in the end by the large gains on his investment that made him an estate valued at from thirty to sixty thousand dollars. His wife survives but there are no children. He thought of leaving a fund in some shape for a charity or otherwise, to keep his memory green, but we understand there is no will. His death makes a void in the ranks of good citizens here. But we believe when the recording angel makes up all our accounts that of John Richards, African though he was, will be as free from blots as most others.
– Santa Rosa Times, April 24 1879
Death of John Richards. —The subject of this sketch, John Richards, (colored) the pioneer barber of Santa Rosa, is an illustration of what energy combined with perserverance and integrity will enable even a colored man to make of himself. He was borne in Hopkinsville, Christian Co. Kentucky, April 10th, 1824, in the condition of bondage in which at that time a majority of his race were held in the South. Securing his freedom, he emigrated to Canada, and after remaining there awhile he went to Boston, Massachusetts, where he was married in 1852, and then settled in Springfield, in the same State, where be acquired, and at the time of his demise still owned some of the most valuable property in that city. Leaving them, he went to St. Louis, Missouri, remaining for a short time, and then settled in Windsor, on the northern bank of Lake Ontario, in the province of Ontario. After residing there a year be went to Michigan, and was connected with steamboat running on the great lakes. In 1854 he came to California, settling at Shasta, and in 1856 settled in Santa Rosa — opening a barbershop on the corner of Main and Second streets — and has been identified with our city ever since. The field here not being large enough for his energetic spirit, he opened branch establishments at Ukiah and at Lakeport, running both in connection with his establishment here until he retired from business, a short time since. During a residence of twenty-two years continuously in this city, in which time he accumulated considerable wealth, the deceased commanded the friendship and respect of all our citizens. For some time before his decease, he had been afflicted with dyspepsia, but was not considered dangerously ill until just before his death on Sunday morning, which was sudden and unexpected. He leaves a wife, two adopted children and a brother in Santa Rosa, and a sister in St. Louis, Missouri. The funeral from the Baptist Church on Wednesday, the Rev. S. A. Taft officiating, was largely attended. A number of colored friends of the deceased came up from San Francisco to serve as pall bearers, and the remains, enclosed in an elegant metallic casket, were escorted to their last resting place by many of our best citizens from the surrounding country and from the city.
– Sonoma Democrat, April 26 1879
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
Sudden Death.—On Saturday evening Mrs. Philena H. Richards, relict of the late John Richards, died at her residence in this city. She had been unwell for some years, and her demise, though sudden, was not unexpected. Judge Brown summoned a Jury to inquire into the cause of her death, and on Sunday last they rendered the following verdict: We, the undersigned, jury summoned by J. Brown, J. P., acting Coroner in and for Sonoma county, State of California, to inquire into the cause ol the death of Philena H. Richards, deceased, do find that she was a native of Connecticut, aged from 63 to 68 years (and that her maiden name was Philena H. Richards); that she died in the city of Santa Rosa, county and State aforesaid, on the 15th day of May, 1880, and that her cause of death was apoplexy…
– Sonoma Democrat, May 22 1880