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THE GRAVE OF THE COLORED BOY

No tombstone in the Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery attracts more attention than the one for Davis Wright, “colored boy” – or so it seems, as every few months questions or comments pop up on social media when someone discovers it and expresses amazement. What’s the story behind it? There has to be a story.

We only know four things about Davis Wright. He was 12 when he died in 1865; he was “colored,” but born in California so he was never a slave; he was buried in the Wright family plot. It’s the latter connection which intrigues.

Davis was part of the household of Sampson Wright – a wealthy farmer and horse breeder – where in the 1860 census the 8 year-old boy was listed as a servant. In itself that’s not unusual; also in the census Davis’ 5 year-old brother was likewise enumerated as a servant, as was a toddler at another house in Santa Rosa and an Indian baby in Sebastopol. It simply meant a person of color who was living under a white man’s roof.

What made the Wright situation so unusual in 1860 was that he had six other black “servants” beside Davis.1 No other home near Santa Rosa had more than a couple – and in those situations, the second servant appeared to be the baby/mother of the other.

The other curious thing about the Wright black servants was that they all had the last name “Wright:” Esther (age 50), John (25, but actually 29), Mary (18), James (13), Henry (11), David [sic] (8) and Georg [sic] (5). Except for Davis and George, all of them were born in Missouri, where Sampson Wright had lived before coming to California. Missouri was a slave state and Wright was a slaveholder there, with five slaves counted in the 1850 census.

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The slave schedules listed only gender and age of Sampson Wright’s Missouri slaves, and three had vitals which corresponded exactly to his California servants Esther, John and Henry. The other two youths on the California census, Mary and James, were almost certainly among those former slaves but the evidence isn’t quite as perfect.2

Wright seemingly had particular affection for John; when he died in 1867, Sampson’s will contained only two special bequests. One was a few acres to his five year-old grandson, Peter (who would die at the age of 9) and the other was “…to my Black man John Wright a homestead of 20 acres…so long as he continues to live on the same [after which it would be returned to the estate] …”3

At this point, Gentle Reader might be looking at the overall picture and wondering if Sampson Wright started a second family with Esther, bringing everybody along when he came here from Missouri in 1852 or 1853. This would go far to explain why a “colored” child is buried in the family plot – it’s because he was family.

Devil’s advocate – there might not be any family connections by blood between the white Wrights and the black Wrights; the five Missouri slaves could be entirely different people from the five California servants, and the matching age and gender was just a wild coincidence. Perhaps the Wrights had a compassionate concern for what would happen to their former slaves once they left Missouri and realized the blacks they owned would fare better if they stayed with them in the free state of California, albeit in a modified role as servants – although that doesn’t explain how it came to be that two more black children were born here bearing the Wright name.

Beyond their unusual number of black servants, what do we know about Sampson and Elizabeth Wright? Sadly, not much. They were both elderly; in 1860 he was 67 and she was 57 (they lied on the census and claimed she was four years younger). They had a 250 acre cattle and horse ranch where Coffey Park is today. The property and animals combined were worth about $750k in today’s dollars, putting them comfortably in Santa Rosa’s top 10 percentile. Their two children were grown and well-established in the area; her youngest child was born in 1827 (“my Black man John Wright” – the first of the black children – arrived four years later).

The Wrights were almost never mentioned in the Santa Rosa newspaper except for Sampson’s horsebreeding, which is quite unusual, considering their wealth and that his two sons with Elizabeth were prominent men. The paper ignored it when he remarried at age 74 (five weeks before his death!) and when he died Sampson was given only a seven-line obituary – which was generous considering how poorly the Democrat treated Elizabeth, who didn’t even merit a death notice. It’s almost as if the couple was blackballed by the community.

All of the different Wrights aside, there’s also the important historical context of when Davis Wright died in May, 1865 (exactly 155 years before the posting of this article). The Civil War had ended just a month before and those were white-hot emotional days in Confederacy-loving Santa Rosa. And there was Davis, the first African-American being laid to rest in Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery, which had been established only about a decade before.

Put all of these details together and I see two possible interpretations of what Davis Wright’s tombstone could mean.

Perhaps Sampson was distancing himself from the child being buried there – apologizing, if you will: “This boy shared our last name and lies in our family plot, but he wasn’t really part of the Wright family.” If that was his intent, the grave could have had a simple wooden marker or even no marker at all. But that carved granite tombstone wasn’t cheap, and Sampson certainly did not have to advertise Davis was a “colored boy.”

Instead, I believe the tombstone actually shows him taking a noble stand. Elizabeth had just died and been buried there four months earlier, seemingly having endured a dozen years of being ostracized by the town’s hoi polloi – the same people who now would be griping their nice new cemetery was being defiled by having an African-American grave. What I imagine “colored boy” really means was Sampson Wright defiantly saying to Santa Rosa: “This is my beloved son. Deal with it.”


1 In the 1860 census there were 1,637 people in the Santa Rosa township, 34 of them black. Subtract the nine people from the John Richards household plus a day laborer and a “washerwoman” and the Wright household had a third of all the black residents.

2 The 1850 Slave Schedules for Sampson Wright list Female 40; Male 20; Male 18; Female 13 and Male 1112. Mary would have been 8 and James 3, so the enumerator would have had to make two mistakes: Reversing their genders and adding a “1” in front of their ages. The 1850 census page in question is sloppy, with an unusual number of scratch-outs and overwrite corrections on other entries.

3 John David Wright (b. June 1831) lived here the rest of his life, apparently dying at the Sonoma County Poor Farm after 1900.

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oatsie

THE LAST OF THE OATES

When “Oatsie” died recently at age 99 it closed the final chapter on Santa Rosa’s history with the Oates family.

Much has appeared here about the doings of the Comstock clan in the 20th century. But if not for a twist of fate her father might have owned (what would become known as) Comstock House – and had her family stayed here, their wealth along with her celebrity and forceful personality would have undoubtedly left its mark on Santa Rosa, for better or no.

It’s a shame the obits for Marion Oates Leiter Charles (at least, those which have appeared so far) dwell mostly on her final sixty years, with those everyone-who’s-anyone Georgetown parties and her place as the doyenne of Newport’s mansion dwellers. Interesting as that part of her life was, the beginning of her tale – the Oates part – is waved off with short shrift.

This is not a personal memoir of Oatsie; we corresponded very briefly (my first and only email with someone over ninety) and solely on details related to her family visiting Santa Rosa. She invited me to visit her in Newport a decade ago and to my regret, I did not take the trip. Most of what appears here is cobbled together from old issues of the Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser together with interviews and private correspondence from others who crossed her path.

When done here, scan some of the items in the sidebar below, particularly the Owens article. There you’ll meet the mature Oatsie as she matches wits with young JFK, Ian Fleming (creator of James Bond), Katharine Graham – and surprisingly, Nancy Reagan.

She may have started life as an ingénue little different from the others who wallpapered the newspaper society sections, but she made herself into an indomitable woman. In 1955, a year after divorcing her first husband, she was found to have breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy. She recalled, “One day, a nurse stood me up in front of the mirror and said, ‘No one is ever going to look at you again.’ So I told her, ‘Don’t count on it.'”

Marion Saffold Oates was born on September 29, 1919, about four years after her father made the worst mistake of his life.

We don’t know what her dad said (or did) during the six-week visit with his rich California uncle but less than three weeks after he headed back to Alabama, James Wyatt Oates added a codicil to his will which completely disinherited his nephew. Before that, William C. Oates Jr. – who was his closest blood relative – was to get one-third of the entire estate (before taxes and any other distribution) which would have been about the equivalent of $900k today. Uncle Wyatt even dropped the bequest of a gold watch which came from Will’s father, suggesting the offense was so great as to shatter family bonds.


MORE ABOUT OATSIE
Appreciation by Mitchell Owens

Official obituary

Washington Post obit

Newport Daily News

The President’s Bond Girl

Vanity Fair (2008)

Women’s Wear Daily (2012)

VIDEO interview (2007)

Had he not been kicked to the curb, it’s not hard to imagine 32 year-old Will and his wife, Georgia, moving here. They had visited Santa Rosa several times in previous years, and his father and mother had brought him along on earlier vacations. Will had friends in Santa Rosa; when he died in 1938 the Press Democrat was the only paper outside of Alabama that ran a full obituary, noting he was “well known here.”

There was no directive in uncle Wyatt’s will concerning the house, but as the main heir he could easily have made a deal with the executors for it – and since Will was an attorney, he might have even slipped behind his late uncle’s desk in the law partnership with Hilliard Comstock. Will might have considered that his sizable inheritance would have instantly made him a big fish in Santa Rosa’s very small pond, but the greatest draw to living here would have been the chance to get him away from his parent’s very long shadows.

Will’s late father was General William C. Oates, former Alabama governor, seven term congressman, and most importantly in Alabama, a Confederate Civil War hero – even though his most famous moment in the war was a humiliating defeat in the Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. He died in 1910 leaving an estate equivalent to $5+ million today.

Inevitable comparisons of the son to his father only reminded Alabamans that Will was not only lacking his pop’s character but he was something of a bounder. Will was admitted to West Point in 1900, only to be abruptly booted out in the middle of his junior year along with three other young men. The official reason was “deficiency in trigonometry and higher mathematics,” but it was said to be a cheating scandal. Although his father told a reporter he “could have had his son re-appointed to the Academy without any trouble,” the letter from the Academic Board was clear they would not consider letting him retake the classes – which certainly suggests there was a bigger problem than flunking trig. He was sent to public universities and earned his law degree in 1908.

When his father died Will was named executor and tasked with creating a trust on his mother’s behalf. The paternalistic general had long bullied his wife by accusing her of being a spendthrift, demanding postmortem that a trust be created so “that she may not waste the means I leave her.” Administering that trust was apparently most of what he did for most of the next decade; I can’t find a single reference in a newspaper of Will representing a client – it’s all small-scale property management. He and Georgia also lived with his mother until he was 43.

And it’s a good thing they were living there once Marion was born; it seems Will and “Georgie” were lousy parents. The newspapers didn’t print anything about his lawyering, but there was frequent news about the couple partying and taking off on trips. Oatsie always said she was raised by her grandmother, Sarah Toney Oates (who went by the abbreviation “T”) and her African-American servants. “If I have any nice traits – any kindliness, any awareness of anything – it’s because I was raised by loving black hands.”

The year 1919 was pivotal for the family. Oatsie was born and her maternal grandfather died, which gave his widow, Oatsie’s grandmother Minnie Saffold, the freedom and finances to have her fill of world traveling. Also from this year on, Will would henceforth refer to himself as “Captain Oates” because during WWI he was an officer of 117th Field Artillery Regiment (they never left Camp Wheeler near Macon, Georgia). And Will also finally landed a real job by being appointed head of the Alabama State Securities Commission, a position he would hold until 1935 without somehow screwing it up.

By the time Oatsie was seven family dynamics had shifted. In 1926 they began living with Georgia’s mother in an ostentatious mansion Will had built just outside of Montgomery, about three miles away from where grandma T lived. They called it Belvoir, and it was an over-the-top interpretation of an antebellum plantation house with the same name as a similar manse built a century earlier by Georgia’s great grandfather. We can only hope Oatsie still lived with T (or mostly so), because the place with grandma Minnie reeked not only of sickly-sweet honeysuckle but of the stench of 19th century racism.

Georgia and Minnie were tight with the Bankhead family and as a child Oatsie was often around Marie Bankhead Owen, a close friend of Minnie’s and the aunt of movie star Tallulah Bankhead. (One of the most often repeated Oatsie stories concerns Tallulah getting her blackout drunk while telling her about the birds and bees.)1 Marie was the Alabama state archivist and historian, prolifically writing children’s plays, biographies of those whom she and her late husband deemed notable, plus all sorts of articles and books on historic topics. She wrote one novel, “Yvonne of Braithwaite: a romance of the Mississippi delta” – sort of a precursor to “Gone with the Wind” – which had a romanticized portrait of Georgia Oates on the dust jacket to represent the plucky heroine. Marie was also an unabashed white supremacist who had fought against women’s suffrage because she feared it would lead to weakening the state’s Jim Crow laws.

But little Oatsie didn’t have to visit Tallulah’s aunt for a dose of racist attitudes. Grandmother Minnie was known for her “light dialect poetry” which she had privately printed into a book titled, “Pickaninny Pickups.” She did readings at women’s clubs and Georgia – who fancied herself a serious composer – set some of them to music. Their musical high water mark was “Good Mawnin’ B’rer Mose” being performed at a 1943 Carnegie Hall recital by an inconsequential Russian violinist.2

Their lust for the good ol’ days of slavery was also on inglorious display at a 1929 costume party at Belvoir. “Once again the ‘deep South’ reigned supreme,” reported the Montgomery Advertiser. Guests impersonated famous people in the Confederacy by wearing their ancestor’s Civil War uniforms and antebellum wedding dresses while “all the servants wore bandannas and hoop ear rings.” (Bear in mind this disturbing Confederate cosplay was happening in a city with a 45 percent black population.)

Grandmother T – probably the person in town with the best Confederate bonafides, being the general’s widow – didn’t attend that party. (Weirdly, a couple came dressed as her mother and father.) Her views on race seemed to match what sadly passed as moderation in the South, with T objecting in 1904 to President Teddy Roosevelt’s tiny steps towards recognizing African-Americans as being “negro socialism.” But to be fair, this was likewise the view of many here in Santa Rosa in the day, and exactly mirrored the opinion of Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley. She might have felt more at home in Santa Rosa than the rabidly rebel world of Montgomery.

While granny Minnie was preoccupied with demeaning slaves and descendants of slaves (she also wrote “Sugar Babe: A Sketch of Plantation Life in the Seventies”), T had literary and artistic interests which rubbed off on Oatsie, who once wanted to be a writer and was bookish her entire life. T was a charter member of the Ionian Club in Montgomery, which was the women’s cultural society. Like the Saturday Afternoon Club in Santa Rosa, members were expected to make presentations on intellectual topics of all sorts. Classical music was performed at meetings and the club hosted professional musicians touring the area.

The family faced financial disaster in 1932, according to a new article by Mitchell Owens (see sidebar – it’s a must read). Oatsie was called home from school for an announcement. “My father stood up in front of the fireplace and said, ‘I am sorry to inform you all but I have been wiped out’…we were told we had absolutely no money whatsoever.” What that meant is unclear; had he foolishly invested all of T’s once-enormous trust fund, or had he only lost his personal nest egg? T died the next year, so if there was any of that left, Will must have inherited a fortune (at least by the standards of it being the depth of the Great Depression).

Oatsie’s privileged life continued uninterrupted. At thirteen she was attending an exclusive girl’s school in Montgomery (the 1935 commencement exercises for the ten members in her class was held in Belvoir’s garden). After that she was packed off to European boarding schools 1935-1936, first the equivalent of three semesters at an english-speaking school in Brussels which Minnie interrupted at Christmas time to drag her around to meet former German royalty. This was the second time she had been her grandmother’s “darling little fifth wheel.” When she was eleven she had spent the summer in Germany with Minnie, who wrote a letter to the Montgomery paper boasting of all the wonderful and expensive places they stayed and all the very, very important people who warmly welcomed her. And her granddaughter.

A semester at a convent school near Munich followed. The family’s description (read: Minnie’s) emphasized this place practically injected blue blood into Oatsie’s veins – she was supposedly the first American as well as the first Protestant allowed to attend Kloster St. Joseph, as the nuns traditionally only accepted girls who were the crème de la crème of European dynasties (which no longer existed, of course). Oatsie later spoke of sentimental memories where the young women cut hay alongside the local peasants, then lunched on black bread and white radishes by a stream. Since this was 1936 Germany, a portrait of Hitler hung in every classroom but the nuns had it turned to face the wall, flipping it forward when the Nazis dropped by.

Like her relatives, Oatsie was now making regular appearances on the society pages in the Montgomery newspapers. Long before she was born her parents and grandmothers were often mentioned for their social doings; Minnie’s globe trotting is particularly easy to track because she knew folks back home in Alabama were sleepless, wondering just how many crown princes and baronesses she had checked off during her latest tour of Luxembourg. Oatsie likewise was given VIP treatment. The Montgomery Advertiser printed its first portrait of her at age two, another when she was a 13 year-old “sub-deb,” and the 1935 photo, shown at right, ran on the top of the front page. In between she popped up in class pictures and similar groups.

In her late teens she began attracting national attention for her good looks; Marion Oates might not have been a household name outside of Montgomery but her face was unforgettable, with her distinctive eyes and lantern jaw. (Yale, BTW, has a lovely photo of Oatsie and mother Georgia in 1937.) Three or four pictures of Oatsie circulated on the wire services every year in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She wasn’t alone, of course; glamor shots of pretty socialites and starlets were in papers almost daily all over the country, but she appeared often even though she was then a celebrity for no other reason. The images were a kind of Great Depression upper class pornography, just as movies in that same era might gratuitously throw in a scene at a glitzy nightclub or a palatial drawing room.

And lo, then came the Great Upheaval of 1938. It began right before New Years’, when the Montgomery newspapers printed a last-minute announcement that the upcoming party at Belvoir had been indefinitely postponed. No reason was given.

Then on January 14, 1938, the marriage of Will and Georgia Oates was dissolved by divorce.

Oatsie was then attending (yet another) finishing school in New York City and was called home on February 4 because her father was gravely ill. William Calvin Oates Jr. died two days later.

After waiting a respectful 34 days, Georgia married Philip Green Gossler on March 12 in New York City.

You can bet tongues were wagging back in Montgomery. A couple of stories were handed down that I won’t repeat here, except to say they are probably what you’d expect. Clearly problems had been brewing for some time.

The Montgomery Advertiser all but blacklisted any mention of the family, which must have given attention-hound Minnie the cold sweats. Even Oatsie’s blowout debutante party in New York (there were two, actually, both covered by the NY Times) merited only a few cursory paragraphs in the back of their hometown newspaper.

In late 1939 the Advertiser reprinted a lengthy article about Georgia which portrayed her as someone who was likely very mentally ill. Introducing the item with the snarky remark, “Mrs. Phillip Gossler of New York, formerly the lovely Georgia Saffold Oates of Montgomery,” the story claimed she rarely slept, believed she had psychic powers, was so sensitive she became sick when seeing clashing colors or discordant music and couldn’t bear to be far away from her huge collection of newspaper clippings. She was convinced F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a story about her which was clearly about his future wife. When you read about manic, schizophrenic Zelda Fitzgerald and see a portrait of yourself, time’s overdue to seek help.

Let’s wrap up our story in 1940, when 21 year-old Oatsie was profiled in the Hearst’s Syndicate “Cholly Knickerbocker” gossip column. It’s mostly fluff about her taste in clothes and jewelry but gives us a peek at her unbounded life at the time: Fly fishing at her stepfather’s fishing lodge in New Brunswick, winter at his family’s estate in the Bahamas, a month at Belvoir every April. “Her clothes have a permanent crease from packing.” Her business mogul stepfather was stinking rich, and the man she would marry two years later stunk even more.

It would seem two paths were always open before her. Like her parents and Millie, she could have embraced their morbid antebellum sentimentality – “borne back ceaselessly into the past,” per the famous closing line of The Great Gatsby. Or she could have surrendered to the great wealth which she always enjoyed and idled away her days in the social whirl of the leisure class. Instead, she created a little world of her own and challenged the brightest and most interesting people to keep up. “She was a snob about intelligence but not about background or social things,” her daughter said.

I offer this as an epitaph: She made herself into a remarkable person, in spite of her crippling advantages.


1 Oatsie apparently told the birds-and-bees story often. This version appeared in “The Story of Edgewater House” by Nancy Glidden Coffey: Just before her wedding in 1942, a friend took her out to dinner. “After dinner he said, ‘Let’s go see Tallulah. She should be home from the theater by now.’ So we went to see Tallulah. And she said, ‘I know Georgia’s not going to tell you the facts of life,’ so she proceeded to tell me. In the meantime, I had [laryngitis and] no voice, so she was giving me bourbon on sugar. She more or less said sex wasn’t all it was cut out to be. I woke up the next morning and mother came in with a wedding present and some sort of tissue paper was rustling. I said, ‘My God, what’s that horrible noise?’ And I’ve never remembered what Tallulah told me.”

2 Only a single work by Georgia was published: a choral church piece, “For thy Gifts Untold.” It is unclear if Georgia could actually read music; a 1943 profile said she composed in a dark room with her eyes closed as one of her “arrangers” put it all down.
Marion Oates Leiter Charles at ages two, seventeen and eighteen

 

ALABAMA RELATIVES OF COLONEL J. W. OATES

Mr. and Mrs. William C. Oates of Montgomery, Alabama, are visiting Col. James W. Oates at his home on Mendocino avenue. William C. Oates is a nephew of Colonel Oates and is the son of Gen. William C. Oates, former Governor of Alabama. He is a capitalist and a member of the bar of that State. Mr. and Mrs. Oates will probably remain here until fall. They have made several visits to this city and at all times seem loath to go and anxious to return.

– Press Democrat, August 6, 1915

 

Society and Club Gossip by Dorothy Ann

Flashing lights, beautiful gowns, scintillating jewels and pretty women were paramount in the brilliant assemblage that gathered at the invitation of Col. James Wyatt Oates, Wednesday evening, at which time Mr. and Mrs. William C. Oates of Montgomery, Ala., and Miss Lois Granberry and Miss Pat Granberry were the honored guests. Amaryllis lilies cast their dainty fragrance from every nook and corner of the beautiful home, with long sprays of asparagus fern to enhance their pink beauty. The strains of soft music floated down from the balcony of the broad stair cases into the spacious rooms, where many friends gathered to bid welcome to the charming quartet of southerners.

Interest centered in Mrs. Oates, whose attractive beauty, sweetness of manner and charming simplicity won as one the hearts of those invited to meet her. Sharing with her the honors of the evening were Miss Lois Granberry and Miss Pat Granberry who have been with us a sufficient length of time to establish for themselves a prominent place in our social circles.

Particularly attractive were some of the gowns worn, that of  Mrs. Oates greatly enhancing her flower-like beauty, it being white taffeta, trimmed with Bohemian lace and crystal trimming. A little scarf of tulle was draped around her shoulders and she carried Amaryllis lilies tied with graceful bows of pink tulle. She wore diamond ornaments…

– Press Democrat, August 22, 1915

 

Mrs. G. Frank Comstock has issued invitations for a tea to be given Tuesday afternoon complimentary to Mrs. William C. Oates and the Misses Granberry.

– Press Democrat, August 29, 1915

 

Mr. and Mrs. William C. Oates left for San Francisco Friday morning, on route to their home in Montgomery, Alabama. They will spend this week at the Exposition and then go to Los Angeles, where they will make a brief stay. They will be joined at the latter place by Miss Lois Granberry and Miss Pat Granberry who will accompany them home.

– Press Democrat, September 19, 1915

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THE YEAR OF THE ANTI-CHINESE LEAGUE

There were up to 1,500 men crowded into Santa Rosa’s Armory that winter’s night. Some were there because they were angry, some were curious and some were frightened, but all there learned that racial discrimination was now a civic duty. It was the first official 1886 meeting of the Santa Rosa Anti-Chinese League.


SOURCE NOTES (37 page PDF)

Spoiler alert: this is not a pleasant story, yet it’s not nearly as awful as some try to portray.

A few days before, a meeting was held to elect a “Committee of Fifteen” which would write a mission statement.* They composed a resolution stating any Chinese presence in Santa Rosa was a “source of great evil” and detrimental to the “white race.” Chinese immigrants should leave town ASAP and Santa Rosans should sign a pledge vowing to boycott their businesses and fire any Chinese workers they might have.

Santa Rosa was actually a latecomer – and although about half the men in town showed up, attendance was relatively light. Meetings had been held previously in Petaluma (2,000 there) and Cloverdale (1,000). At Healdsburg almost the entire town came to their first meeting and their Chinese boycott was already going strong.

The resolution also asked the Santa Rosa City Council to appoint additional policemen for night duty to prevent “riotous demonstration by white persons toward Chinamen”. That was a very real concern; throughout the West, anti-Chinese sentiments had been escalating from grumbling newspaper editorials to acts of violence, even mob riots. Newspapers reported local bigwigs were having “secret meetings” to figure out how to get rid of the Chinese – although telling a reporter about it seems to defeat the whole secrecy biz.

In Wyoming, white miners went on a rampage and murdered at least 28 Chinese men with many burned alive. Three more were shot to death in Washington state over hop picking. A mob armed with clubs drove out Tacoma’s 350 Chinese residents which was followed by the razing of their neighborhood. Federal troops were stationed in Seattle because vigilantes were itching to attack the large Chinatown there, which was the home to 1 out of 10 people in the town. And matters were about to become far, far worse; even as our ancestors were getting organized in Santa Rosa, thousands of Chinese immigrants were escaping to Portland from Oregon’s interior under vigilante threats. It seemed as if an actual pogrom of an ethnic minority was rapidly sweeping the Western states and territories. The shadow of madness had fallen upon them and enveloped the sun.

Yet it’s quite possible the anti-Chinese frenzy might have bypassed Sonoma county – if not for the  Wickersham murders.

Sarah and Jesse Wickersham were a reclusive couple who were brutally killed at their remote cabin west of Cloverdale in mid-January 1886. The presumption of guilt immediately fell upon their Chinese cook, who could not be found and was presumed to have fled to China. As explained in my four-part series, it’s highly unlikely he had any hand in it but everyone at the time was certain of his guilt, thanks in great part to two racist law enforcement officers who were widely quoted in the initial accounts. They told reporters there was no question the “Chinaman” slaughtered them and hinted Sarah had been raped (possibly gang raped) – a lie they continued repeating even after the Wickersham family asked them to knock it off.

The charge that an American family had been killed by their live-in Chinese servant gave bigots a new, powerful weapon to demonize Chinese people as crazy, unpredictable, and, for the first time – extremely dangerous. James Ragsdale, editor of the Santa Rosa Republican and soon to become part of the “Committee of Fifteen,” dipped his pen in the bigot’s inkwell and wrote a vicious screed:

…The tragedy that occurred in the northwest portion of this county on Monday last, where two of our most highly respected citizens, man and wife, were murdered in cold blood by a Chinese fiend, has done much to increase the bitterness against a race that are most wicked and inhuman. It only proves the assertion that they have neither conscience, mercy or human feeling and think no more of murdering a human being than they do killing a pig. They are monsters in human form, cunning and educated therefore more dangerous and vile. Let us get rid of them and at once.

The first anti-Chinese Leagues in the county were formed just a few days later.

Up to then, both the Republican and Sonoma Democrat had occasionally used the popular catchphrase, “the Chinese must go” in an editorial or in a reprinted item but it was framed in the abstract, as if “the Chinese” were different than the immigrants who lived and worked here. Just two days before the Wickershams were killed, the Democrat ran a sort-of travel story describing a tour of the Santa Rosa opium dens. It concluded with mention that the Chinese community here had both a Masonic and an Odd Fellows lodge.

(RIGHT: ad from the 1885 Sonoma Democrat)

While our newspapers portrayed the Chinese immigrants as an exotic (but somewhat suspect) underclass, the local economy depended upon them. In the towns, the Chinese did our laundry and sold us produce from pushcarts on the streets – Santa Rosa had six roaming vegetable vendors. On the farms and in the vineyards they did the hard work no one else wanted to do. And everyone in town or country who wanted a cook or house servant could find a Chinese man or boy ready to hire. Because they did all this for less money than anyone else, they were in great demand; in 1885 there was a Chinese employment agency on Fifth street.

Their low wages led to accusations they were “taking jobs away from Americans,” exactly mirroring the anti-Latino immigrant bias of today. In some cases it was true; companies used Chinese workers as strikebreakers or to replace an entire workforce.

But in truth, good manual labor jobs were scarce at the time not because of the Chinese but because the national economy wasn’t so hot; effects of the Depression of 1882-85 began to be felt locally with an uptick of newspaper articles about “tramps” in the area. “These men, with few exceptions are in destitute circumstances and are compelled to move from place to place in search of employment,” sympathized the Democrat paper, while at the same time noting that many were responsible for burglaries and other theft. The paper suggested that the first Anti-Chinese League meeting have an aftersession so everyone could discuss what should be done to “protect the women and children” who were hesitant to leave home lest a vagrant break in.

Meanwhile, there were now an estimated 600+ Chinese living in Santa Rosa according to the Democrat – likely an all-time high. Some had just arrived from Cloverdale and other places where Anti-Chinese Leagues were already acting out.

A week after that big League meeting at the Armory, the Committee of Fifteen visited these locations as “forty or fifty citizens accompanied the committee on its rounds,” the Democrat observed, which probably made it look like quite the vigilante mob.

Committee president John Kinslow – speaking “in good pigeon-English” [sic] – told them that as of the end of the month, “all white men would cease to patronize them” and they should leave. From the description in the Democrat it appears some of the immigrants misunderstood and thought he was offering to pay for their passage back to China, which most greatly desired but could not afford.

The committee also divided Santa Rosa into seven wards, each with a few men expected to walk the neighborhood and ask residents to sign the boycott pledge. Lists of the ward men appeared in both town newspapers and are reproduced in the source notes. Both lists have 49 names, of which only five appear in any other articles about the League. Aside from some spelling differences the lists are the same with two exceptions: One adds “James Gray” in ward five and the other includes “Burbank” in ward two. On the basis of the latter mention, the Press Democrat published two articles and an editorial in May, 2018 claiming Luther Burbank was a racist and leader of the Anti-Chinese League – see discussion here.

(RIGHT: ads from the 1886 Sonoma Democrat)

As the month of February rolled on, news was mixed. There were regular items about Chinese immigrants trickling out of town, countered by articles of some vowing to stay. The Democrat found one Chinese laundry with half its workforce idle, followed a few days later by a story that the white laundry wagons “didn’t have enough aboard to make a decent load for a poodle dog.” An interview with an immigrant called Hoodlum Jim said the boycott only served to “get rid of the scum of the race, and the others were glad of it, but the better class would stay here, just the same.”

It was remarked that “white labor is scarce in Santa Rosa” while many Chinese men were out of work and crowding into the tenements on Hinton avenue to save money. It was also written that they were going hungry, reduced to foraging for greens along the banks of the creek and on the Plaza. It’s difficult to understand how that could be the case, given that Chinese truck gardens had been feeding the entire town not so long before.

Oddly, the only real conflict in Sonoma county centered on Duncan’s Mills. The League in that vicinity had a torchlight rally and marched on the little Chinatown there to demand the residents clear out. The mill owners contacted the U.S. Marshal and asked him to appoint a deputy to protect the Chinese workers. Complaints over this went on for weeks, with the Republican paper and the Leagues squawking over the involvement of a federal officer instead of local police, plus that it was really a labor issue because the mills brought in Chinese workers instead of hiring white men from the community. (UPDATE: There was some vigilante activity in Bloomfield, including an attempt to blow up a laundry and salting of a water source.)

The March 1 boycott deadline came and went, but apparently little changed. A banner was hung over a downtown street reading, “The Chinese Must Go; We Mean Strictly Business!” In terms of threats, that ranked down there with a schoolyard bully drawing a line in sand while toothlessly bellowing, “you step over this and you’re really gonna get it!”

In truth, there was little the Santa Rosa Anti-Chinese Non-Partisan Association (hey, new name!) could do to force the immigrants to leave, short of violence. Attention of the League – uh, Association – turned to Plan B: Boycotting fellow Americans who weren’t boycotting the Chinese. That sort of “nuclear option” was discussed at the beginning, but it was not believed matters would come to that. The Committee’s subcommittee on the issue hashed it over; local farmers were saying they depended on Chinese workers. If there was to be a boycott of the farmers as well as those who wanted to hang on to their Chinese domestics and other workers it would cause “strife and bitterness” in the county. “We do not believe that a general boycott can be made successful at the present time,” the subcommittee concluded.

By the end of the month, the Committee of Fifteen was hunkered down in its racially-pure safe space muttering about retribution against “backsliders.” State Assemblyman Allen suggested they should publish the names of all those who signed the pledge but still “either allowed their families to patronize the heathens, or did so themselves.” He was voted down.

In Santa Rosa, the fight came to a head over strawberries.

A Sebastopol man named Crawford raised what were considered the best strawberries around, but he used Chinese workers. Two hardcore members of the Committee paid a little visit to a downtown grocer who sold his fruit. They suggested they step out of the store to discuss the difficulty, but the grocer said they could talk right there, in front of his customers. The grocer said he had signed the pledge, but one of the Committee men remarked he did not think the grocer was “sincere in his action.” (Feel free to re-read this paragraph while imagining the Committee men as played by Sopranos goons Christopher and Paulie Walnuts.)

After receiving his own little visit from Committee “investigators,” Mr. Crawford took a wagon load of his strawberries to Santa Rosa. He hitched up on Fourth street, according to the Democrat, and began selling his berries. “His price to Chinese boycotters was $1 a box, and to all others thirty cents. It was but a very short time before he was entirely sold out.”

But pushback to the anti-Chinese movement was happening all over northern California. The Sacramento Bee ran a story about a housewife seen buying vegetables from a Chinese peddler and a “spotter” rushed over to confront her, demanding to know the name of her husband. When she indignantly refused he sneered, “You must be a lover of the Chinese.”

Yet the bigots in Santa Rosa kept wandering even farther into the weeds. The Committee of Fifteen appointed a Committee of Nine “to act on the outside, to keep their eyes open, talk with the people, see what is going on and report to the League.” For those who were unwilling to cooperate with the boycott “the League should not hesitate to treat them with severity.”

That Committee of Nine immediately went into executive session to appoint another secret sub-subcommittee of nine to ferret out the traitors to the white race who were not discriminating enough against Chinese immigrants. Oh, good grief…

Further, it was proposed that a committee “should go to all the business men in town and present the membership roll and request them to sign the same and pay the initiation fee of 25 cents. If they refuse then the League will know where to find them…there were but two sides to this question — either for or against the cause.”

Healdsburg appears to be the only place that followed through and publicized names of Americans who refused to boycott, and by summer their racist hatred of Chinese people had spiraled down into foolishness that bordered on lunacy. The Healdsburg paper reported a secret society had been formed:

…signs may be frequently seen done in chalk on the sidewalks. They, to us, unintelligible signs are in the form of a large arrow or dart, surrounded by figures and small signs. By following the direction of the pointing arrow you are led to a similar one on the next corner, and so on until you reach the place of meeting. At the last meeting, beyond the river, some forty of our citizens were seen to pass into a building. All our efforts to learn anything in regard to the organization have so far failed. It is a branch or lodge of a secret order existing in this state, whose sole object is to rid the country of the Chinese.

By every measure, Santa Rosa’s anti-Chinese campaign was a flop. The last League meeting I can find mentioned was poorly attended and came only seven months after the group was formed. A newspaper item revealed the League’s dues-paying membership at its peak was merely 43.

While the boycott certainly created economic hardships for the Chinese community, it was by no means catastrophic. One Chinese wash house closed and some landlords evicted immigrant tenants. The population was reduced to roughly 100-125 residents. From the Sonoma Democrat:

…the Chinese population in this city has decreased about one-half since the anti-Chinese movement started, and they are still going. There are a few who manage to live by taking in washing, and some who are still employed as servants; the latter, however, are very few. Within the last week three Chinese house servants have been discharged, and they were working for people who have not signed the pledge.  How they live is becoming a mystery. Dozens of them may be seen loitering on Hinton avenue every day…
1885 map of downtown Santa Rosa showing Chinese businesses and residences. Some of the locations on 9th avenue (better known as Hinton av) are estimates

 

It may seem a victory that the population had dropped by half after the League began in February, but even that claim is shaky on closer examination. House servants, pushcart sellers, laundry workers and the like were the smallest categories of Chinese immigrant labor – most men worked in the country for much of the year, staying in tents or bunkhouses near where they were employed. (The state Labor Commissioner said that year there were “30,000 Chinamen employed in the hop fields, vineyards and orchards.”) These men only came to live in the towns during winter, so it was the customary pattern for them to begin drifting out of Santa Rosa and other urban areas as spring approached.

What happened as the seasonal work ended that year is a mystery. Now that the League had fizzled the local papers lost interest in writing about all things Chinese, and returned to the old pattern of only covering the men when someone was arrested or created a commotion. There was one mention that because hop-picking was over “the Chinese are returning to San Francisco by the carload,” so perhaps some of the Sonoma county immigrants chose to spend their winter in the big city than come back here.

But the League had no long term impact; the 1890 census – taken during peak growing season, when farmworkers were away from town – shows 151 Chinese living in the city of Santa Rosa, a boost of at least 30 percent from the year of the League. (There were 277 found in the whole Santa Rosa Township during 1890.)

In the years that followed, Santa Rosa’s Chinese community migrated to the corner of Second and D streets to form a compact little Chinatown (see 1908 map here). There would be little or no growth of that neighborhood in the years that followed, but not due to any discrimination by the town or racist nonsense from white citizens; it was because a different place had emerged as a hub for Chinese-American culture and commerce in Sonoma county – Sebastopol’s two Chinatowns.

 

 

* Membership of Santa Rosa’s “Committee of Fifteen” was never explicitly listed in the newspapers, which only named those in attendance at meetings. Membership seemed to fluctuate over the first part of 1886. Some either did not attend meetings regularly or dropped out while new names appeared. Looking over all newspaper coverage, there seems to have been an overall core group of thirteen men, with eight of them being very outspoken. In rough order of frequent mention: John Kinslow, David Sheward, Assemblyman Samuel I. Allen, Lawson Ross, Frank Muther, Peter Towey, James W. Ragsdale, Jacob Harris, Ellis Morrow, Charles Bane, M. V. Vanderhoof, John F. Smith and Frank Berka.

Poy Jam, who opened Santa Rosa’s long-standing Jam Kee restaurant. Shown here in a studio portrait taken in Oakland, c. 1875, he was Song Bourbeau¹s maternal grandfather. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum

 

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