From the Civil War to Civil Rights: Black Sacramento in the late 19th and Early 20th Century

By William Burg

Historian Clarence Caesar described Sacramento’s African American community from 1880 to 1940 as “the settled years,” in contrast to the civil rights struggles of the Gold Rush and Civil War era and the Civil Rights era following the Great Migration of African Americans to California during and after World War II. Sacramento’s African American community numbered less than a thousand people, about 1% of the county population. This small community had little economic power or opportunity, and survived by making social and economic connections across racial lines, with white Sacramentans and the other ethnic and racial groups of the West End, and by forming organizations for mutual support. One of these organizations, the West End Club, may be the origin of the neighborhood’s name.[1]

Despite its small size, members of this community made important efforts in pursuit of political, economic, and social power. Some of these efforts were rebuffed or ignored because white civic reformers could not overcome their own prejudice, or were unwilling to risk alienating racist voters to support Black enfranchisement. Some members of Sacramento’s Black community became targets for middle-class Progressive social reformers who considered a strong Black community in the West End as inherently undesirable as drinking, prostitution, and dancing.

St. Andrew's AME Church
St. Andrew’s AME Church

During Sacramento’s first half century, this community was led primarily by the congregations of St. Andrew’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, established in 1850, and Siloam Baptist Church (later Shiloh Baptist Church), established in 1856. The men and women of this community included prominent activists and reformers, including Elizabeth Thorne Scott Flood, Rev. Jeremiah B. Sanderson, Albert Grubbs, and Daniel Blue. From the Gold Rush through the era of the American Civil War, this community was actively engaged in civil rights activism in response to racism and prejudice in California. The California Republican Party, established in Sacramento on an anti-slavery platform, became an avenue to political franchise for Black Californians following the Civil War and adoption of the 15th Amendment. Especially after Sacramento became the State Capital in 1854, the local Black community was a vanguard for California civil rights, often finding common ground and organizing effective resistance with Sacramento’s Chinese community, who were also frequent targets of racist state policies. By the 1870s, this small community included multiple churches, social organizations, schools, and even an armed militia, the Sacramento Zouaves.[2]

The Sacramento Zouaves and Captain Robert J. Fletcher

Sacramento Zouave_J Asher, 244 J Street_copy
Sacramento Zouave J Asher, 244 J Street

While no Black military units from California served in combat during the American Civil War, several groups organized themselves during and after the war. The first known organization of this sort in Sacramento was Company A, formed by Captain Alexander Ferguson, a Black ex-sailor, consisting of twenty-five men, in the summer of 1863. The city’s first formally established Black militia was the Sacramento Zouaves, trained by Civil War veteran and Sacramento postmaster Captain Crowell in 1867. The Zouaves’ first public appearance was the emancipation celebration of January 1, 1868, in Sacramento.[3] Initially led by Captain Pierson and lieutenants William Gault and William Quinn, Robert J. Fletcher was an early member of the Zouaves who became a well-known Sacramento citizen throughout his life.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in about 1844, Robert Fletcher was raised on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, brought up by his aunt after the death of both parents. During the Civil War, he learned he was an American citizen, much to his surprise, as he grew up assuming he was born on St. Thomas. Fletcher traveled back to the United States and joined the Navy, serving aboard the Vanderbilt under Admiral Wilkes. His travels after the war took him to Panama and the island of Tobago, where he worked in a British hospital as an orderly and trained as a nurse.

In 1869 Fletcher traveled to San Francisco and then Sacramento, when he married Emma Scott and became a member of the Zouaves. Judging by his performance in company-wide shooting contests, Fletcher was a crack shot. For a portion of the 1870s he lived in San Francisco, helping establish another Black militia company, the Sumner Guard, before returning to Sacramento and taking the position of First Sergeant in the Zouaves under Captain Sims Emory, First Lieutenant Isaiah Dunlap, and Second Lieutenant Albert Grubbs, Senior. The Zouaves were more than a paramilitary organization; they also served a political purpose, encouraging Black voting and civic participation.[4]

By 1879, Fletcher succeeded Emory as Captain of the Zouaves, and led their procession accompanying President Ulysses S. Grant in a grand parade down K Street during President Grant’s first visit to Sacramento, in October of 1879, alongside other Sacramento militia unitsDuring and after his tenure with the Zouaves, Fletcher was active in the Republican Party, based on the party’s close association with the abolition of slavery, from the 1870s through the early 1900s, and was an active member of the Eureka Lodge and Philomathean Lodge and the Odd Fellows. Fletcher’s profession was podiatrist, at the time possibly the only Black medical professional in Sacramento, and in 1895 he served as personal nurse for Lt. Governor Spencer Millard.

Even with such a remarkable life, in 1907 Mr. Fletcher met someone even more remarkable; Anna Madah Hyers, star of the operatic stage. It is unknown whether Fletcher divorced or his wife Emma died, but on December 23, 1907, he married Anna Madah Hyers, a Sacramento native whose travels and adventures rivaled his own. Born in 1855 in Troy, New York and raised in Sacramento, where her sister Emma Hyers was born in 1857, the Hyers sisters were singers of extraordinary talent. Their first performance at the Metropolitan Theatre in Sacramento in 1867, at the ages of eleven and nine, began a musical career that took them around the world. Managed by their father, Samuel Baltimore Hyers, they traveled to Boston in 1872 to perform at the World Peace Jubilee; the first major musical production in the United States in which interracial performers shared the same stage. Three years later, they formed a theater company to produce their own musical dramas, staring Anna and Emma.

 

Anna_Madah_Hyers.jpg
Anna Madah Hyers

These productions, including Out of Bondage and The Underground Railway, were first and foremost musical entertainment, but they also represented a reaction to the portrayal of African

Americans in theater via the stereotype of the minstrel shows. The career of the Hyers sisters spanned decades, but the sisters retired shortly prior to 1900. Emma Louise Hyers died in 1901, and Anna Madah returned to Sacramento, where she met Dr. Fletcher. After settling in Sacramento, Anna Madah sang and played organ occasionally for church functions, but no longer performed the grand operas of her youth. Dr. Fletcher died in 1922, followed by Anna Madah’s death in 1925.

Sarah Mildred Jones
Sarah Mildred Jones

Black Education in Sacramento and Educator Sarah Mildred Jones

Early Black schools established by Elizabeth Flood and Rev. Sanderson were segregated, as were later schools including Ninth Street’s “Ungraded School No. 2—Colored.” One of the earliest teachers at this school, Sarah Mildred Jones, became the first African American principal of an integrated elementary school when she was appointed principal of Fremont Primary School, located at 24th and N Street, in 1894. There was an immediate outcry from white Sacramentans, who called for her removal and threatened to withdraw their children from the school if Ms. Jones remained principal. Ninety-eight local educators rallied to support Jones, outnumbering the 36 parents who opposed her appointment.

At the hearing held to decide the issue, the argument made by parents opposing Ms. Jones was based solely on race; her academic credentials and experience were impeccable and unquestionable. The President of the School Board pointed out to those assembled that similar objections were raised when Rev. Sanderson first requested public support for a school for Black children, and those objections had long since died out. The district filed the petition and retained Ms. Jones as principal until she retired in 1914. During her tenure, in response to overcrowding at Fremont School, she asked the school board to relocate former buildings of the “colored school” on 9th Street to the Fremont school site, which were scheduled for demolition. When the school was relocated, the multiracial students of the West End also moved to Fremont School.[5]

The Beginning of Black Journalism in Sacramento

By 1900, due to the same economic and social forces that diverted migration to southern California and the Bay Area and away from Sacramento, the growth of Sacramento’s Black population also slowed. Sacramento’s first Black-owned newspaper, Sacramento Forum, published its only issue in 1906, before its publisher, Rev. J. Gordon McPherson of Shiloh Baptist Church, moved to San Jose. Dr. R.J. Fletcher and Baptist minister J.M. Collins assisted McPherson’s paper, and in 1915 Collins started a more lasting Black newspaper, the Western Review.[6]

In April of 1910 the white-owned Sacramento Union reported that P.J. Clyde Randall, a Black attorney who previously practiced law in Macon, Georgia, intended to open an office in Sacramento.[7] Not long after coming to the city, he founded his own local newspaper, the Sacramento Enterprise. In July of 1910, Mr. Randall, a Spanish-American War veteran, published a guest editorial in the Sacramento Union, a newspaper closely associated with Republican politics, titled “Jim-Crowism Marks Meeting of War Veterans,” criticizing a planned gathering of veterans of the Civil War and Spanish-American War because Black and white veterans were to meet in separate places.

In November 1910, Randall penned a longer guest editorial for the Union, describing the state of Black residents of Sacramento, entitled “The Negro in Sacramento”:

 

The negro in Sacramento, as a people, is most likely less in numbers than any of the other classes that go to make up the city’s population. Both the Japanese and Chinese very greatly outnumber the negro. The Portuguese also does, and very likely the Greeks. If the high-turbaned, tall Hindus continue their recent influx they, too, will outnumber the American negro here. He, the negro, is a natural born pure American. Instinctively he is such. So he is by training, sympathy and devotion. The American institutions and government are his ideals; neither does he claim nor know any other than the American flag and country, nor has his blood been freely given, upon the battle line as a patriotic soldier of unquestioned bravery for the establishment, preservation and enlargement of any other nationality. “If it is a patriotic as it is a sacred principle that without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins, we may exclaim with Kipling:

“If blood be the price of liberty

If blood he the price of liberty,

If blood be the price of liberty,

Lord God he has paid in full.”

Randall, like McPherson, did not remain in Sacramento for very long, but the Forum, Enterprise and Western Review gave this small community a means of communication and platform for their leaders’ views. These small enterprises also gave their editors the necessary experience to convince the Union, connected by party affiliation, to provide them column space and potentially a wider audience.

K Street in 1910
K Street in 1910

Protest of “The Clansman”

Between 1908 and 1915, Sacramento’s African American community dealt several times with theatrical productions of “The Clansman” a play based on a novel by Thomas Dixon, Jr., about Reconstruction in the South and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Featuring heroic portrayals of Klansmen and shocking, sinister caricatures of African Americans, generally played by white actors in blackface, productions of “The Clansman” were met with protest in many cities. First produced as a play at the Clunie Theatre in November 1908, Sacramento’s African American congregations discussed raising formal objections or attempting to have the play cancelled. After some discussion, no formal objections were raised, but the play was the subject of discussion at churches within the community. The Sacramento Union attempted to minimize the racism of the play by pointing out that the production had “much in it of historical interest to the younger members of the race.” Protests in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles against the play, in the Union’s view, “have not done the Afro-American race any good.” The small size of Sacramento’s Black community meant that meaningful protest was difficult without sufficient organization.[8]

In 1910, the play returned to the Clunie, and was met with local protest, but the protesters’ efforts were not sufficient to prevent the play’s performance. In the following year, when “The Clansman” returned to Sacramento at the Diepenbrock Theatre, Rev. R.H. Herring of St. Andrew’s African Methodist Episcopal Church filed an emphatic protest with Sacramento mayor Marshall Beard against the production. By this time, several Southern and Eastern cities had suppressed the play due to concerns about race riots. In the words of Rev. Herring,[9]

I cannot condemn too strongly the production of this play, “The Clansman.” Everything that is cruel and despicable against the negro race has been brought out and introduced in the drama. The negro is shown as something a little lower than beasts, and in all fairness we think that we are within our rights in asking the city to help us in this matter.

I think we have suffered enough in the past, without having this highly overdrawn picture of one-time conditions in the South thrust upon us without uttering a word of protest. We love peace. Our people in Sacramento are hard-working, law, abiding citizens and taxpayers. We are not asking much, and we would like to see this prejudiced drama substituted with something more wholesome and true to life.

I will see Mayor Beard who I am sure is a friend to our people and fair-minded, to learn if something cannot be done to convince the management of the Theater Diepenbrock that the play should not be given.

Despite Rev. Herring’s appeal, Mayor Beard was unmoved, and the Diepenbrock put on its performance of “The Clansman.” The Union reviewer reported that the local Black community felt the play did not represent conditions in the South and it did them an intolerable injustice, then went on to describe the intense drama, merry comedy, and gripping action of the play, and its realistic depiction of settings like “The Great Cave of the Ku-Klux.” For the third time, Sacramento’s Black community was forced to swallow their outrage.

In 1915, “The Clansman” returned in a new form—as a feature-length motion picture, produced by D.W. Griffith, also known as “Birth of a Nation.” Due to their growing political experience and organization, this time, the response of Sacramento’s Black community was larger and more direct. Instead of a single pastor, Commissioner Ed Carraghar was visited by a delegation of twenty-four men and women, representing many of Sacramento’s African American congregations and community groups. By this time, even Governor Hiram Johnson, previously credited with endorsing the film, had retreated from that position, stating that “he has never approved the work and has always thought it could be productive of only prejudice and ill-feeling.” This time, the protest was met with a limited concession from the City Commissioners; the film could be shown, but in edited form, with the most objectionable scenes removed. The edited film was met with subdued enthusiasm by local media. Even this minor concession, given the context of the times, represented a victory in an era of rising prejudice. In the pages of The Western Review, Rev. Collins heralded the community’s position as “an earnest and manly stand.”[10]

The political power of Black Sacramentans, while still small, was caught in the current of larger state and national events. In part due to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, often attributed to the popularity of the film Birth of a Nation, racism was on the rise in America during this era. The 1910s and 1920s were also the era of the first racial exclusion covenants, used to prohibit purchase of homes in new suburbs except by whites. In response to these challenges, organized political protests from churches and community groups were necessary for survival, even if they were unable due to lack of numbers and resources to create major political change. The remainder of the decade brought other signs of incremental change: 1918 brought the election of Frederick Roberts of Los Angeles to that California legislature, the first African American member of the California State Assembly.

20180322_115725

Sacramento’s First Black Candidate, Rev. T. Allen Harvey

In 1919, Rev. Thomas Allen Harvey became the first Black candidate for Sacramento political office. Rev. Harvey arrived in Sacramento from San Jose in 1916 and rapidly established two major institutions in the Black community; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, known today as Kyles Temple AME Zion, and the first Sacramento branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the earliest NAACP branches on the west coast. Originally preaching at the long-established St. Andrew’s AME congregation, Rev. Harvey formed the Kyles Temple congregation in August of 1917. The original Kyles Temple church was located in Oak Park at 36th and Broadway, its cornerstone laid in April of 1919, the first African American congregation in a Sacramento suburb.[11]

Rev. Harvey became the Sacramento NAACP’s first president in 1916. In 1917, he gave the keynote speech at a function for 418 Black soldiers passing through Sacramento on the way to Camp Lewis, Washington. In the following year, he won the first racial discrimination suit in Sacramento history, winning an award of $50 after being refused service at the W.L. Bigelow Restaurant at 3008 35th Street. In the following year, Rev. Harvey gave another soldiers’ address, to African American veterans of the First World War, and the local NAACP chapter brought speakers including James Weldon Johnson of New York to address the issue of lynching during the 1919 “Red Summer.”[12]

Rev. Harvey first expressed an interest in running for City Commissioner in March of 1919, intending to replace Thomas Coulter as commissioner of public works. His stand on municipal issues included a competitive franchise for local streetcar companies and a reservoir-based water treatment system. He also took a position on saloons reinforcing the idea of Black Progressive tempered tolerance for saloon interest, as quoted in the Sacramento Union,

Everyone knows how I stand on saloons. Nevertheless, I believe in the saloon man being given a fair deal. I am not catering to the church vote to the exclusion of others. I want the support of all fair-thinking men and believe that when the votes are counted I shall not stand at the bottom of the list of seven.[13]

Faced with six other competitors, including Assembly member Lee Gebhardt, W.R. Purnell, John Q. Brown, Ed L. Head, Cradoc Meredith, and Hawley R. Tuttle, all white men, Rev. Harvey recognized that he faced an enormous challenge, but he felt he was up to the task, citing his experience in the Spanish-American War:

I am a colored man. I was at San Juan Hill with Colonel Roosevelt and when those Spanish bullets were zipping round we were all Americans. It should be the same today.[14]

True to his word, Rev. Harvey did not place last. In the May 1919 election results, he was fifth out of seven candidates with 196 votes out of 8441 cast. Harvey’s experience clearly demonstrated that elected office was still too high of a hurdle for Sacramento’s Black community in 1919. He did not allow this setback to limit his political ambitions, running for City Council under the city’s new charter in 1921, or to slow his efforts at creating civic institutions. Three months later, he formed an organization for Sacramento’s African American veterans, the Crispus Attucks Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Club, and in 1920 served in Sacramento’s Independence Day parade as marshall of the Eighth Division, representing Sacramento’s Black community in the civic procession.[15]

Despite the limited size and political power of Black Sacramento in the early twentieth century, this community drew upon the strengths of its religious and social institutions, and the talents of its leaders, to organize and advocate for their community’s survival in an era of increased racial tension. Decades later, following the Second World War, a new generation of Black leaders rekindled this spirit among a growing Black population and a national civil rights movement. In the meantime, this community did its best to ensure a safe and secure place among the growing and diverse West End.

received_10207314464093641William Burg is a historian based in Sacramento, California, who writes books and articles about local history, ranging from urban planning and railroads to civil rights and contemporary music. Burg is also a state historian in the California Office of Historic Preservation. This piece is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Wicked Sacramento. In addition to his 2014 work, Burg’s most recent book is Midtown Sacramento: Creative Soul of the City.

[1] Caesar, Clarence, “An Historical Overview of the Development of Sacramento’s Black Community, 1850-1983”, unplublished thesis, 1985, Sacramento State University, page 91.

[2] Caesar, pp. 49-88

[3] Caesar, 78. Beasley, Delilah, The Negro Trail Blazers of California, 1919 (Los Angeles: California Historical Society) p. 280.

[4] “Another Milestone Passed,” The Herald, Los Angeles, Thursday, October 24, 1895, Page 1.Family history research via ancestry.com, sources include California County Birth, Marriage, and Death Records, 1849-1980. “Sacramento City, August 20,” The Elevator, August 23, 1873, Page 3. “Sumner Guard,” The Elevator May 30, 1874, Page 3. “Sacramento,” The Pacific Appeal, April 20, 1878, Page 2. “Colored Voters!” Sacramento Daily Union February 25, 1879, Page 2.

[5] Demas, Marilyn, “Ungraded School No. 2, Colored: The African American Struggle for Education in Victorian Sacramento,” Golden Notes Volume 45, Numbers 1 and 2, Spring and Summer 1999, pp 66-70.

[6] Caesar, pp. 101-105, 113-114.

[7] Letter from P.J. Clyde Randall to Theodore Roosevelt, April 29, 1917, Theodore Roosevelt Center, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, Dickinson State University, accessed via http://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/Research/Digital-Library/Record?libID=o279493

[8] “Colored People Will Not Protest,” Sacramento Union November 12, 1908, Page 9.

[9] “Negroes Protest ‘Clansman’ Drama,” Sacramento Union, July 4, 1911, pp 1-2. “’The Clansman’ By M’Rae Company,” Sacramento Union July 9, 1911, Page 3.

[10] Collins, Rev John M., “The Clansman,” The Western Review, June 1915, Page 4. “Negroes Ask City to Bar “Clansman,” Sacramento Union May 27, 1915, Page 6. “Clansman To Be Expurgated By Censor,” Sacramento Union May 28, 1915. “Clansman Resumes Its Place at Clunie,” Sacramento Union June 3, 1915, Page 7.

[11] “Will Hold Services,” Sacramento Union October 15, 1916, Page 7. “Rev. Harvey Returns from Conference,” Sacramento Union September 26, 1917, Page 6. “Church Cornerstones Laid,” Sacramento Union April 23, 1919, Page 3. Caesar, Pages 115-116.

[12] Magagnini, Stephen, “Sacramento NAACP Celebrates A Century of Civil Rights,” Sacramento Bee, July 19, 2016, http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/article88818807.html. Caesar, pp. 117-118. “Restaurants Must Serve Colored Folk,” Sacramento Union July 26, 1918, Page 3. “Colored Soldiers Are Given a Reception,” Sacramento Union March 29, 1919, Page 2. “Negro Talks of Crimes Against Race,” Sacramento Union May 30, 1919, Page 2.

[13] “Rev. Allen Harvey Willing to Become City Commissioner,” Sacramento Union March 18, 1919, Page 1.

[14] “They’re Off, Count ‘em: Seven After Commissionership,” Sacramento Union April 14, 1919, Page 1.

[15] “Gebhart and Brown to Fight It Out at Final Election,” Sacramento Union, May 4, 1919 Page 1. “Colored Troops To Have Club,” Sacramento Union, August 8, 1919, Page 2. “Fourth Parade Great Affair,” Sacramento Union July 6, 1920, Page 2.

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