African-Americans in Early California

Free at Last

By Gretchen Giles

How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word. And yet, being a problem is a strange experience.
–W.E.B. Du Bois, 1902

AH, THE GOLDEN STATE. Imagine California in the late 1700s: our tawny hills laid down like great sleeping hands, sloping from knuckles to tips into green valleys shaded by oaks. Creeks run sweet, berries proliferate, poison oak grows glossy and unfettered, and lumbering bears paw honey and grubs out of trees. Climb to the top of this hill and see the San Francisco Bay glittering in the clear, clean air. Make camp near that watering hole and know that you won’t see another human for days.

Nary a microwave tower nor a strip mall desecrates the scene into which rides a large, dusty group of men straddling road-weary horses. But this is where the scene shifts, the focus racks, the camera pulls in tighter. Because this party doesn’t have the squinting white faces of a Clint Eastwood western, Caucasian riders elegantly filthy in Italian-designed leather chaps.

These men are from Mexico, Spain, the West Indies, and Africa. These men are the explorers, the landlords, and the titans of the land called California. “We’re talking about cowboys. They truly were black cowboys,” says Sonoma County Museum curator Evangeline Tai, standing in the upstairs offices of the Santa Rosa-based museum. Investigating such historical figures as a tracker known simply as El Negre–one of California Governor Gaspar de Portolá’s explorers who, in 1769, is credited with being the first of the party to spot San Francisco Bay–and Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of California, whose heritage was almost as much African as Mexican, Tai on Nov. 7 begins displaying “Rivers of Hope, Rivers of Change: The African-American Experience in Sonoma County.”

Using historical artifacts from area families, records from the local chapter of the NAACP, and items culled from other Bay Area museums, Tai and guest presenter Darius Spearman–a graduate student of history at Sonoma State University with a focus on the local African-American community–have scoured the North Bay looking for clues to the local black experience.

What Tai terms “the black west” probably didn’t make it all this far north until streams of freed slaves and others came here searching for freedom, land, and that shiny dust that caused so much of a ruckus in ’49. The migration probably “stopped in Marin County, evidently around the Headlands,” says Tai. “That’s where the documentation gets kind of fuzzy. Some say that they made it all the way up to Sonoma County; others say that is not correct, that they made it north to Point Reyes, but didn’t come east to Sonoma County.”

Fuzzy or no, by the full flower of the 20th century, parts of Sonoma County were beginning to attract African-American settlers, most notably one John Richards, who is credited with founding the South Park area of Santa Rosa, a portion of the city still welcoming to recent arrivals, and most commonly today, to Eritrean refugees.

Other prominent past citizens are Mary Ellen Pleasant, the former bordello owner and abolitionist whose last request was honored when her gravestone was inscribed with the words “I was a friend of John Brown’s.” Settling on the Beltane Ranch, this Bay Area land baroness comfortably nested on the estimated $30 million she amassed between 1860 and 1890 through a series of shrewd investments, both personal and financial.

Healdsburg resident Smith Robinson, a This Is Your Life honoree, is also highlighted for his efforts during the Korean and Vietnam wars to bolster the spirits of American soldiers and to rally support at home.

“What we’re looking at,” says Spearman, a records technician at Santa Rosa Junior College, “is the different ways that people have stepped up to answer the question of how you mainstream yourself.

“This has been a very interesting journey for me,” Spearman muses of the time that it’s taken to research this project. “It’s really demonstrated the ways that blacks have stepped from the

“Rivers of Hope, Rivers of Change: The African-American Experience in Sonoma County” opens with a reception on Friday, Nov. 7, from 6 to 8 p.m., and runs through Feb. 22. A docents’ orientation begins that day at 10 a.m. Darius Spearman speaks on his research on Saturday, Nov. 15, at 1 p.m. Sonoma County Museum, 425 Seventh St., Santa Rosa. 579-1500.

From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.