BENICIA — One Solano County town’s African-American roots are on display as the Benicia Historical Museum honors the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Most people don’t realize that California was part of the Civil War, that there were slaves in the state,” said Benicia Historical Museum Executive Director Elizabeth d’Huart.
The exhibit commemorating the proclamation’s 150th anniversary opened Sunday at the Benicia Historical Museum and runs through January 2013.
Although issued as an executive order Jan. 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary proclamation Sept. 22, 1862, saying that he would order the emancipation of an estimated 3.1 million slaves in states controlled by the Confederacy if the states did not return to Union control by Jan. 1, 1863.
“The proclamation made the abolition of slavery a central goal of the war,” d’Huart said.
The exhibit’s name, “Freedom is a Hard Bought Thing,” was taken from a 1940 magazine short story written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stephen Vincent Benet, who lived at the Benicia Arsenal as a child when his father was commanding officer. The phrase was often quoted by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., d’Huart said.
The exhibit was originally planned for Black History Month in February, but the curators and volunteers could find very little material about African-Americans in early Benicia.
“There was a dearth of material,” d’Huart said. “We found very little pertaining to Benicia.”
Only persistent digging and a lot of help from the community created the exhibit, which ranges from photos of the African-Americans working in the arsenal during World War II to a shackle put on slaves “so that they could not run away undetected,” d’Huart said.
The exhibit will be an evolving thing, according to Curator Beverly Phelan, who said that as more about Benicia’s African-American history comes forward, “we will be adding to the exhibit as we go along.”
That could include information about the Buffalo soldiers, the black cavalry solders who were stationed in or near the Benicia Arsenal some time after the Civil War, Phelan said.
In 1850, Benicia listed only six African-Americans among its population of 480 people, one of whom was slave Adam Willis, who came from Missouri to Benicia with his owner, Singleton Vaughn. Willis also became one of the first free African-Americans in town when he was set free in a Benicia courtroom Sept. 27, 1855.
Another black resident was former Bear Flag veteran Joseph McAfee, who became a barber in Benicia and was part of a Western underground railroad that freed slaves in pre-Civil War California.
Among the artifacts is a Civil War uniform of the kind worn by the black soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War, as well as post-war advertisements such as the one run in local newspapers by Benicia resident and freed slave Marion Willis, trying to find her children, who were taken from her as a slave.
“They published these heartbreaking advertisements all over the country, trying to pull their families back together,” d’Huart said.
Only with World War II and the migration of African-Americans to work at the Benicia Arsenal did Benicia’s black population significantly expand. Even now, Benicia’s black population is small; 1,510 black residents in 2010 among a total population of 26,997 people, according to the U.S. Census.
The museum will host a reading Oct. 14 by author Waights Taylor Jr. from his recently published book, “Our Southern Home — Scottsboro to Montgomery to Birmingham: The Transformation of the South in the Twentieth Century.”
Reach Ian Thompson at 427-6976 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ithompsondr.