I’m afraid that when many non-black people hear the phrase Black History Month, they treat it like an upcoming Tyler Perry movie, something that’s not for them. But black history is just fleshed-out American history and is relevant to everyone. This is your country.
One of my most exciting moments studying black history was four years ago, when my brother Tony sent me genealogical information he’d received from a gas company that wanted to drill on our family’s land in Texas. With some digging, I discovered that our ancestor, Ned Wade, had been bought and owned by a man named Alexander Horton, a former sheriff and state legislator who also served as aide-de-camp to Gen. Sam Houston.
As I wrote in a column in 2010, being able to actually see a photo of the man who owned our relative was amazing. It was pure Schadenfreude when I found Horton’s memoir and read a passage where he complained about losing his land after the Civil War, most likely the land now owned by my family.
Black history in California provides many interesting tales. California was admitted to the union as a free state, having abolished slavery in 1849. While there were slaves here and true freedom for African-Americans was elusive for quite some time, then as now, California was ahead of the rest of the country.
I recently came across information about Edmund Wysinger, a slave brought to California during the gold rush who purchased his freedom for $1,000. When his son was denied entrance to white public schools, he went to court. In 1890, in the case of Wysinger v. Crookshank, the California Supreme Court ruled for Wysinger and the case ended legal segregation of African-Americans in California public schools. California once again demonstrated itself to be ahead of the nation. Brown v. Board of Education would be 64 years away.
It was in researching a short story I was writing that I stumbled upon the controversial Mary Pleasant, a woman of African descent who helped free slaves through the Underground Railroad. In 1866 in Pleasant v. North Beach & Mission Railroad Company, the court ruling outlawed segregation in San Francisco’s public conveyances after Pleasant and two black friends were ejected from a streetcar. Once again, this was more than three-quarters of a century before Rosa Parks.
But for something even closer to home, I’m reading “John Grider’s Century: African Americans in Solano, Napa, and Sonoma Counties from 1845 to 1925,” by Vallejo resident Sharon McGriff-Payne.
On June 14, 1846, Grider was one of seven black men in a group of 37 who captured the Mexican garrison in Sonoma (imprisoning Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo) and raised a flag featuring a bear and the words “California Republic.” Grider supplied the paint to paint the Bear Flag, the precursor to our current state flag. For 26 days, California was an independent nation before the United States annexed the territory. Grider earned enough money through mining to buy his freedom. He died at the county hospital in Fairfield in 1924 and is buried at the Suisun-Fairfield Cemetery.
All of these events concern you. So whatever your ethnicity, if you’re an American, this is your history. Peace.
Kelvin Wade is the author of “Morsels” Vols. I and II and lives in Fairfield. Email him at [email protected]