Santa Cruz County History - Cultural Diversity

To Know My Name: A Chronological History of African Americans in Santa Cruz County
by Phil Reader

PART 3: CHRONOLOGY 1861-1899


A Black miner named Robins, living in Gold Gulch, was shot in the head during a quarrel over mining rights. John Lewis, another colored man, was arrested on a charge of Assault with Intent to Commit Murder. He was tried and acquitted when the jury could not agree.

Photo of Dan Rodgers
Dan Rodgers


The local Black community hired Mrs. L. C. Clark to teach African American children at her home in Watsonville. Dan Rodgers and his sons-in-law Robert Johnson and John Derrick began what is to become a 20 year struggle to break the color line in Watsonville Schools.


The American Civil War broke out after secession and the attack on Fort Sumner. Slavery was to become a flash point of the conflict. Locally, the residents in the cities of Watsonville and Santa Cruz generally supported the Union, while any of those in the outlying areas, farmers from the southern states and many Irish settlers, took the side of the Confederacy. The county sent several military units to fight for the north, while there was a limited amount of activity in the region by Confederate Irregulars.

Image of Philip Bell
Philip Bell


A second Black weekly newspaper The Pacific Appeal, was founded in San Francisco by Philip Bell and Peter Anderson.


After much agitation, African Americans were finally granted the right of testimony.


Joe McAfee, the old "Bear Flagger," moved to Santa Cruz where he opened a bootblack stand on Pacific Avenue. He became an orator for the local Republican Party.


In December, President Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation.


The Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on January 1st. The long nightmare of slavery was over. There was much celebration locally among both Blacks and whites.


Samuel Padmore, an old miner and swamper at several saloons on Front Street, died in his sleep. He was buried at the Evergreen Cemetery.


On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General U. S. Grant at Appomattox and the Civil War ended.


The 13th Amendment, formally banning slavery, was passed by Congress.


The Ku Klux Klan was founded in Tennessee. While there was some Klan violence in California, including a church bombing in nearby San Jose, there is no evidence of the "old Klan" ever being in Santa Cruz county.


Another state convention of colored citizens was held at Sacramento and established standing committees on education and voting rights. Philip Bell represented Santa Cruz county while Joe Smallwood attended as a delegate from San Francisco.


Philip Bell, after having a falling out with Peter Anderson, left the Appeal and began to publish The Elevator. There were then two Black newspapers serving California's African American population.


A large number of newly freed slaves arrived at Watsonville to expand the sizable African American community already residing there. Many of them were from Arkansas and Tennessee, part of Daniel Rodgers' contingent. They include William Morris, Emily Smith, Amanda Rodgers Logan together with her three young sons, Albert, Alfred and Oscar, James Calvin Williams, a blacksmith, and Jane Riley.


Jefferson Rodgers, a newly freed slave, traveled to Watsonville from Tennessee via the horn in the company of his ex-masters James and George Rodgers. Jeff and his ancestors, back to his great grandfather, had been servants in the Rodgers household for over 150 years. He took up a farm of his own and became a much respected farmer in the Pajaro Valley.


A separate "Negro" school was established for African American children on East Lake Avenue. The land on which it was built was donated by Robert Johnson with the proviso that it be used "as a school house to which all children shall be admitted irrespective of color for the purpose of education." The concept of a segregated school was, naturally enough, never a popular idea with the local black community. During the years of its existence (1866-1879), it had eight teachers; Miss M. J. Moltroupe, Miss A. Allison, Lois Poole, Mary Bell, the highly popular Miss Josephine Knowlton, Mrs. Kieth, Mary Hushbeck, and Fannie Gallagher.


The first Civil Rights Bill was passed through congress over President Andrew Johnson's veto. The act conferred citizenship enfranchisement to citizens "of every race and color." Once again celebrations were held all across the county. The 14th Amendment is also pushed through congress by radical Republicans, but it needed ratification by the states so it could go into effect.


The city of Santa Cruz was incorporated.


The first Black church in Santa Cruz county came into being when the Reverend Adam B. Smith of San Francisco founded a branch chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Watsonville.


The city of Watsonville was incorporated.


Oscar T. Jackson and his brother Jethro moved to Watsonville where Oscar opened a barber shop and Jethro started a bill posting service. Oscar would later become a famous minstrel and travel world wide.


Joseph Smallwood and Robert Francis moved to Santa Cruz from San Francisco and set up shop at the Pacific Ocean House. They were 49ers who had met while they were living in Coloma, El Dorado County. Both were free born, well educated, and politically active. Joe Smallwood, a native of Emmettsberg, Maryland, had left a grown family in Philadelphia when he came west to the mines. One of his sons was the personal secretary to Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Another, the Superintendent of Public Schools for York County, Pennsylvania. Joe had been a delegate to the Colored Citizens Conventions. Robert Coleman Francis, a native of Philadelphia, was not only a seasoned abolitionist, but a musician of some talent. As a youngster he studied with Frank Johnson, the most celebrated bandmaster of his day. Francis traveled extensively in both the United States and Europe with Johnson and was a composer of many musical scores. While in Santa Cruz, he wrote and arranged the music for the Santa Cruz Brass Band.


The 14th Amendment was finally ratified. The 15th Amendment, guaranteeing voting rights to Negroes, passed Congress, but it too must await ratification by the states.


Alex Wilkins, a barber in Oscar Jackson's shop was shot and killed by outlaws as he was riding home after attending a Fandango at Whisky Hill (now Freedom).


The first Black children, those of George Chester and Robert Francis, began attending schools in Santa Cruz.


The 1870 Census enumerated 53 African Americans living in Santa Cruz county.


The 15th Amendment was finally ratified by a 2/3 majority of the states and Black voter registration began.


Within the first three months after the passage of the 15th Amendment, 100% of the black males living in the county registered to vote.


African Americans from throughout the central coast gathered in Allen's Hall at Watsonville to celebrate the ratification of the 15th Amendment. They were joined in their merriment by white supporters from all across the county. Joe McAfee and William H. Miller, a Salinas barber, were the orators of the day. The day long event included a breakfast, a picnic, a pot luck dinner and a dance. Thomas Snodgrass, an old time Abolitionist and avid supporter of Negro rights, was given an enthusiastic welcome when he entered the hall. The only drawback to the occasion was when a group of rowdies threw Cayenne pepper on the dance floor and shouted racial slurs at the dancers. However, they were quickly driven away.


Three Negro students had to be removed from Branciforte School when the state Legislature passed a bill, introduced by State Superintendent of Schools O. P. Fitzgerald, banning African, Oriental and Indian students from attending public schools. The trustees of Santa Cruz City Schools allowed the children to return to class in spite of the law.


Benjamin Johnson, the eldest son of Robert Johnson, became the first African American to vote in Santa Cruz county history, when he cast his ballot in the school trustee election on April 30th.


Gordon and Rosa Ison came west with their former master, John Glenn, from Knoxville, Tennessee. Gordon, a native of Virginia, found work with the Watsonville Water and Light Company, where he remained for over 30 years. Rosa Ison, born in Tennessee, was a servant in the household of General "Stonewall" Jackson during the Civil War.


The Colored Citizen's State Educational Convention convened in Stockton for the express purpose of furthering the educational goals of African Americans in California. The convention initiated a petition drive aimed at forcing the legislature to rescind the law banning "children of African descent" from attending public schools. Joe Smallwood was a delegate to the convention from Santa Cruz and was elected to the Educational Executive Committee.


Oscar T. Jackson, the barber turned minstrel, moved to the San Francisco Bay area to further his career. During the next three decades he would tour the world with the leading minstrel troupes of the day. In 1883, he played a series of command performances before the royal families of Europe.


Virginia native, Strother Cooper, a farmer, arrived at the Pajaro Valley from Missouri bringing his large family with him. He was an energetic and highly personable young man who quickly endeared himself to the people of Watsonville. Both he and "Uncle Dan" Rodgers become charter members of Watsonville's infamous Galoot Club.


Since the opening of the colored school in 1866, the African American families of Watsonville had sought entry for their children to the regular primary school, for which they paid taxes. Each attempt, however, had been rebuffed. By 1878, there were 18 students in attendance at the segregated Black school and the education there was not up to the parents standards. So when school opened in the spring, they marched their children to the primary school and demanded entrance. But once more they were turned away. Their reaction was to institute a boycott of the Black school, which then closed its doors. Robert Johnson, acting as the spokesman for the African American community, quickly filed a suit demanding their rights as citizens and tax payers. After much confusion, the courts ruled in their favor, ordering that the Black children be admitted to the primary school. The color line was at last broken.


The 1880 U.S. Census showed that there were 63 African Americans living in the county.


Joseph Smallwood Francis, son of Robert Francis and godson of Joseph Smallwood, graduated with honors (salutatorian) from Santa Cruz High. He was the first African American to graduate from a regular high school in California. While in school, he had served as the editor of the Leisure Hours, the school newspaper, and also worked at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Two years later, he passed the entrance examination to the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in journalism and business.


John Lincoln Derrick, son of John and Martha Derrick, and grandson of "Uncle Dan" Rodgers, graduated from the Watsonville School with a high school accreditation. The following year, he joined his friend Joseph Francis at Berkeley -- also as a journalism major.


With the minstrel craze at its height, the young African Americans of Watsonville formed a group called "The Home Minstrels" and were received enthusiastically by their audiences and the local press.


Black outlaw Charlie Fouche, while drinking at the Long Branch Saloon on Main Street, got into a gun fight with two Town Constables and was wounded. He was arrested on a charge of Assault with a Deadly Weapon, found guilty and sent to jail. A letter was found among his personal effects indicating that he had once been a member of the James Brothers gang.


Jim Nelson, a much loved street character in Santa Cruz, died on October l9th at the county hospital after a short illness. "Nigger Jim", as he was commonly known, with his hair twisted up in a series of braids, had entertained passerbys with his stories of the "old days" on and off for over 20 years. He had served aboard square riggers out of New Bedford Harbor during the glory days of whaling, worked in the gold fields of California in the days of '49, and he could "out fist" any man on the west coast. However, his favorite yarn was about the time he had fought with Napoleon Bonaparte at the battle of Waterloo. Jim was able to add credence to the story by recounting this famous battle in vivid detail. He was buried at the Evergreen Cemetery.


William Morris and young Albert Logan, members of Dan Rodgers' Arkansas group moved from Watsonville and settled in Santa Cruz, thereby laying the foundation for a new African American community. Logan bought a large two story house on South Branciforte Avenue.

Image of Scott Gilmore
Scott Gilmore


Arkansas native, Daniel Gilmore, founded a "southern-style" plantation in the Hollister Hills. He sent for a group of his ex-slaves to work on the farm, offering to pay for their transportation west and $30 per month plus board -- a high wage for the time. Over 80 Blacks migrated to California at Gilmore's request, thereby seeding one of the largest African American communities in the central coast region.


The 1890 U.S. Census showed the African American community stable at 62 members.

SANTA CRUZ 1890-1910

As the 20th century approached and then turned, the emphasis of the Negro community shifted from Watsonville to Santa Cruz. One by one the old slavery generation of blacks passed on, while their children and grand children migrated to San Francisco and Oakland, where there were more opportunities for a young person. By 1910, the once thriving African American community in the Pajaro Valley had faded completely away.

Photo of Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells

SANTA CRUZ 1892-1894

During this time, a number of Negro families settled in the Santa Cruz area. Among them were William H. Johnson, who worked at the Santa Cruz County National Bank for 30 years, Lena Donlee, a Southern Hominy dealer on Pacific Avenue and Jack Harris, a bootblack together with his wife Victoria and their sons, Carl and Irvin. Two Black Civil War veterans named Alex Penn and Andrew Hall came to the area, as did the William Tipton family. William and Fanny Tipton, late of Tennessee and Mississippi, were the parents of several children and the guardians of two nieces, Anna and Ida B. Wells. The girls' parents had died during the Yellow Fever epidemic in Mississippi. By the time the Tipton family moved to Santa Cruz, Miss Ida B. Wells was already famous as a writer and lecturer on the subject of lynching. Because of her outspokenness on the causes of racial bias, controversy seemed to follow her everywhere. She became a acknowledged leader in the civil rights and feminist movements. She was one of the founders of the NAACP, and during the course of her lifetime published several books and was a columnist syndicated in most of the leading newspapers of the day. Following her death in 1931, her autobiography appeared posthumously. Fifty years later, her work was rediscovered by a new generation of black activists and she was made the subject of a PBS Television Special and, in 1989, her likeness was printed on a U.S. postage stamp. Not enough can be said about the role that Ida B. Wells played in African American history. Her sister Anna, a 1894 graduate of Santa Cruz High School, followed in her footsteps and became a lecturer and newspaper editor.

S.F. BAY AREA 1894

Joseph Francis, now a resident of San Francisco, and John Lincoln Derrick, now of Oakland, began to publish The Western Outlook, a Black newspaper with a large following up and down the west coast. It would remain in existence until the Great Depression.


Anna Wells graduated with honors from Santa Cruz High, only the third African American to do so. A few years later, she moved to the midwest and became the publisher and editor of the Chicago Searchlight. Therefore the first three Black graduates from Santa Cruz county schools went on to publish and edit large circulation newspapers.


The Gilmore Colony collapsed after a series of disasters. The African Americans of the group moved into Hollister, where they remained active even up to contemporary times.


Albert and Mary Logan converted their home on South Branciforte Avenue into a boarding house. For the next 50 years it became the social center for the Black community in Santa Cruz.


Strother Cooper died at his home on the corner of East Lake and Carr. His family moved to Salinas, where they were befriended by a young John Steinbeck, who would later write glowingly of them in Travels With Charley.


Robert Johnson, pioneer and leader of the school desegregation fight; his son Benjamin, the first African American to vote in the county; and James Calvin Williams, the longtime owner of a blacksmiths shop on Main Street, all died within two months of each other.

>> To Know My Name, Part 4.

Back to the Introduction.

Copyright 1995 Phil Reader. Reproduced with the permission of the author. Photographs courtesy of Phil Reader.

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African Americans, racism


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