Debbie Croft: Black pioneers of the Gold Rush honored

July 18, 2013 

Standing beside the grave of Louden Nelson in Santa Cruz, Sylvia Alden Roberts made a vow.

There in Evergreen Cemetery close to where Nelson was buried, a nearby grave held the bodies of eight or nine other black pioneers — individuals who had long been forgotten.

Black men, women and children arrived in the state during the Gold Rush to mine for gold or work for themselves, or to mine or work for their masters.

"Some were brought here as slaves, some were free," Roberts said. "Some left discernible footprints, such as Mifflin W. Gibbs, who became the first black U.S. judge."

Gibbs lived in San Francisco for eight years during the Gold Rush era.

Nelson eventually became a farmer, a cobbler and a landowner after buying his freedom. Upon his death he left his estate to the Santa Cruz City School District.

Others black pioneers from the Gold Rush era faded into obscurity as many of their white peers did, having been unsuccessful at striking it rich.

But what were their stories? Enter Roberts, who moved to the Sierra Nevada foothills with her husband when he retired. Already interested in history, she was intrigued by Sonora's Sugg House, especially when she learned it had been built by a freed slave. The Sugg family had lived in Merced before moving to Sonora.

"What was a Southern slave doing in California?" she wondered.

With access to so much Gold Rush history, Roberts began researching black pioneers and her own heritage. At first she was told she wouldn't find much.

Now almost 20 years later, she has amassed enough information and artifacts for the newly opened Gold Country Black Heritage exhibit at the Tuolumne County Historical Society Museum.

The museum itself is housed in Sonora's old jail. In one of the cells the current display includes items from the Sugg family: photographic panels, household goods, a violin case, a music cabinet, a harness-maker's work bench and a barrel belonging to Mary Snelling Sugg. Personal items of Sugg family members are also displayed.

A handmade red and white friendship quilt is given a prominent place. Parishioners of Sonora's First Baptist Church, including 11 who were black, stitched the quilt and presented it to the Rev. Andrew Sturtevant and his wife, Ella, upon their departure in 1884.

This exhibit will remain in place for five years, with displays changing periodically to highlight other black families from the area.

In last month's simple opening ceremony, John Brunskill, president of the museum, gave an introductory speech to the approximately two dozen visitors. It was a project he and Roberts had talked about putting together for several years.

"So many hands were involved in making this happen," he said.

Roberts spoke briefly about the thrill of seeing the fruits of her labor transformed into an exhibit, validating her years of research. This exhibit is possibly the only one of its kind in Northern California.

Little known facts include:

• California's black history predates Gold Rush history by more than 300 years.

• More than 5,000 blacks from around the world took an early part in the Gold Rush experience.

• Canadian merchant William Perkins, described Sonora in 1849 as a place where people of every nation and all varieties of costumes, who spoke in 50 different languages, were mixing together amicably and socially.

In 2008 Roberts' book, "Mining for Freedom: Black History Meets the California Gold Rush," was published. She dedicated it to the memory of black pioneers. Roberts gives lectures on the subject, and founded the Mother Lode Black Heritage Foundation.

She's contemplating a second book.

To view the exhibit, go to the museum at 158 W. Bradford Ave. in the historic downtown area. Visit http://tchistory.org or call (209) 532-1317 for more information.

"I stood at Louden's grave," Roberts said, "and made a promise that I would find out more about these people, and would do all I could to make sure they were not forgotten."

In her ongoing research, Roberts continues to learn more about California's black history.

"I still have more to tell, but I feel I have kept my promise," she of the vow she made to those black pioneers buried in a Santa Cruz cemetery.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at composed@tds.net.

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