The State Library’s Annual Juneteenth Celebration and Exhibition
Discoveries in the California State Library’s Archives
By Gary F. Kurutz
Mr. Kurutz is the Foundation’s current Bulletin editor, former executive director, and former curator of special collections for the California State Library
For the last several years, the State Library has participated with the African American community in celebrating Juneteenth or Freedom Day. A highlight of this annual celebration has been an exhibition of treasures from the Library’s collection documenting the antislavery movement, the struggle for freedom, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the contributions of African Americans in California. Each time, the exhibition and celebration has been held in the stately Memorial Vestibule of the Library and Courts Building. The most recent Juneteenth celebration [as of this writing], held on June 19, 2008, included gospel singing and eloquent presentations on the meaning of this special holiday. The event was co-hosted with Juneteenth America. Trudy Coleman, President of Juneteenth America, graciously provided refreshments and invited representatives of the African American community.
Juneteenth (a foreshortening of June 19) was a relatively new holiday in California and in 2002, former Governor Gray Davis officially proclaimed the day as Juneteenth National Freedom Day. Juneteenth marks the occasion when, on June 19, 1865, the last slave in America was freed. This momentous event occurred a full two and one-half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became official on January 1, 1863. That historic proclamation freed African Americans from bondage in Confederate States during the Civil War. News of the last slave’s freedom occurred when Union General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, with the good news that the Civil War had ended and that all slaves were now free. Not surprisingly, the holiday was first celebrated in Texas over 138 years ago and is the oldest African American holiday observance in the United States. It is also known as “Emancipation Day,” “Emancipation Celebration,” “Freedom Day,” and “Jun-Jun.” After a period of decline, a resurgence of interest in Juneteenth started with the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1980, it became an official holiday in Texas. The holiday not only commemorates the fight for freedom but also the strong survival instinct of African Americans. It also recognizes all people who are in a struggle for social justice. The recognition of Juneteenth continues to grow. Many other states including California now hold celebratory ceremonies.
The inspiration to create a Juneteenth exhibit came through the discovery that the Library held the very rare California printing of the Emancipation Proclamation in its ephemera collection. A companion piece provided further motivation to create a display: a beautifully printed broadside recording the vote of the California Legislature in 1865 on the Thirteenth Amendment, that historic change to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery. The exhibit also called attention to the fact that the Library, since its founding in 1850, has collected books on that “peculiar institution” of slavery and the abolitionist movement including several rarities. The Library’s California History Section has obtained many documents written by and about African Americans in the Golden State. With the acquisition of the Tarea Hall Pittman Collection in the 1990s, the Library obtained its first substantial manuscript collection on the Civil Rights Movement. Miss Pittman served as the head of the West Coast Regional Office of the Northern California National Association for the Advancement of Colored People until her retirement in 1970. Her collection has been supplemented by numerous publications, ephemera in the form of programs and newsletters, and photographs.
For those unable to attend the Juneteenth Celebration, we are presenting here the captions and some reproductions for several of the items on exhibit. These descriptions are divided into three major categories. Many who saw the display expressed appreciation and were surprised by the rarity and quality of material documenting African American history.
The Juneteenth exhibit was curated by Gary Kurutz and expertly installed by Dan Flanagan of the Library’s Preservation Office. Michael Dolgushkin and Kira Graybill of the California History Section assisted.
I. The Emancipation Proclamation and Thirteenth Amendment
The First California Printing of the Emancipation Proclamation
President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. San Francisco: F. S. Butler, 1865. Broadside, 28 x 22 inches.
The importance of California’s loyalty to Lincoln and the Union is exemplified by the publication of this elegantly produced and now extremely rare broadside. The title and American flag were printed in color to give it an even more dramatic appearance. It was lithographed by Butler and printed by L. Nagel.
California Ratifies 13th Amendment
California Legislature. Constitutional Amendment Abolishing Slavery. c. 1866. Broadside.
On December 21, 1865, the Legislature ratified the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude following the conclusion of the Civil War. It was approved the following day with the signature of Governor Frederick Low. To celebrate and remember this momentous event, the Legislature commissioned the creation of a double folio broadside bearing the signatures of the state law makers who voted for the amendment. The broadside also recorded fifteen no votes. Louis Nagel of Sacramento printed the text and reproduced the signatures. The top of the broadside is embellished with an allegorical scene lithographed by the Nahl Brothers, the distinguished family of California artists.
The Thirteenth Amendment
Constitution of the United States: Published for the Bicentennial of Its Adoption in 1787. San Francisco: Arion Press in association with the Library of Congress, 1987.
This handsome vellum-bound volume is opened to the pages with the Thirteenth Amendment. Andrew Hoyem’s Arion Press of San Francisco printed five hundred copies of this bicentennial edition.
II. Rare Books on Slavery and the Abolitionist Movement
The Horror of the Atlantic Passage
Thomas Clarkson. The History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-trade by the British Parliament. New York: John S. Taylor, 1836. Three volumes.
This multivolume work with the alternative title of Cabinet of Freedom dramatically narrates the inhumane conditions of the Africans sold into slavery. One of the most sobering illustrations in Clarkson’s history display is a foldout plate of the decks of the slave ship Brookes graphically illustrating how the slaves were placed lying on the decks side-by-side with literally no room for movement. Men were given a space of six by one foot, four inches; and women a space of five feet by one foot, four inches. Many, of course, died and those that survived the trans-Atlantic passage arrived emaciated and near death.
The Celebrated Amistad Slavery Trial
Trial of the Prisoners of the Amistad on the Writ of Habeas Corpus, before the Circuit Court of the United States, for the District of Connecticut, at Hartford, Judges Thompson and Judson, September Term, 1839. New York, 1839.
One of the gems found in the Library’s extensive Americana collection is this rare trial transcript concerning the famous Amistad slavery case. Its opening sentence summarizes events: “Early in the month of August, 1839, there appeared in the newspapers a shocking story, that a schooner, with about twenty passengers, and a large number of slaves, has been seized by the slaves in the night time, and the passengers and crew all murdered.” The mutineers were captured and tried in the United States and set free in 1841 by the Supreme Court. This surprising victory for the slaves helped fuel the American abolitionist movement.
A Documentary on Torture
Theodore Dwight Weld. American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839.
One of the more prominent abolitionist books published in the antebellum era was Weld’s lengthy compilation of eyewitness descriptions of the conditions of slaves obtained from Southern slave owners, ministers, runaway slaves, and merchants. It covers in detail slave sales, torture, slave drives, and their appalling living conditions. His book strongly influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe and is regarded as second only to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in furthering the cause of freedom.
The Novel That Ignited Freedom
Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or, Life among the Lowly. Boston:
J. P. Jewett, 1852. Two volumes.
On display is a rare first edition of Stowe’s famous work that swept the nation and gave real momentum to the abolitionist movement and fueled the national division that led to the Civil War. Over 300,000 copies were sold after its first year of publication and it became the best-selling novel of the 19th century. Only the Bible exceeded it in sales. On the negative side, it unwittingly created a number of stereotypes that lingered well into the 20th century. The Library’s copy still has its original publisher’s cloth binding.
The Infamous Dred Scott Case
Benjamin C. Howard. Report of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the Opinions of the Judges thereof, in the Case of Dred Scott versus John F. A. Sandford. December Term, 1856. Washington, D.C.: Cornelius Wendell, Printer, 1857.
Dred Scott, a slave, sued for his freedom in 1846, and after his case went through the appellate process, it came to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s court. In the text of this volume is the following: “The question is simply this: can a negro, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States?” In a seven to two decision, the Supreme Court said no. Scott was returned to slavery but became a free man on May 26, 1857. He died a year later.
Frederick Douglass. My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1856.
Next to William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of The Liberator, Douglass stands out as the most prominent abolitionist. Douglass escaped to his freedom in 1838 dressed in a sailor’s uniform. This autobiography details his life as a slave and his rise to one of the most powerful voices in U.S. history in the 19th century. The first edition was published in 1855. Because of his prominence, Douglass’ book has been republished many times with new interpretations of his life.
A Censored Book
The Suppressed Book of Slavery. New York: Carleton, 1864.
This abolitionist book was intended for publication in 1857 but evidently was not released because of its seemingly controversial nature. It narrates the dreadful compromises during the American Revolution and formation of the federal government that perpetuated slavery in federal and state law. The authors stated that the country remained in the grip of slaveholding despots and the north did little to oppose them. The volume is illustrated with plates showing the terrible abuses afflicted on African Americans.
Escape from the Prison House of Bondage
William Still. The Underground Railroad. A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, &c.., Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom, as Related by Themselves and Others. Philadelphia, Porter & Coates, 1872.
William Still was a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-slavery Society. He wrote: “In these Records will be found interesting narratives of the escapes of many men, women and children, from the prison house of bondage; from cities and plantations; from rice swamps and cotton fields; from kitchens and mechanic shops; from Border States and Gulf States; from cruel masters and mild masters.” Still’s book is illustrated with a liberal number of plates and portraits of slaves in bondage and scenes of slaves using the underground railroad to escape to their freedom.
Frederick Douglass Praised in Harper’s Weekly
An engraved portrait of the great freedom fighter Frederick Douglass appeared on the front cover of the November 24, 1883, issue of Harper’s Weekly. On page 743 is a two-column biography of Douglass written by a George W. Curtis. The author praised Douglass “as the most conspicuous American of African descent. Born a slave, he is to-day, by his own energy and character and courage, an eminent citizen, and his life has been a constant and powerful plea for his people.” Harper’s published this portrait and article following his address at the National Convention of Colored Men at Louisville, Kentucky in September 1883.
“The Terrible Lessons of This Era”
Austin Willey. The History of the Antislavery Cause in State and Nation. Portland, Maine, 1886.
The author, active in the Maine abolitionist movement wrote in his introductory text, “The terrible lessons of this era for church, state, and citizen, should have a place in every pulpit, every press, and every family in the land; in every Fourth of July celebration and Memorial Day, warning of the appalling consequences of tolerating wrong and of treachery to right.”
Underground Railroad Sketches
Eber M. Pettit. Sketches in the History of the Underground Railroad: Comprising Many Thrilling Incidents of the Escape of Fugitive Slaves from Slavery, and Perils of Those Who Aided Them. Fredonia, N.Y.: W. McKinstry & Son, 1879.
Pettit wrote: “For some forty years [following the fugitive slave law] these pilgrims to the land of liberty made their way through the Northern States and across the border [to Canada]. Scattered through the country were humanitarian people who believed in the ‘higher law,’ and that the complexion of the individual should not exclude him from the enjoyment of his ‘inalienable rights.’”
III. The African American Experience in California
Daguerreotypes of Black Miners
Joseph Blaney Starkweather. Spanish Flat, Placer County. c. 1852. Quarter-plate daguerreotypes.
These two daguerreotypes are remarkable not only for documenting a mining operation but also for recording the mining activities of African Americans. These are among the earliest known photographs of African Americans in California. One view shows four gold seekers, including an African American working a long tom; the other shows a lone miner. Both have been reproduced countless times. Spanish Flat is a half-mile above the city of Auburn.
William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr., Pioneer , 1810–1848
Born in the Virgin Islands and a son of a Danish planter and an African mother, Leidesdorff made a fortune as a cotton broker and settled in San Francisco in 1841. He built the City Hotel and a large warehouse and was one of the most influential figures in pre-Gold Rush California. Included in the exhibit is a letter dated May 25, 1847, sent to P. B. Reading, and a portrait of the pioneer.
Leidesdorff’s Río de los Americanos Rancho
The display includes manuscript maps used in court cases concerning Mexican-era land grants. Leidesdorff received a huge land grant in 1844 that encompasses in part the present Sacramento County cities of Rancho Cordova and Folsom. When the pioneer died in 1848 at the age of 38, his mother sold the 35,000-acre property to Joseph L. Folsom. Those who drive Highway 50 between Bradshaw and the eastern Sacramento County line pass by Leidesdorff’s original rancho. In 2004, that section of the freeway was named the William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. Memorial Highway.
Gold Seeker Thomas Gilman Purchases His Freedom
J. B. to Thomas Gilman. Bill of Sale. Shaw’s Flat, Tuolumne County, August 17, 1852. Manuscript.
Several southerners brought their slaves to California during the Gold Rush to work in the diggings. After years of labor, many of these African Americans earned enough money to purchase their freedom. One man’s release from bondage is superbly documented by this “freedom paper” or bill of sale. Thomas of Tennessee came to California in 1850 with his master, J. B. Gilman, and worked in the mines near Shaw’s Flat. Two years later, on August 17, 1852, Thomas gave his “owner” $1,000 in exchange for his release from servitude. Next to this manuscript are poll tax tickets paid by Gilman and a photograph of the ex-slave at his farm in Tuolumne County.
California’s First African American Masonic Lodge
Freemasons. Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Freemasons (California). Minutes, June 19, 1855 — June 23, 1875. Manuscript.
This folio 336-page minute book stands as a testament to the remarkable perseverance of African Americans following the Gold Rush. Not admitted to fraternal organizations by whites, they formed their own, the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Freemasons. Organized in 1854, this statewide lodge continues to this day. Written in a bold hand, the manuscript opened to the first article of the Lodge’s constitution.
State Convention of Colored Citizens
Proceedings of the California State Convention of Colored Citizens. San Francisco: California State Convention of Colored Citizens, .
With the collapse of the Confederacy, blacks were now assured of their freedom and the right to vote. “The principal object which created the preceding convention was the admission of our testimony in the courts of justice in this State. The object of this convention [is] the right of the elective franchise.” The pamphlet was printed at The Elevator, the first African American newspaper published in California.
Adventures of a Fugitive Slave
Life and Adventures of James Williams, a Fugitive Slave: with a Full Description of the Underground Railroad. San Francisco: Women’s Union Print, 1873.
James Williams, an escaped slave from Maryland under the assumed name of John Thomas Evans, tells of his remarkable experiences going to California and life in the mines. He took a job as a pastry cook on the ship North America bound for California. After jumping ship, he made his way to San Francisco. On May 15, 1851, the former slave took a boat to Sacramento and headed for the mines, working first at Negro Hill and Kelsey’s Diggings making only enough to survive. Giving up prospecting, he returned to Sacramento and carried hod for six dollars a day.
First Published Cookbook by an African American
Mrs. Abby Fisher. What Mrs. Fisher Knows about Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, etc. San Francisco: Women’s Co-operative Printing Office, 1881.
The cloth-bound book has double significance. It is the first U.S. cookbook written by an African American. In addition, this early California cookbook was printed by women. Mrs. Fisher was awarded a diploma at the State Fair in 1879 and received two medals at the San Francisco Mechanic’s Institute Fair in 1880 for best pickles and sauces and best assortment of jellies and preserves.
A Recollection of Life in the Gold Fields
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs. Shadow and Light: An Autobiography with Reminiscences of the Last and Present Century, with an Introduction by Booker T. Washington. Washington, D. C. [s.n.], 1902.
Three chapters of this privately printed work detail Gibbs’ experiences in the Gold Rush. According to historian Rudolph Lapp in his Blacks in Gold Rush California, this reminiscence ranks as the only firsthand account of the Gold Rush by an African American. Gibbs sailed in 1850 from New York to San Francisco as a steerage passenger, arrived at Aspinwall, crossed the Isthmus of Panama, recovered from “Panama fever,” and took passage on the steamship Golden Gate. He arrived in San Francisco in September. Gibbs quickly obtained employment as a carpenter, but when local whites threatened to strike, he was forced to look for alternative employment.
The Celebrated Archy Lee Case
Rudolph M. Lapp. Archy Lee: A California Fugitive Slave Case. [San Francisco]: Book Club of California, 1969.
Charles Stovall brought Archy Lee to California in 1857 from Mississippi as a slave. Lee, a fugitive, claimed his freedom in slave-free California. The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of his master rationalizing that Stovall was in poor health and needed Lee. A federal commissioner in San Francisco, however, set him free. Lee received much support from abolitionists and free blacks in California.
Afro-American Congress of California
First Meeting of the Afro-American Congress of California: California Hall, 620 Bush St., San Francisco, Cal., July 30, to August 2, l895. [San Francisco?: The Congress, 1895?].
The purpose of the Congress was to form a closer bond among members of the African American race as well as mutual helpfulness. The meeting leaders invited the various local leagues to attend this statewide meeting. The booklet includes a short history of the Afro-American League of San Francisco.
A Pioneer Directory
Charles F. Tilghman, editor. Colored Directory of the Leading Cities of Northern California. Oakland: Tilghman Printing Co., 1917.
Tilghman, the editor and publisher, filled this edition of his directory with 119 illustrations of homes, churches, pastors, women’s clubs, ranches, etc. It represented close to 10,000 African Americans. The wrapper-bound directory included many advertisements for African American-owned businesses. An upbeat Tilghman noted in his introduction: “The colored people are attaining great importance every year in this part of California. They have started to establish themselves. Millions of dollars are represented in the business enterprises and homes.”
A Seminal History
Delilah L. Beasley. The Negro Trail Blazers of California: a Compilation of Records from the California Archives in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, in Berkeley; and from the Diaries, Old Papers, and Conversations of Old Pioneers in the State of California. Los Angeles: [Times Mirror printing and binding house], 1919.
Beasley, a journalist, compiled the first comprehensive history of the African American experience in California. She traced her race’s history from the 1520s until World War I and the efforts of black Californians fighting in France. The author took over eight years in researching and writing this seminal work. Because of its importance, it has been reprinted.
African Americans in World War II
The War Worker. Los Angeles: Cummings Publishing House, July 1943 — September 1944.
Published in Los Angeles, this semi-monthly newspaper featured the activities of African Americans in the shipyards and other plants in World War II. It provides superb documentation on their contributions to the home front war effort. The newspaper is loaded with half-tone photographs of men and women working in the various defense plants. It provided coverage not only of working conditions, race relations but also black entertainment. Volume I, No. I opened with the following headlines: “War Workers Health Periled; We Can’t Jim Crow Germs.” The WW, as it was called, did many profiles of women working in the shipyards.
An African American Who’s Who
Commodore Wynn, editor. Negro Who’s Who in California. Los Angeles?: Negro Who’s Who in California Publishing Co., 1948.
The achievements of African Americans are ably recorded by the many biographical sketches and photographs preserved in this volume. Editor Wynn divided the book into the following sections: “The Pioneers;” “The Church and the Pulpit;” “The Professions;” “Business and Industry;” “Art and Music;” and “Civic and Social.” According to the introductory front matter, this was the first edition. John W. Roy served as the director of the publication and no doubt assisted in gathering and writing the extensive biographical profiles.
Tarea Hall Pittman Collection
Much of the modern material on display comes from the collection of Tarea Hall Pittman. She served as the Regional Field Secretary of the West Coast Office of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, located at 690 Market St., San Francisco. A native of Bakersfield, California, Pittman joined the NAACP regional staff in 1951. In addition, she was a commentator for a radio program where she produced a popular program, “Negroes in the News.” Her collection is filled with letters, press releases, flyers, programs from national and statewide meetings, organizational manuals, and photographs from statewide and national meetings of the NAACP. Found in her collection are photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Roy Wilkins, and Jackie Robinson. It is the Library’s largest single collection of primary source material on blacks in California.
The Black Panther
The State Library’s California History Section has an extensive run of this important weekly. On display is Volume 1, Number 1 dated April 25, 1967. Its masthead lists Huey P. Newton, Minister of Defense; Bobby Seale, Political Prisoner; Eldridge Cleaver, Minister of Information; and Big Man, Managing Editor. A modest affair in the beginning, The Black Panther evolved into a robust publication filled with striking full-color graphics.
Black Panther Ephemera
The struggle of the Black Panthers in their early years is documented by a superb group of flyers, broadsides, posters, and buttons. Officially called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, it was founded on October 15, 1966, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Many of the items focus on the party’s publications and the effort to free Newton and Angela Davis, the socialist professor who was associated with the Panthers. In 1970, Davis was on the FBI’s most wanted list on false charges, and after a sensational trial, which included a “Free Angela Davis” movement, she was acquitted.
This article came from the California State Library Foundation Bulletin #91, published in 2008, pp. 16 to 26. See the foundation website (cslfdn.org) for more information.