“The Steadfast Friend of the Chinese?”: Race and William H. Workman’s Campaign for Mayor of Los Angeles, December 1886

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternoon’s installment of a series on the history of the Workman and Temple family, focused on the 1880s, discussed the descent, financially and otherwise, of one branch of the family, especially after the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, as well as the ascent of another line during the decade. One major example of the latter was the rise of William H. Workman (1839-1918) to a single term as mayor of Los Angeles from December 1886 to December 1888, which happened to take place during the peak of the famous Boom of the Eighties, involving a significant growth in population and economic development in the Angel City and the region broadly.

Workman had served several terms on the Common [City] Council during the 1870s, as well as mounted unsuccesful campaigns for city treasurer in 1870 and the state Assembly three years later, and he was known as a successful business figure, through his long partnership with his brother Elijah in the Workman Brothers saddlery and harness shop, community leader in social and philanthropic endeavors, and general popularity.

William Henry Workman (1839-1918), who served as mayor of Los Angeles from December 1886 to December 1888.

When he ran for the Assembly in 1873, the Los Angeles Star opined that he was,

a self made man, having built up for himself a handsome fortune in Los Angeles, and [a] most honorable reputation in this part of California. His course in the [Common] Council seems to be marked by a conscientious disposition to do right and guard the people’s welfare. Although a generous friend and forebearing, he sometimes gets “warm” when in debate.

After his last term on the Council ended in 1880 and having retired from the saddlery and harness business, Workman devoted most of his time to managing the estate his wife Maria [Ma-rye-ah] Boyle inherited from her father in what was long known as Paredon Blanco (White Bluff), including its extensive vineyards and orchards. He was also heavily invested in that portion of the property he subdivided, along with banker Isaias W. Hellman and former merchant John Lazzarovich (who was married into the López family which owned Paredon Blanco from the mid-1830s and who sold Boyle his land) and, in 1875, named Boyle Heights in honor of his late father-in-law.

When the financial downturn came that summer that included the demise of the Temple and Workman bank, Boyle Heights was adversely affected as were other new subdivisions and towns launched during that period, such as Artesia, San Fernando and Pomona. Like its contemporaries, though, the project survived, albeit with modest growth through roughly the next decade. With the great Boom of the 1880s, however, Boyle Heights found new life and grew tremendously, with much of its an upper middle-class and upper class suburb with fine views of town and the general area and ready access to the business district of the growing Angel City.

The enumeration of the household of William H. Workman and Maria Boyle, Boyle Heights, in the 1880 federal census. Note the Chinese cook and six of eight other employees were Latinx.

When Workman came to Los Angeles from Missouri in 1854, the area was politically dominated by the Democratic Party, which so completely controlled the scene that, well into the 1870s, Republicans usually chose to run under other banners, such as the “People’s Party” or Independents, while even during the Civil War, when there was a significant amount of support for the Confederacy due to the Democratic majority in the region, members of the recently formed G.O.P. (it’s first campaign was in 1856 after the Whig Party disintegrated) tended to call themselves Unionists.

In any case, when Workman decided to run for mayor, the Democrats had descended from its long-held dominance of regional electoral politics, while Republicans ruled the roost, thanks to the influx of population during the earlier, though significantly smaller, boom of the late Sixties through mid Seventies. In fact, Workman was almost entirely alone as an electable Democrat, a condition that continued when he served three two-year terms as Los Angeles City Treasurer from 1901 to 1907.

Popular though he was, however, Workman could hardly have expected to run his mayoral campaign without attacks from the Republicans and one of the tactics employed by the G.O.P. was to sow doubt about him on an ethnic and racial level. For years, anti-Chinese sentiment, as was the case throughout California and the American West generally, was virulent and often terribly violent. No more horrific example of this existed than the massacre of eighteen Chinese men and a teenage boy on 24 October 1871 by a mob of hundreds of Anglos and Latinos following inter-Chinese conflict that led to the killing of an American and the wounding of a Latinx police officer.

Los Angeles Herald, 6 December 1886.

When F.P.F. Temple ran for county treasurer in 1873, a campaign he narrowly lost to incumbent Thomas E. Rowan (who was also mayor of Los Angeles from 1892 to 1894) before besting Rowan in the race two years later, an El Monte farmer, William B. Lee, wrote a letter to a newspapper editor, that Temple was never known to hire a Chinese worker. So, the question of Asian vs. White labor was a long-standing issue in local politics for many years.

While Workman’s mayoral campaign against Republican Loring W. French, a long-time dentist in the Angel City, was close to fifteen years later and the brutal violence embodied of the massacre was no longer a threat, there was still considerable prejudice and hatred against the Chinese citizens of Los Angeles. So, when the Los Angeles Tribune accused Workman of favoring Chinese workers on his estate over the hiring of white men, he responded with a lengthy rejoinder in the 6 December edition of the Los Angeles Herald defending himself against the accusations, which were comprised of three questions.

The first was “whether it is true that not a single contractor of this city who has done work for me is supporting me in this campaign.” The second was “Is it true that W.H. Workman is the steadfast friend of the Chinese and has paid them thousands upon thousands of dollars, to the detriment of whitelaboring men who would have been glad to do the work[?]” Lastly, the Tribune inquired, “Is it true that W.H. Workman never gives employment to white men under any circumstances? If so, does he expect these white men, to whom he has refused employment, to vote for him now? Will he solicit the moral influence [whatever that was supposed to entail] of the Chinese?”

Herald, 6 December 1886.

Wondering if the editor of the Tribune had any facts to buttress his claims, Workman replied that “during the last year, I have had from ten to fifty white men working for me; never less than ten and most of the time many more.” Moreover, he went on, “to save my crops from perishing I have sometimes been compelled to employ Chinamen, but I have never done so when white hel was available.” He added that, if the paper thought he should lose his crops “rather than employ Chinamen,” than this was couter to the views “of any other vineyardist in Los Angeles county.”

The candidate then stated,

I am oppoed the employment of Chinese, but ther are cases where persons in my situation are absolutely forced by the necessities of the situation to accept their work. The assertion that I am the steadfast friend of the Chinese is false, as is also the declaration that I never give employment to white men. The man who wrote these sentences must have done so maliciously, because no one who has ever visited my place or knows anything about my business is unaware of the fact that I have white men, and numbers of them, constantly in my employ.

Workman wrote that he wanted the votes of the working men of Los Angeles, as well as “every other honest and intelligent element,” while noting that if Republicans wanted to vote for him “owing to my long residnce in this city and other qualifications and circumstances it will be in their interests and the interests of the City” to do so.

Herald, 6 December 1886.

He also addressed another charge made by the Tribune that he secured public funding for the building of the “East Side ditch,” an irrigation canal of which “I was instrumental, I am proud to say, in procuring the construction of,” because of its manifold benefits to many, beyond him, living east of the Los Angeles River. Workman informed readers of the Herald that “I spent $30,000 out of my own pocket in piping from the ditch so as to enable me to irrigate my land” and no city monies were involved in that aspect.

If the Tribune preferred that the east side of the city “remain in its original condition,” rather than support the improvement of that district, he would not argue with it, but did claim that land valued before the ditch’s completion at not mor than $10 an acre was now assessed at $1.5 million and asked, “has the city lost anything by construction of this ditch? If so, in what manner?”

Heald, 6 December 1886.

To support his rejoinder, Workman had his foreman, Joseph Walter Drown (whose guardian, when he was orphaned in the early 1860s was Workman’s uncle, William, owner of the Homestead, and who was foreman at the Homestead for Francis W. Temple before taking emplpoyment for the mayoral candidate five years before) offer his own written statement on the Chinese labor question:

Mr. Workman has uniformly instructed me to get all the white men I could and to employ them in preference to anyone else, and I have only emplyed Chinamen upon the place when it has been absolutely necessary to do so. Had I not done so Mr. Workman’s crops would have perished . . . I have found from personal experience that a white man who endeavors to irrigate vines and trees to any great extent runs the risk of becoming seriously ill . . . Mr. Workman has two Chinamen employed who do this kind of work . . . If the editor of the Tribune desires to test the accuracy of my statement . . . he will be employed at fair wages upon the Workman place and will be afforded an opportunity to irrigate, at no loss to himself and at the cost of the proprietor.

To further bloster his position, Workman then had a quintet of contractors, three Anglo and two Latino, offer their brief attestation that “they are supporting him in his campaign and are desirous of his election.” As to the claim of the Tribune that no contractor would vote for Workman, the five men simply stated “we know that such statement is untrue.”

Herald, 7 December 1886.

It is, of course, striking, that Drown told the Herald that he only hired Chinese laborers because the work of digging and maintaining irrigating ditches was purportedly too dangerous for white men. Perhaps the question of household workers was not considered relevant, though Workman did have a Chinese cook in his employ when the 1880 census as taken. There were eight other servants working for the family, six of whom were Latinos, along with a nurse of German parentage and a French wine-maker.

There was, however, another racial and ethnic dimension to the election of Workman, as briefly discussed in the Herald of the 9th and this had to do with the Black vote. It should be noted that African-American men were allowed to vote starting in 1870 by virtue of the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution. How the relatively small number of Black enfranchised males voted in local elections over the next fifteen or so years would certainly be interesting to know, if such information is available.

What the Herald stated was that an unnamed competitor, perhaps the Tribune, reported, “copiously in this deluge of tears,” that “nearly all the colored men in this City voted for W.H. Workman for Mayor.” It was averred that African-American voters were not congratulated for so doing, if true, and that this action “is always construed into downright treason to the party” of Lincoln, with Republicans generally securing the vote of many Black men in those places where they could vote with relative freedom.

Herald, 9 December 1886.

In any case, the Herald added

This is a discovery which should open the eyes of our esteemed Republican friends to a very cogent fact. Workman is of Southern birth. The colored voters of Los Angeles know he is from Missouri. That is just the reasaon they voted for him. He is far from being the first or only man from that section for whom the colored men here voted en masse, and he is not the last.

Workman was born in Boonville, along the Missouri River in the central part of the state, and Missouri was a border state with many Southern supporters, of whom 30,000 served in the Confederate Army, but there were almost 110,000 men who were in the Union Army during the Civil War. Moreover, his father, David, was a slaveowner, having three slaves in the household in the 1830 and 1840 censuses.

In the 1860 presidential election, Workman’s brothers Thomas (who died in 1863) and Elijah were, along with Republican and Massachusetts native F.P.F. Temple, supporters of Democrat John Bell, who was a slaveowner and supporter of keeping slavery in effect where existing, but against its expansion. Four years later, Workman served on the Committee on Arrangements for the Fourth of July celebration in Los Angeles, indicating, perhaps, some measure support for the Union, but he was secretary for a temporary Democratic Club formed just prior to the fall national election.

Herald, 10 December 1886.

Now, these are samples of where Workman was politically in his early twenties and there could very likely have been some changes in his thinking and views when he ran for mayor over two decades later, especially with the Republicans the dominant political party in the Eighties. As to his relationship with the Chinese population of Los Angeles, Workman did receive an invitation to appear at the Ah Dieu festivities held in October 1887, during his first year as mayor.

The event was advertised by Manager Ah Toy, who informed the public that “the triennial religious ceremonies of the Chinese commence in the Temple in Nigger Alley [Calle de los Negros, where the Chinese Massacre took place and which was, the following year, razed for the northern extention of Los Angeles Street to the Plaza]” starting at 8 a.m. on the 21st “and [to] cotinue for three days and nights.”

Los Angeles Times, 13 October 1887.

He added that during that period, “the Chinese people abstain from the use of all animal food” and that, though services were public, no one was to have flesh, fish or fowl in or about the Temple. Finally, it was stated that “there ceremonies will be conducted by thre priests and five musicians, brought here from San Francisco by the residnt Chinese merchants and business men.” Extensive coverage in the Herald and, especially, the Los Angeles Times, wihch sent an “Oriental reporter,” went into great detail about the ceremonies and their meaning, but there was no mention of whether Mayor Workman accepted the invitation (he did greet Roman Catholic Cardinal James Gibbons on his arrival the day of the Ah Dieu closing parade.

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