The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles County, 1850-1900, Presentation Postview: Implementing the 15th Amendment in Los Angeles, 1870

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This afternoon’s talk at the Homestead on The Black Pioneers of Los Angeles, 1850-1900, celebrating the Juneteenth holiday began with Jackie Broxton, president and chief executive officer of The Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation, talking about the experiences of Biddy Mason and Hannah Embers as they were brought to greater Los Angeles with a Mormon slaveholder in the early 1850s and then secured their freedom through a habeus corpus (essentially, concerning the slave-master’s illegal detention of them because California was a free state) hearing at the district court in the Angel City in early 1856.

Jackie’s discussion of the people involved, from the two women and their children to the slaveholder to the judge, Benjamin Hayes, was important as put a human emphasis on events that could be overly legal and formalistic. There was also some striking facts put forward in her presentation, including the estimated values placed upon these women and children, as well as the conditions of the time.

Los Angeles News, 28 April 1869.

Also notable were the machinations of the slave-master, who resorted to bribery and attempted kidnapping of two of the children to try to derail the legal process. To the credit of Mason, Embers and those who supported them, including Robert Owens, a prominent African-American resident of Los Angeles whose son Charles married Biddy’s daughter Ellen, they persevered in the face of this pressure and attempts at intimidation and pursued their course with fortitude and courage.

While the California constitution of 1849 was clear in the outlawing of slavery, there was hardly a strong sentiment of abolition and certainly nowhere near any common view of equality among the races. In fact, a primary concern for those who voted to keep California a free state was about keeping out cheap or unpaid labor to protect white workers. Even still, there were plenty of African-Americans brought as slaves to the Golden State and not much was done by the government to assist them in their plight.

Los Angeles Star, 9 April 1870.

It is also worth nothing that there was a fugitive slave law in operation here, while a year after the Mason case, the United States Supreme Court issued what is among the most egregious and patently unfair rulings in its history: the Dred Scott decision. This act allowed for slavery in American territories (meaning the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was deemed unconstitutional) and denied citizenship to free Black people.

Within four years, the nation plunged into the deep darkness of the Civil War and greater Los Angeles was strongly pro-Confederate. Abraham Lincoln lost badly in 1860 and only garnered a slight majority of votes in the region four years later because the growing presence of Union troops in the area. Prominent white citizens like firebrand lawyer and orator Edward J.C. Kewen and Los Angeles Star publisher Henry Hamilton, whose pro-Southern rhetoric was largely unrestrained, were arrested and only freed on taking a loyalty oath to the Union.

News, 10 April 1870. J.E.M. Gilliard was present at the 15th Amendment celebration a couple of days later and expressed his positive felings about E.J.C. Kewen’s attendance and speech.

When peace finally came in 1865, it was marred by the assassination of Lincoln, which many Angelenos openly celebrated, including Black barber Peter Biggs, who was raised as a slave in the South. In the postwar period, greater Los Angeles underwent its first sustained and significant period of growth, modest as it was compared to later, bigger booms and, while many migrants were Southerners leaving the devastated former Confederate states, there were others from the Midwest and East.

In 1870, a major issue for the nation and locally was the passage and implementation of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The language was strikingly simple:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

The second section also noted with succinctness that Congress could enforce the amendment with “appropriate legislation.” Yet, when the amendment went to ratification among the states, it is remarkable to observe that California’s legislature, in late January, voted against the measure and did not actually ratify until 1962. The Golden State was only one of seven to do this.

News, 14 April 1870.

An early local editorial against the amendment was published in the Los Angeles News of 28 April 1869. Though the paper was pro-Union during the war, it was purchased by Alonzo Waite and Andrew J. King and took a very different tack. The piece was titled “Chinese and Negro Suffrage” and it began by observing that many states had already ratified the amendment and that ratification by the required three-fourths of the states was likely, so that it would become the law of the land and take effect.

The paper also believed that all Southern states would choose to ratify because, in what was known as the Reconstruction period, “negro suffrage has already been forced upon those States by Congress.” It also opined that “they are not, like the Pacific States, liable to be overrun by Chinese pagans,” as if they’re not being Christians was more important than their ethnicity and skin color, “hence the Fifteenth Amendment presents them no real issue.”

Star, 16 April 1870.

Moreover, it was averred the South would not be materially changed by the implementation of the Amendment because those states were “crushed by military Governments, robbed by carpet-baggers and loyal swindlers, and insulted and oppressed by a usurping, partisan Congress.” Given that there were relatively few African-Americans in California, it was asserted that the “Chinese, may and will, under the new suffrage law, become the dominant race in a few years,” so, for the News, the question was “how can our State be saved from Chinese domination[?]”

It was claimed that, with 100,000 Chinese in California, though the number was actually under half of this, it would be clear that a million more would immigrate in a few years—though, in fact, the total number that came from China from 1850 until the exclusion act of 1882, was not quite a third of that. So, hyperbole and hysteria certainly served political purposes well as the paper called for electing state officials who would ban all Chinese immigration as “the only security for the dominrtion [sic] of the white race.”

News, 21 April 1870.

In subsequent months, the News especially and, to a much lesser extent, the Star, whose editors were George W. Barter and a much chastened Hamilton, continued to express vehement opposition to ratification of the Amendment by the California legislature and there was no small amount of satisfaction when the vote was cast early in 1870. Still, when the necessary 75% of states did choose to ratify the Amendment, local Black males prepared to celebrate and then register to vote.

The Star of 9 April briefly noted that “there will be a ball and supper given by the colored people of this city,” on the 12th, “at Stearns Hall,” located where U.S. 101 meets Main Street, to celebrate the ratification. After observing that many invitations were issued, the paper ended by commenting “the evening will be no doubt spent in a social and pleasant manner.” A week later, the Star provided a fairly detailed summary of the event, adding that organizers “invited a large number of white citizens to join in their festivities,” with many who accepted and “mingled with them in the mazes of the giddy waltz.”

Star, 23 April 1870. Notice the heading of “The New Deal” more than six decades before the use of that term during the Great Depression.

It was also reported that Kewen, who resided in the El Molino Viejo, or former mill of the Mission San Gabriel, which he acquired after the claim of William Workman and others for the lands of the secularized mission was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1864, was a featured speaker. It was added that the well-known speaker was bent on

assuring his colored fellow citizens, that, whereas he was heretofore opposed to the great change which had been effected in their condition, now that it had become law and a fixed fact, he accepted the situation, and cordially clasped hands with them on their elevation to the rights secured for them under the Constitution.

Of course, as an attorney, Kewen was also duty-bound to observe all the duly constituted laws of the nation and state, but it was also telling that, when the News gave its more concise summary of the affair, it omitted any mention of his presence, much less his speech. Instead, the article focused on “the seductive music” played at the event and it dismissively sniffed that “sandwiched among the dusky damsels were a number of ‘proud Caucasians,’ who as merrily as any ‘tripped the light fantastic,’ etc.”

News, 26 April 1870.

At midnight, there was “an elegant collation” that clearly had “‘Aunt Winnie’s’ hand” in it—she being the widow of Robert Owens. The paper did allow that “the manner in which the affair was conducted reflected credit upon the colored population,” but it followed, on the 26th, by excoriating a Sacramento newspaper, which mocked Chivalry (pro-Slavery, pro-Confederate) Democrats as they were said to have “joined freely in the dance with the dusky daughters of Africa” and then asked if Los Angeles’ “chivalrous Southerners” were now ready to forego asking the question of “would you like your daughters to marry a nigger?” because “the barriers of caste and color have been broken down.”

The News thundered, “The Los Angeles Democracy were not at the ball” and blamed the presence of caucasians on “a promiscuous crowd of white men [who] were present attracted by interest or curiosity.” Of up to nine whites there, only a trio were said to be Democrats and not representative of the party, which took no responsibility for their attendance. The paper huffed that,

If gentlemen from the South or elsewhere are betrayed into an expression of kindness and sympathy for the colored race, it cannot be taken as evidence that the Democracy are prepared to adopt the radical theory of the universal brotherhood of man, as a matter of expediency in the hope of robbing the Radical part of a few colored votes. Gentlemen who partook of the hospitality of the negroes upon the occasion referred to, are alone responsible for their acts, and not the parties to which they belong.

For his part, Kewen published a lengthy card [letter] in the News on the 29th lambasting “the Radical press [who] have been galvanized into mirth over the trivial circumstance of the presence of a Democrat,” namely the attorney, “at the recent festival of the Freedmen.”

News, 29 April 1870.

He added, though, that “the Los Angeles News seems morbidly sensitive to the hilarious jests” of the Republican papers and, while he discountenanced any feelings towards Radical Republicans (which seems hard to believe given his frequent biting attacks on his opponents in speeches), he also propounded that “my political faith is founded in the immaculacy of patriotic principle and is as immovable as the unquarried granite.”

Kewen called his interactions with Black Angelenos “the instincts of a liberal partisanship” and an effort to provide advice to “the newly-fledged citizen to the exercise of becoming meekness and humility in his new sphere” as well as counsel to African-American males looking to vote to “the necessity of educating himself into a proper appreciation of his obligations to government and country.” None of this, he avowed “should be provocative of satire, or suggestive of a wound upon friendly sensibilities.”

Star, 30 April 1870.

The firebrand added that it was reasonable “to observe toward the humblest class of citizens a decent and respectful civility,” but also observed “that the negro has been elevated into citizenship is a fault not imputable to any co-operation of mine.” Any opposition in the past or future was not be adjudged as disloyalty—Kewen had been down that road during the war—but neither should he be excoriated for “being courteous to my enemies.” Adding that he had no reason to be contrite for attending the event, he proclaimed,

If my whim or inclination should prompt me to proclaim to the “dusky” citizens the uniform persistence with which I have combatted every steps in their paths of progress to political advancement, and assure them that I “accepted their situation,” as I would the Providential affliction of the cholera or small-pox, for the reason that it was unavoidable, I cannot see that Radicalism has been afforded any occasion for mirth, or Democracy for regret.

The next day, Lewis G. Green, a prominent figure in the Angel City’s African-American community and represented by attorney Robert M. Widney, later district judge and a founder of the University of Southern California (where there have been suggestions of removing his name from buildings and his statue from the campus because he was reported to have been a member of a vigilante group that lynched a French-born murderer in December 1870, though he also rescued Chinese seeking shelter during the horrific massacre of late October 1871 and then presided over the criminal trials of those accused of those lynchings) filed for a writ of mandamus at the District Court.

This letter suggested that, on the heels of the 15th Amendment, the next one could be for woman suffrage (the writer was, however, not an advocate and it was the 19th Amendment that finally admitted women as voters in federal elections in 1919), Star, 7 May 1870.

This procedure sought to use the higher authority of Judge Ygnacio Sepúlveda, one of the few Latinos in a position of power at the time, to compel County Clerk Thomas D. Mott to record Green and other Black men in the Great Register of voters as part of his duties. Yet, when Sepúlveda issued his ruling, he denied the writ on the grounds that the Fifteenth Amendment did not, as its second section stated, have “the appropriate [enabling] legislation” in place for enforcement of the law.

Congress did, in fact, move to pass such an act and this was signed on the last day of May by President Ulysses S. Grant, the general who led Union forces to victory in the late war. This accomplished, Mott was then required to register Green, which was done on 21 June. A few days prior to the ruling by Sepúlveda, the Star printed an article by a correspondent only identified as “B.C.T.,” but who was almost certainly Benjamin C. Truman, who wrote extensively on greater Los Angeles and California and who would soon be publisher of the paper, which provided a table of Black male voters in the 21 states that remained in the Union during the war.

Lewis (Louis) G. Green headed the list on this printed version of the “Great Register of Los Angeles County” and noted his registration date of 21 June 1870.

It was recorded that Kentucky had not far short of 40,000 (the figures are here are rounded up or down) new voters out of an African-American population of 236,000, while Maryland had figures of 28,500 and 171,000, respectively. Far fewer were populations of Blacks in Pennsylvania (9,500/57,000), New York (8,200/49,000), and Ohio (6,100/37,000), while California was recorded as having just over 4,000 African-American citizens and under 700 new voters. It is no wonder that racists were far more concerned with the Chinese, who were about 12 times larger in population.

The Homestead is looking forward to continue working with Jackie, the Biddy Mason Charitable Foundation and its Long Road to Freedom project, which includes a full-length biography of Mason, expected to be published as soon as next year. A fuller understanding of the Black community of greater Los Angeles from that research, the look at the several censuses undertaken in the last half of the 19th century, and other investigations not only helps us get a better picture of African-American life during that period, but better lays the groundwork for the Black experience in the 20th century and the current one, as well.

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