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May 27, 2020

In the Library: Uncovering History, Women’s Voices in California History

Researcher Elaine Elinson recounts her time in the North Baker Research library while she was working on the women’s rights chapter of her book “Wherever There’s a Fight,” and happily stumbled on the writings of an unconventional suffragist Selina Solomons. Holding in her hands an original copy of her 1912 booklet, “How We Won the Vote in California” made her feel like she had a direct connection to the tumultuous campaign Selina helped to lead. When researching the history of historic homes on Fort Mason for a National Park Service report, she found photos of Jessie Benton Fremont who hosted an abolitionist salon there on the eve of the Civil War. California history books are full of her husband John Fremont, but rarely a mention of Jessie, an independent-minded abolitionist and organizer. Read more about Elaine’s inspiring discoveries below.

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In the Library: Uncovering History, Women’s Voices in California History

Intro

In the vaults at the California Historical Society over one hundred cartons of records from the ACLU of Northern California are stored. It is one of our most heavily researched collections and contains first-hand documentation of indelible moments in California’s history such as the 1934 waterfront and general strike, the relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the mandatory loyalty oaths and HUAC hearings of the late 1940s and 1950s, and numerous civil rights movements and battles throughout the decades.  As the former editor of the ACLU News (digitized issues of which can be accessed via the CHS digital library) and communications director of the ACLU of Northern CaliforniaElaine soon became my go-to person when I had questions about the ACLU records in CHS’s collection. It wasn’t too long before I realized that I could ask Elaine pretty much any question related to civil rights in California and I would be able to get an accurate picture of the people, place, and events involved. The breadth and depth of her knowledge is formidable and inspirational. Elaine and Stan Yogi, co-authors of the book “Wherever There’s a Fight,” were scheduled to do an “In The Library” program at the California Historical Society before Covid-19 temporarily closed our building. While we may have to wait awhile for in-person talks to be rescheduled, we do not—luckily—have to wait to hear a few of the stories Elaine uncovered while researching in the archives.

Women’s Voices in California History: Hiding in Plain Sight

I still remember my first treasure hunt at the California Historical Society. I was creating an exhibit commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights for the ACLU and historian Marjorie Baer and CHS archivist Waverly Lowell told me about an early case challenging race discrimination in San Francisco. We found the extremely valuable but rarely seen documentation of Charlotte Brown’s court case protesting segregation on the streetcars in 1863. I returned there when I was working on the women’s rights chapter of “Wherever There’s a Fight,” and happily stumbled on the writings of an unconventional suffragist Selina Solomons. Holding in my hands an original copy of her 1912 booklet, “How We Won the Vote in California” made me feel like I had a direct connection to the tumultuous campaign she helped to lead. When researching the history of historic homes on Fort Mason for a National Park Service report, I found photos of Jessie Benton Fremont who hosted an abolitionist salon there on the eve of the Civil War. California history books are full of her husband John Fremont, but rarely a mention of Jessie, an independent-minded abolitionist and organizer.

Every time I visit the CHS library, I seem to spend hours more than I had planned. With the help of the very knowledgeable and generous librarians—special thanks to Frances Kaplan, Debra Kaufman, Alison Moore and Mary Morganti—I have discovered fascinating documents and people I knew nothing about. Here’s a glimpse at a few of their stories.

Charlotte Brown

In 1863, when the Civil War was raging and news of the Emancipation Proclamation had not yet reached most enslaved people, a young African American woman, Charlotte Brown, took a stand against race discrimination on San Francisco’s street cars.

Charlotte, the daughter of a formerly enslaved man from Maryland who started the first African American newspaper in San Francisco, Mirror of the Times, was on her way from her home on Filbert Street to a doctor’s appointment when an Omnibus streetcar conductor told her she would have to get down because “colored persons were not allowed to ride.”

Omnibus Railroad Company, connecting North Beach with South Park, ca. 1865; San Francisco Subjects Photograph Collection

She protested, asserting, “I told him I had a great ways to go and I was later than I ought to be…and I then told him positively I would not get off,” but was eventually forced off the car by the conductor. Charlotte’s father encouraged her to sue the company. It was just that year that the Legislature passed a law allowing blacks to testify in cases against whites. In the archives are Charlotte’s handwritten plea to the court, arguing her case that she could not be denied riding on the streetcar based on the color of her skin. Though the ruling was in her favor, the award from the court—5 cents, the streetcar fare—was so paltry as to make a mockery of the decision. Nor did it deter the company from its segregationist policy and actions.

Charlotte Brown handwritten plea, page 1, 1863, Legal documents: Charlotte L. Brown vs. Omnibus Railroad Company, 1863-1866; MS 228A, California Historical Society

 

Transcript of Charlotte Brown plea, 1863, Legal documents: Charlotte L. Brown vs. Omnibus Railroad Company, 1863-1866; MS 228A, California Historical Society

A few months later, Charlotte and her father were again forced off a streetcar, and again they went to court. This time, Judge C.C. Pratt awarded her $500 and stated in his ruling, “It has been already quite too long tolerated by the dominant race to see with indifference the negro or mulatto treated as a brute, insulted, wronged, enslaved, made to wear a yoke, to tremble before white men, to serve him as a tool, to hold property and life at his will, to surrender to him his intellect and conscience, and to seal his lips and belie his thought through dread of the white man’s power.”

Charlotte Brown’s papers in the CHS archives are especially valuable since all the official records from San Francisco courts were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire.

San Francisco had its own Rosa Parks, almost a century earlier, yet Brown’s story is not taught in schools and is not widely known. Her case was almost erased from history. But the story of her courage—preserved for 150 years—is now moving from the archives into the public sphere. In 2019, the San Francisco Municipal Railway put posters up on its buses commemorating Charlotte Brown’s bold actions and asking people to “Ride Muni in her honor.”

Jessie Benton Fremont

This photo, by renowned photographer Carleton Watkins, might look like an idyllic scene of a woman of leisure reading on her porch but it actually reveals a much more complicated history. This is Jessie Benton Fremont at her home at Black Point, on the farthest bluff of what is now Fort Mason overlooking San Francisco Bay. In 1860, Fremont hosted an abolitionist salon there, where Californians gathered to share news about the impending war and to pledge their support for the abolition of slavery.

Jessie Benton Fremont sitting on the porch of her Black Point residence, ca. 1861,
San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection; Courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library

Jessie, the daughter of a prominent anti-slavery U.S. Senator, had been a strong advocate for banning slavery at the first California Constitutional Convention, debated in Monterey in 1849. “It isn’t a pretty sight in a free country for a child to see and hear chain gangs clanking through the streets or to watch officers chasing a fugitive slave and putting him in irons,” she admonished the all-male delegates.

Jessie Benton Fremont’s history is often obscured by the oversized figure of her husband, the explorer John Fremont, who, after leading massacres of Native Californians, became a U.S. Senator, the first Republican Party nominee for President in 1856, and the officer in charge of the Western Region of the Union Army in the early days of the Civil War.

Jessie’s salons included Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King, a renowned orator who rallied thousands for the Union cause, author Bret Harte, photographer Carleton Watkins, and E.D. Baker, a friend of President Lincoln who successfully represented runaway slaves in their bid for freedom.

Carleton Watkins photo of crowd outside lecture hall where Thomas Starr King was speaking against slavery, Carleton Watkins Photograph Collection; California Historical Society

Unfortunately, there are no minutes of these meetings, and no official records or newspaper accounts. But we can glean what some of the conversations might have been like from letters written by Jessie, Starr King, and others.

When we think of the geographic areas that highlight the Civil War, we generally think of the bloody battlegrounds in the South and Northeast and the routes of the Underground Railroad. California does not usually spring to mind. Though the Fremonts only lived at Black Point for a little more than a year (with John there very infrequently), Jessie’s abolitionist salon marked a pivotal moment in California for the development and sharing of ideas about the preservation of the Union, slavery, and the impending war. Those who participated would become the writers and artists whose depictions of California would influence the view of the state for years to come.

Jessie Benton Fremont on the porch of her Black Point residence, San Francisco, ca. 1861, Portraits Collections; California Historical Society Collections

Selina Solomons

In this 90-page pamphlet, San Francisco suffragist Selina Solomons describes the day-to-day struggles and the hard-won victory of the campaign for women’s suffrage in California.

How We Won The Vote in California, 1912, Selina Solomons; PAM 10563, California Historical Society

 

Inside page with inscription, How We Won The Vote in California, 1912, Selina Solomons; PAM 10563, California Historical Society

Solomons, a passionate advocate for voting rights for women, was from a middle-class Jewish family that had fallen on hard times when her father became addicted to absinthe. She disdained the elite society ladies who dominated the mainstream suffrage movement, as evidenced in this description: “In an effort to attain social success, this club admitted to membership too large a number of merely fashionable women, and so swamped itself at the outset, and failed forever in the cherished purpose and aim of its founders.”

To attract working class women to the campaign, she rented the top floor of a small building near Union Square and started the Votes for Women Club. She decorated the hall in yellow bunting and opened a lunchroom for the sales clerks, laundresses, and telephone operators in the business district. She cooked and served lunches for a nickel a dish: four kinds of soup – oxtail, tomato bisque, chicken and clam chowder, salads, fried sand dabs, creamed codfish, homemade cakes and rich milk. At the bottom of the menu she wrote, “We hope that the girls who come to eat, stay to read and talk and organize for the vote.”

Next to the dining room she stocked a library with suffrage literature and hosted forums, lectures and cultural presentations (including her comic play, “The Conversion of Aunty Suffrage”). She supported the club financially with dues from a Men’s Auxiliary.

Solomons writes about how organizers posted pro-suffrage slogans not only on billboards, ferries and street cars, but also stamped them on paper bags at grocery stores, stenciled them on napkins at ice cream parlors (thanks to the Waitress Union) and even stuck them in pockets of clothing to be picked up from the tailor.

Three women holding a banner promoting women’s suffrage in Oakland, ca.1908, General Subjects Photograph Collection-Suffrage, California Historical Society        

Her booklet chronicles how the suffrage campaign moved from “parlor meetings” to bold public actions. The first women-led outdoor demonstration in California was a 1908 march in Oakland on the state Republican Convention demanding a suffrage plank in its platform. When the San Francisco Chronicle ran an ad full of false and misleading quotes from national suffrage leaders, Solomons wrote, “This vicious attack on our cause and its heroines aroused two members of the Votes for Women Club who went to the Chronicle and stopped the paper.” When the newspaper employee said they had to run the ad because it had been paid for, Solomons reports that an “irate suffragist” replied, “I’m sure you’d all sell your very souls for that!” And she provides a witty account of suffragists occupying the Office of the Registrar at San Francisco City Hall, demanding that he either take down his sign “Every Citizen Must Vote” or allow the women to get a ballot.

On Election Day, the vote was so close that both the Chronicle and the Examiner ran headlines declaring that suffrage had lost (which it did in both San Francisco and Alameda Counties). But, the votes had yet to be tallied from Los Angeles and the rural areas. When the final results came in, suffrage had won by 2% — a tiny margin, but enough to change history. As Solomons wrote, “We gave free rein to our emotions in both manly and womanly fashion, with handshaking and back slapping, as well as hugging and kissing one another. October 10, 1911 proved to be the greatest day of my life.”

Selina Solomons portrait, How We Won The Vote in California by Selina Solomons, 1912; PAM 10563; California Historical Society

Conclusion

When I wonder why we have not learned of many women who played key roles in California history, I am reminded of historian Nell Irvin Painter’s admonition, “The symbol we require in our public life still triumphs over scholarship.”

These women did not fit the conventional narrative of California history. Each of their voices was subsumed or marginalized for different reasons. Jessie Benton Fremont because her abolitionist efforts were overshadowed by the highly-publicized, often brutal, exploits of her husband. Charlotte Brown because she was an African American woman who took a bold stand at a time when blacks could not vote, serve on juries or attend mainstream public schools. Selina Solomons because she did not match the suffragist “symbol” – she was not a society woman but an activist whose chutzpah brought the movement into working class neighborhoods.

Thanks to the archives of the California Historical Society we can learn more about these courageous, innovative women – in their own voices, in their own words. I wonder who else is waiting in there for us to hear their stories!

About the author

Elaine Elinson was the communications director of the ACLU of Northern California and editor of the ACLU News for more than two decades. She is coauthor with Stan Yogi of Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California, published by Heyday Books in 2009 with a 10th anniversary edition released in November 2019. The book was awarded a Gold Medal in the California Book Awards and was named a ForeWord Book of the Year in History. Her articles have been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The NationPoets and Writers, and numerous other periodicals. She is a researcher/writer for the National Park Service on civil rights history, digging up hidden histories of the Azorean dairy farmers who headed to the Marin Headlands during the Gold Rush, a successful challenge to the color bar at Sutro Baths by an African American waiter in 1897, and the brutal treatment of Conscientious Objectors in the military prison on Alcatraz during World War I.

Her essays have been anthologized in Civil Liberties United (2019), the ACLU Centennial Series (2019),  A Time to Rise (2018) and other collections.

Elinson has a degree in Asian Studies from Cornell University and an MFA in Writing from Goddard College. A former journalist with Pacific News Service, she has lived in England, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Central America and speaks Spanish, Russian and Mandarin. She is currently working on a novel based on her grandmother’s diaries written in Yiddish and Russian from 1905-1918.

Visit her website here.