Mining Mother Lode's black history

01/20/2008 3:20 AM

01/20/2008 3:20 AM

Roughly 113 years before Dr. Martin Luther King marched for civil rights in Alabama, William Sugg made the trip from North Carolina to the Mother Lode, and not by choice.

While the nation commemorates King's life and work Monday, it's important to note that while he became the face of civil rights in 1960s America, the long and arduous process began long before he took the lead.

Sugg was among an association of California blacks who, in the 1850s, began campaigning for civil rights, said Sylvia Alden Roberts of Sonora, a historian and author. They developed a well-organized political machine that was instrumental in guaranteeing educational opportunities for black children even before the Civil War.

"It was an amazing network that reached into all parts of California," said Roberts, whose new book, "Mining for Freedom: Black History Meets the California Gold Rush," has gone to her publisher. "They organized three colored conventions, funded by people who mortgaged their homes and their businesses for this effort."

They staged a political rally featuring speakers, a banquet and a fancy dress ball in the boomtown of Columbia in 1859, Roberts said.

Sugg was brought to California as a slave in 1850, and was granted his freedom in Sonora four years later -- nine years before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Sugg's deed of manumission -- in essence an ex-slave's pink slip of freedom -- is on file at the Tuolumne County recorder's office, Roberts said.

In fact, when it cost most slaves $1,000 or more for their freedom, someone paid $1 to emancipate Sugg in 1854 "as an act of benevolence," according to the document.

A year later, he married and began a family whose descendants remained in Sonora until at least 1982.

Sugg's story fascinated Roberts, who moved to Sonora in 1992 and began researching the history of African-Americans in the area.

She is among those looking to create the Sugg-McDonald Museum and Research Center Project in Sonora. She is working with the county's historical society, the Sierra NonProfit Support Center and others to make what ultimately could be a virtual museum, which would use digital technology in its displays, in what some might consider an unlikely place.

According to the 2000 census, blacks made up 2.1 percent of Tuolumne County's 54,000 residents -- only slightly less than Stanislaus County, according to that same census.

Understanding the Sonora area's demographics 140 or more years ago takes some research, because little about blacks is reflected in the history books. Roberts pored over census reports, real estate records -- because slaves were often treated as property -- and newspaper clippings.

She discovered there were more blacks there than you might expect.

"As many as 500 in Tuolumne County," she said, and maybe more. "The racial climate was such that Southerners didn't want to disclose how many slaves they had. California was supposed to be a free state. So some blacks avoided the census counts."

And, she said, the numbers never can be determined accurately.

"There were many light-skinned blacks who stepped on the color line," Roberts said. "The rape of slaves was so prevalent back then."

At the mercy of available records and newspaper clippings that bore the racial slurs common to the times, she learned of a black man -- or maybe not -- who lived in Sonora. In the 1870 census, he was listed as a mulatto (with one white and one black parent). Subsequent documents listed him as black, mulatto or Negro, and on the last one, white.

"From then on, his family was listed as white," she said. "If you had a chance of being mistreated or not (by being white), the choice was pretty simple."

Most often, little was simple for free blacks living in the melting pot of the California gold fields.

She found a current street called Uncle Toms Drive.

"That'll freak people out," she said. Except that the street was named for former slave Tom Gilman, who mined in the Shaw's Flat area -- not for the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel published in 1852. Gilman lived there about 60 years, until his death.

She came across the story of Stephen Hill, who claimed to be a freed slave when he arrived in the area in the 1850s. He struck gold in the Gold Springs area north of Columbia, and parlayed his earnings into a small ranch.

"Then he bought some additional property," Roberts said.

Then, O.R. Rozier of Arkansas came through the area and recognized Hill. He claimed that Hill was a runaway who belonged to a slave owner friend in Arkansas. Unable to produce his deed of manumission, Hill found himself in court. As a black, he was unable to testify in his defense under the law of the times. The judge ruled against Hill, and ordered him returned to the slave owner in Arkansas by Rozier.

Some local businessmen who supported Hill went out to his place, harvested and sold his crops, along with his livestock and furnishings. His land was sold at auction.

A group of them then followed Rozier and Hill to Stockton. Some of them engaged Rozier in a poker game, as the story goes.

"The other half spirited Hill away, gave him money for a grubstake and they never saw him again," Roberts said.

But it's the Sugg-McDonald family that most intrigues Roberts. After arriving in the valley in the early 1850s, William Sugg met a young woman named Mary Elizabeth Snelling. With her freed-slave mother, Julia, Mary Elizabeth came to the valley with the Snelling family for which the town along the Merced River was named. Local lore suggests Mary Elizabeth was fathered by a member of the Snelling family, Roberts said.

Sugg and Snelling were married in 1855, and moved to Sonora. He might have mined gold, but he soon became a harness maker, owned a donkey cart business and worked in a livery stable.

He bought half of a lot along Theall Street in downtown Sonora, and a Mexican family bought the other half. When their home burned down, they sold their half to Sugg. He built a kiln to fire the bricks he used to build a three-room adobe house. They added rooms as the family grew to 11 children.

Daughter Rosa Adele was the only one of the Sugg children to wed, marrying David McDonald of Oakland.

"It didn't last," Roberts said. "She brought the kids back to Sonora."

Her sons, Earle and Vernon McDonald, grew up there and were well-liked in the community. The McDonald children were among the first blacks to attend Sonora Elementary School after it opened in 1909 -- in no small part because of their grandparents' earlier political activism, Roberts said.

Earle became a telegrapher. Vernon worked at the Sonora Theatre as a projectionist during the silent film era, and later as a reporter and typesetter at the Union Democrat newspaper.

He also served as Sonora High's football statistician for several decades, and the team's most improved player received the Vernon McDonald Award.

Earle had moved away before Vernon died in Sonora in 1982, the last known member of the Sugg-McDonald family in town.

"There were lots of people who were so very fond of Vernon," Roberts said.

The family's home on Theall Street still stands, and the family left behind a collection of journals, newspaper clippings and documents. The current owner is working with the museum group to create a Sugg-McDonald exhibit, Roberts said. Organizers have begun their search for funding, but the project has a long way to go before they can begin hunting for a site.

"At this point, we're an idea more than anything," Roberts said.

Or maybe a dream, like the dreams of King, of those who preceded him and those still carrying on the fight.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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