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Black history in Sacramento



Bill and Kathryn Lee

February is Black History Month, and Sacramento Press staff reporters Brandon Darnell, Kathleen Haley and Suzanne Hurt interviewed local historians and city staff to highlight some of Sacramento’s movers and shakers in the black community.

Those who have visited Folsom’s Historic District may have driven by or through Leidesdorff Street, which intersects with Riley Street and Folsom Boulevard. But most probably don’t know about the man it was named after.

William Alexander Leidesdorff was a major landowner in the 1840s, in what is now the Folsom and Rancho Cordova area. Leidesdorff, of African-Carribbean and Danish descent, was originally from the Virgin Islands, according to author Sue Bailey Thurman

He arrived in California around 1841, after spending time in New Orleans, according to an article by Thurman published on the San Francisco African American Historical Society’s website. He lived in San Francisco even though he owned property in the Sacramento region.

Leidesdorff died in 1848, at the age of 38, from typhus. During his lifetime, with help from landowner John Sutter, Leidesdorff was “able to acquire about 36,000 acres of land in what is now Rancho Cordova and Folsom,” said Clarence Caesar, a retired historian with the California Office of Historic Preservation.

– Kathleen Haley

The Crocker family is well known for its museum, especially now after its $100 million expansion.

However, one of the Crockers also had a hand in fighting slavery.

Before the Civil War, when American states were split between those that allowed slavery and those that didn’t, California was one of the free states.

Despite that, commerce laws allowed slaveowners to bring their slaves through the state as long as they didn’t stay for too long, said local historian and board member for the Sacramento County Historical Society William Burg.

One such slave was Archy Lee, whose owner was from the slave state of Mississippi. Burg said his owner stayed in the Sacramento area and founded a school, thereby establishing himself.

When he decided to leave around 1858, Lee refused to go, demanding freedom.

Burg said laws at the time forbidding any non-white from testifying against whites made Lee’s case daunting, but he eventually succeeded and was awarded his freedom.

Lee was aided by E. B. Crocker, who was one of his attorneys.

According to Burg, Crocker was a member of the Republican party, which was the anti-slavery party, and Crocker also helped President Abraham Lincoln get votes in California.

– Brandon Darnell

One of Sacramento’s first black attorneys, Nathaniel Colley, set up a practice in the West End and worked on many cases for the NAACP.

Colley came to the area from Alabama in the 1940s, according to Caesar.

One of his accomplishments, according to Burg, was when he won a court case that integrated the city-owned housing projects of New Helvetia and Seavey near the city cemetery south of Broadway. One had formerly been reserved for whites, and the other for non-whites.

Another case he won was the integration of a public swimming pool not far from the housing projects.

“He was a pretty significant local figure,” Burg said. “People don’t associate Sacramento with Civil Rights.

When Colley died in 1992, the New York Times did a story about him, which can be read here

Burg added that there are numerous stories of Sacramento’s history on the Sacramento County Historical Society website

One of the most recent pieces uploaded to the website tells the story of the struggle for education equality in Victorian Sacramento. To read the story, click here

– Brandon Darnell and Kathleen Haley

Bill and Kathryn Lee have been the driving forces behind The Sacramento Observer for nearly 50 years.

The weekly got started at their kitchen table a year after they were married, when Bill Lee and two partners founded the Observer in 1962. Lee became the publisher, and Kathryn joined as assistant publisher a few years later after one partner died and the other sold them his interest.

The Lees recruited talented, aspiring journalists from the community to write for the paper and financed the operation with their own incomes – his as a real estate broker and hers working at Gov. Pat Brown's office in the Capitol.

With its first office at 21st and X streets, the paper covered issues important to African Americans, from civil rights and discrimination in housing and jobs to health care and education. The Lees pushed for the first blacks to be elected to political office and hired as journalists at area dailies and television stations.

The Observer has won more than 600 awards, including the National Newspaper Publishers Association's Russwurm Trophy for the country's best African-American newspaper six times. Now both 75, the Lees have turned over management of the paper to their son, Larry Lee. The newspaper is located at 2330 Alhambra Blvd.

– Suzanne Hurt

Sacramento got its first African American fire chief, Ray Charles, in 1986.

Charles became a firefighter with the Sacramento Fire Department in 1960. He was based at a downtown fire station and became a fire investigator after about seven years. He then became head of the department's Fire Prevention Bureau.

Charles was promoted to assistant fire chief before being named fire chief in the mid-1980s. He was a role model for minority firefighters and a "gentleman" with a heart for firefighters and their widows, said Loran Wolcott, a retired fire truck driver.

He has remained active at fire department functions since retiring in 1989.

"He's a very nice man," Wolcott said. "Skinny as a rail. I don't know how he does it."

– Suzanne Hurt

Share your stories about noteworthy Sacramentans below. 

 
  • William Burg

    More about the Archy Lee story can be found here:

    http://www.midtownmonthly.net/life/slavery-in-sacramento/

  • Leidesdorff also has the distinction of opening the first hotel in what would be San Francisco, and of bringing California’s first steamboat, disassembled in the hull of his ship. It was terribly underpowered, but it worked.

  • This is very interesting, but aren’t any of you sick of this political correctness? These are Americans right along with Whites, Asians, and Hispanics. Why is there still a month devoted to this? However if some one was to bring up the idea of a month based around white people, they are considered a rascist.

    • If black history was combined with american history 24/7 then we wouldn’t need a month to focus on it. Yes we are all american, but until society notices and treats blacks as Americans (ie African American history classes included in American history classes), we will need a month to remind everyone.

  • I was once told a story that before the settlers bought land in now called Rancho Cordova, an African American madame owned a big portion of land and even had hostiles that hosted many miners as well sold most of her land to the miners during the gold rush era and even before that time. Could someone direct me to the link. Thanks.