County had first black candidates in state
The approaching statewide primary election (March 5) and this month’s commemoration of Black History make this an appropriate time to recall Nevada County’s remarkable role in establishment of black suffrage in California in 1870.
The determination of Grass Valley’s black community and the county clerk’s courage in resisting the state attorney general gave Nevada County the distinction of having the first black candidates for public office in California.
Up until 1870, voting rights in this state were limited to white adult males. Early that year the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution eliminated the racial barrier.
Democrats, controlling the California Legislature and all major state offices, argued that the amendment was illegal on numerous grounds and sought ways to prevent its implementation.
State Attorney General Joseph Hamilton insisted that California law took precedence and instructed county clerks throughout the state to refuse black registration.
He claimed the amendment needed further congressional legislation – establishing penalties for violations – before it became effective. On that grounds, all efforts by blacks to register were turned aside.
Nevada County had the fifth-largest black population in the state, with 165 in 1870. This was primarily the result of a mine established in 1851 by Col. William English, who brought nearly 100 slaves to his Kentucky Ridge claim near Grass Valley.
English’s death shortly thereafter ended the operation, and many of his workers settled within the town limits. By 1870 a thriving black community existed in the town and included one of the state’s leading campaigners for black civil rights, the Rev. James H. Hubbard.
Perhaps inspired by Hubbard, who spoke in support of black suffrage throughout Northern California, several Grass Valley residents attempted to register in early April. County Clerk J.J. Rogers initially consented and 15 black names went on the voter rolls.
When informed of Attorney General Hamilton’s position, Rogers reversed himself and blocked additional registrations.
The letter to Rogers in which Hamilton explained his stand against registration was reprinted throughout the state and generally brought condemnation from editors. Even Democratic editors gradually conceded black suffrage was here, like it or not.
Fortified by a growing support among journalists, and expectation that Congress would shortly pass legislation punishing registrars who disobeyed the amendment, Rogers again reversed his policy, and by mid-April more than 50 blacks had registered in the county.
Grass Valley’s black residents were anxious to participate in the town election, scheduled for May 2. Even before Rogers had registered a single black, several papers reported that two Grass Valley blacks were planning to run for local office. They named Isaac Sanks, a 56-year-old Carolinian, and Jacob Sanders, 49, as likely candidates for marshal or town trustee.
Two San Francisco dailies, the Chronicle and Bulletin, picked up the story, which was newsworthy since no other black candidates came forward in the local elections held statewide that same day.
Despite their registration, the Grass Valley election board still refused to put the names of blacks on the local polling lists until certified copies of registration had been received from the county.
As election day neared, Sanks, fearing the first opportunity to vote would pass without blacks’ participation, personally went to the clerk’s office in Nevada City and obtained proof of registration. On the weekend before the election, the board added the names of the 15 registered blacks residing within the town to the voting lists.
By election day the Grass Valley Union had already announced that Sanders had publicly declared he was not a candidate. Despite that, when the ballots were counted Sanders received four votes for trustee, Sanks two.
While they had the fewest votes of any of the 11 trustee candidates, they won the distinction of being the first black candidates in California history.
Nearly a quarter century later, Isaac Sanks’ son would be the official, but losing, Republican nominee for Grass Valley constable, one of the first black candidates on a major party ticket in California.
Ralph E. Shaffer, professor emeritus in history at Cal Poly Pomona, can be reached at
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