Nevada County Historical Society highlights stories of African American pioneers |

Nevada County Historical Society highlights stories of African American pioneers

Preston Alexander arrived in Nevada City in 1853. The street where he lived and raised a family of five was later named for him.
The Searls Historical Library |

California’s Gold Rush is a well-documented era of the state’s history, as are the stories of many of the people who flocked to the state — and to Nevada County — from around the globe to prospect for gold.

But the stories of one group of people who settled in Nevada County during the Gold Rush remain mostly untold. During the second half of the 19th century, a sizeable community of African Americans called Nevada County home, and actively contributed to the community’s vitality.

It’s hard for many to believe, said Linda Jack, the secretary of the board for the Nevada County Historical Society — especially when just one percent of the county’s population today is African American, according to the 2015-16 demographic profile prepared by the county’s executive office.

“It’s such a lost story,” Jack said. “There’s just a lot of interest in history in general up here, but the history that we’re interested in is actually quite narrow; mining, lumber, timber. I just found it interesting that a whole population could come and go.”

As the country prepares to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday and celebrate Black History Month in February, Jack and the county historical society are working to educate local residents on the African American community’s place in Nevada County history.

The society’s January bulletin features a series of articles on some of those prominent African American community members. In February, the society will have a small exhibit on display at the Madelyn Helling Library. “Civility to All, Servility to None” will feature images, a time line and a brochure detailing the community’s history.

Jack will also give a talk on the subject from 7-9 p.m. on Feb. 22 at Grass Valley’s Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains.

And on March 12, the historical society will have an exhibit on display at the 11th Annual African American Family History Seminar at the Family Search Library in Sacramento.

“What I’m trying to do is bring the community back to life,” Jack said.

Jack’s interest in the topic dates back to 2012, shortly after she relocated to Nevada County from the Bay Area. She heard there was a gold mine in the area that had at one time been operated by African American slaves, but further information about an African American population in the area was hard to come by.

“I was asking people, old-timers, and they were saying, ‘There were African Americans in Grass Valley?’” Jack said. “It seemed like an under-researched topic.”

So she started digging. Some information about the group’s history in the area had been documented by a historical society member in the mid 1980s. Jack was able to find scattered bits of information documented by volunteers for the Searls Historical Library — newspaper clips documenting a marriage here, a death there.

She utilized online resources as well, and started to piece together a picture of the community. She estimates there were anywhere from 150-350 African Americans living in Nevada County during the second half of the 19th century; that population includes enslaved African Americans who were brought to the area by their Southern owners, former slaves who had escaped captivity, and free African Americans.

The community founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a school for their children on Church Street in Grass Valley. They bought property and founded businesses. They worked as miners, laborers, musicians, teachers and clergymen.

“These were people that were very aspirational,” Jack said. “They really believed and expected that freed slaves for the most part would be integrated into this country and that the promise of this country would be fulfilled.”

The population was politically active, sending three delegates to the First Convention of Colored Citizens of the State of California, held in Sacramento in November 1855. The area also boasted several people who were active in the civil rights movements of the times, including Jennie Carter, a Nevada City author who wrote for The Elevator, a weekly black newspaper published in San Francisco and who served as an advocate for educational and social advancement; John Bulmer, who enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War; and Isaac Sanks and his son, Isaac T. Sanks, who advocated for voting rights for African Americans.

The county’s African American population began to decline as the 19th century came to an end, Jack said; many relocated to more populous areas, like San Francisco and Sacramento, where jobs were more readily available.

And in most cases, their stories left with them — something that doesn’t sit well with history buffs like Jack.

“I don’t know the end of the story, and that’s not satisfying,” she said.

She plans to continue researching the population, and is hoping to work with some genealogy groups to track down some of the ancestors of those African Americans that settled in Nevada County. She’s also focused on learning more about some of the more prominent individuals of the time, like Carter.

Though the population’s story may not be well known, it’s still a part of Nevada County’s history, Jack said. She noted that if any of the ghosts of those African American pioneers have lingered on Church Street, they would have seen the “Black Lives Matter” banner that hung over the door of the Universalist Church last October, not far from where the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a large part of the black community lived.

Jack noted that many members of the community, from preachers to writers to those who enlisted in the army during the Civil War, were early contributors to the Civil Rights movement that would continue for decades.

And their stories of life, struggle and advocacy are directly connected to some of the issues minorities still face in the country today.

“I’d like that story to be told,” Jack said. “And I’d like to draw the links between what you read in the paper today and the same things that this community was fighting for then.”

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email or call 530-477-4230.

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