The Alexander family of Nevada City
Skirting the top of Nevada City’s Historic District, Alexander Street is a quiet residential lane that links Main and Coyote streets. Prior to 1900 the street was named for Preston Alexander, one of the earliest African American pioneers of the town.
Preston Alexander arrived in California in 1849. He and his wife, Louisa had settled in Nevada City by March 1854. On May 19, 1859, Alexander purchased a 1.6-acre property along Buckeye Ravine. Then working as a miner, he constructed a small cabin that was enlarged over time to accommodate his growing family.
According to census records, Preston Alexander was born in 1834 in the District of Columbia. However, voter registration records beginning in 1871 consistently list his birthplace place as Virginia. Louisa was a native of Wisconsin or Illinois who came to California with her parents in the 1850s. If Preston Alexander had earlier been enslaved, it is possible that Preston was a name given under slavery and Alexander the name taken as a freeman.
Louisa and Preston had eight children, five of whom lived to adulthood: John Preston Alexander; Mary Amelia St. Claire née Alexander; Horatio Henry Alexander, who was also known as Rashe; Louisa Alexander; and Rosella Elizabeth Scott née Alexander.
Preston Alexander worked in a variety of positions in the community: as a miner, general laborer, janitor and the billposter in Nevada City who put up the dozens of event posters, public notices and advertisements that papered the city. He was active in many aspects of the civic life of Nevada County. In 1880, he was a member of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church on South Church Street in Grass Valley, and an officer of the AME Church on North Pine Street in Nevada City. In that year he is listed as a private in Company “C” of the Nevada Light Guard. He was often selected to serve in the county’s trial jury pool.
Preston Alexander was also actively engaged in civil rights. He was involved in organizing “freedom festivals,” milestones commemorating events important to the Black community. In the inaugural celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 he was one of three “officers of the day,” and at the 1864 celebration he was a member of the “Committee of Arrangements.” On April 12, 1870, he was one of the organizers of Nevada City’s first celebrations of the passage of the 15th Amendment. He exercised that hard-won right to vote by appearing regularly in the County’s Great Register of voters.
On November 22, 1889, at the age of 57, Preston Alexander died at his home. His funeral was largely attended and his obituary glowing: “No citizen could have had a higher tribute paid to his memory than has been accorded on all hands to that of Mr. Alexander.” He was remembered as a “…straight forward and industrious man of sound sense and was much liked in the community.”
Regrettably, Louisa Alexander’s life is not as well documented as her husband’s. She died on March 13, 1902, at 62. Her obituary reports: “She has always held the esteem of a large circle of friends, who will greatly regret her demise. She was of cheerful disposition and made friends readily.” One aspect of Louisa Alexander’s funeral that may reflect the admiration in which she was held by the community is that of the seven pallbearers listed in the newspaper announcement, six were white men, several of them prominent businessmen of Nevada City. The only Black pallbearer was Edmund Coleman, who had purchased the family home on Alexander Street.
Following their mother’s death, Amelia, John, and Horatio left Nevada City to reside in San Francisco. John and Horatio later returned and died in Nevada City in 1923 and 1911, respectively.
When Edmund Coleman died in 1912, his brother, Groves Hickman Coleman, inherited his estate. The Alexander homesite may be unique in Nevada City for having been owned consecutively by three African American owners. In the summer of 1928 the then owner, Charles Graham, razed the house, which was described as “one of the oldest in that section of the city.” Portions of adjacent properties were later reconfigured. Today the remaining intact portion of the original property is at 330 Alexander St., and measures at just under an acre.
Although the family is gone, and their home replaced by Graham’s 20th century structure, their legacy lives on. Thanks to funding from the Nevada County Historical Society, a Nevada County Landmarks Commission plaque was placed on the property on Feb. 24. Thanks also to Louise and David Beesley, Lynne H. Frame and Richard Hoskins for their support, and to the Board of Supervisors for their approval of the commission’s landmark. It is the first County Historical Landmark to commemorate one of Nevada County’s African American pioneers.
Linda K. Jack is a local historian and resident of Grass Valley who serves on the Board of Directors of the Nevada County Historical Society. She is also chair of the Grass Valley Historical Commission. For an annotated version of this article please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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