Liz Kellar: Sargent statue debate highlights complexity of history
August 20, 2018
Nevada City's city council recently opted not to move forward with a donated statue that would have depicted Sen. Aaron Sargent and his wife, Ellen Singer Sargent.
The statue, which was proposed by local nonprofit group The Famous Marching Presidents, was intended to honor the Sargents for their work on the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote.
But Aaron Sargent's contribution to history is more complex than that.
It turns out that Sargent was vocal in his support of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of all Chinese laborers and was one of the first laws barring immigration based on a specific race and national origin.
Locals came to the City Council meeting in force to voice opposition to the statue, decrying Aaron Sargent's racist views and urging the council to push for a more inclusionary monument. Council member Reinette Senum called the debate a teachable moment, before joining the rest of the council in giving the donation a thumbs-down.
During this controversy, a stray thought snagged. Wasn't someone in my own family tree of Irish and Jewish immigrants associated somehow with the Chinese Exclusion Act? A deep dive into a relative's genealogy blog provided a fascinating answer — California State Sen. Samuel Braunhart, a "Prussian Jew" who emigrated from Germany at 14, and who helped organize the Anti-Chinese Exclusion Convention held in 1901 in San Francisco. The conference was devoted to strategies for preventing Chinese immigration and pushed for an extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
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The reason Braunhart's legacy stuck in my mind, of course, was the irony. How could a man who undoubtedly suffered from anti-Semitism during his lifetime actively promote a racist piece of legislation?
The answer taught me a lot of California politics — and reminded me that although it is easy to highlight historic characters for their achievements, most of us cannot be so easily reduced to two dimensions.
Braunhart got his start as a "cigar drummer," a traveling salesman. By all accounts, he was a feisty, argumentative man who held fast to his convictions. He made the newspapers not once but twice for getting involved in pistol-brandishing incidents — once as the victim and once as the aggressor, actually shooting at his opponent.
And he was the real-life version of that famous anecdote about Mark Twain commenting that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Braunhart, it seems, had been ailing for several years with some sort of heart trouble when his obituary was published prematurely. The newspaper account of the misunderstanding was titled "Enjoyed reading the notices of his death."
Braunhart denied that he had died, adding that he "rather enjoyed" the kind things said about him but that he took exception to the actions of nephew Max, who sent word via telegram that he should be cremated. The article refers to Braunhart as "quasi-deceased" — perhaps presciently, since he died just a few weeks later.
A political legacy
Braunhart was first elected as a state Assemblyman in 1880 as a "sandlotter," a supporter of the working class, anti-Chinese political views of Denis Kearney. He went on to serve as a San Francisco Port Warden in 1895, as a state Senator from 1896 to 1900, and as a San Francisco City Supervisor from 1900 until his death just weeks after the Great Earthquake in 1906.
His political life apparently was devoted to championing the working man and opposing corporate monopolies.
One judge said of him that "To such an extent did his fearless advocacy of the rights of his constituency call forth the venomous hostility of the corporations that they sought to silence him for daring to raise his voice against the aggressions of the monopolists." A more cynical chronicler of the political scene said Braunhart "delighted in causing a commotion wherever he went," and described him as "cunning, resourceful and tricky."
Braunhart's championship of the working classes led him to work to prohibit Chinese emigration, due to perceived negative effect on the job market.
The legislators who attended the San Francisco convention pushed to extend the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, arguing that Chinese immigrants would not and could not assimilate and "whose presence is an economic blight and a patriotic danger."
"The free immigration of Chinese would be for all purposes an invasion by Asiatic barbarians, against whom civilization in Europe has been frequently defended, fortunately for us," the document reads. "It is our inheritance to keep it pure and uncontaminated, as it is our purpose and destiny to broaden and enlarge it. We are trustees for mankind."
I have not seen any correspondence from Braunhart as to his personal feelings about immigration, and family letters cited in the genealogy blog don't start until 1915. But by 1920, many of the Braunharts had left their hometown of Schubin in a forced emigration that led them to move to Berlin. "The hate is big," Alexander Braunhart wrote. "One has to be very tranquil and consider every word."
Three Braunharts — including two of Samuel's nephews, Julius and Philipp — are listed in the rolls of those who perished in Nazi concentration camps. Philipp's history is poignant. He was a tailor whose shop was destroyed during Kristallnacht. He divorced his wife, a Christian, to save his children because of the Nuremberg laws. And he barely missed an opportunity to flee Germany in 1939, failing to secure passage on a ship to New York City. He died at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in 1942.
Learning from the past
Struggling to make sense of this led me back to the Sargent statue project and an email from Janet Swanton, the historian in charge of the project for The Famous Marching Presidents.
Swanton noted that Sargent had a history of fighting for women outside the 19th Amendment.
"In 1870 he asked that female clerks receive the same pay as male clerks doing the same job," she wrote. "In 1878 he asked Congress to pass a law enabling women to become lawyers and then, be allowed to practice. He was successful in the effort to get women to plead before the Supreme Court."
Sargent also fought against the mistreatment of a black man being abused on the ship Zylon in 1849, Swanton noted.
"It was hard for me to imagine this Aaron was the same Aaron who said such vile things (about the Chinese)," she wrote.
Swanton said she came to realize that those who opposed the statue were in the right.
"It would be unthinkable to honor this side or time in history," she said.
"Our group has always had the best of intentions and intend to turn this into a lesson," Swanton continued, adding, "One can always learn from past mistakes."
It can be difficult to understand the actions and beliefs of the past through the prism of present-day value systems. Would Samuel Braunhart have been able to make the link between the racism inherent in the Chinese Exclusion Act and the anti-Semitism of Germany's exclusionary laws that sprang up in the 1930s?
Those exclusionary laws, taken to their extreme, led to the deaths of family members. A lesson to be learned, indeed.
Staff Writer Liz Kellar's family emigrated from Ireland and Germany, with many settling in California, some as close as Auburn. <uch of the information on Braunhart came from the blog of Kenneth Marks, http://www.braunhart.com. She can reached at 530-477-4236 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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