Monday, May 20, 2019

James Blethen (1828-1909): Mayor of Oakland who died destitute

Mayor James Blethen (Newspaper image: Oakland Tribune)
James Blethen was born on June 25, 1828 in Maine and came to California during the Gold Rush, where he set up shop as a contractor in San Francisco. He paid for his passage aboard he Golconda by working as a carpenter on the ship, a trade he had learned in Dover (now Dover-Foxcroft, Maine).

He was married twice and had nine children. 

In 1868, he and a partner bought the Pioneer Mill at 1st and Broadway in Oakland, where they did mill work, specializing is sashes and doors.  The business proved quite successful and Blethen developed an interest in politics during this time, spurred by the debates over the Chinese Exclusion Act.

He was a two-term Mayor of Oakland, serving in 1881 and 1882 (when Mayor's were elected to one-year terms). A year after he left office his good fortune began to decline. His Pioneer Planing Company became the target of boycotts and he accrued debts of $60,000 ($1.5 million in 2019 dollars) to the likes of Dr. Samuel Merritt, Knowland & Co and the Oakland Bank of Savings.

The Port of Oakland around 1882
The Los Angeles Herald claims his demise was a deal that he cut in 1882 as Mayor when he convened a special meeting of the City Council to pass what became known as the "Second Compromise," which proved to be wildly unpopular with the public. The first compromise, which was passed in 1868, basically ceded waterfront rights for 37 years to the unscrupulous (or wily, depending on your point of view) Horace Carpentier in exchange for $5, some wharf improvements and a new school. The second deal was seen by many as once again benefiting private interests over the public good. The fights over the waterfront dragged on in California and the Nation's highest courts for decades.

The Herald ran an account of him in his later years, describing him as "Old and bent and gray, his clothes patched and threadbare...Blethen, once Mayor of Oakland, now flags the trains of the Southern Pacific...the old man sits on a bench, leans against the Delger Block and either reads the papers or dreams of the days when he was Mayor, and could count more friends than any other citizen of Oakland."

His memorial service was held at the Masonic Temple and he was buried in the Blethen family plot.

Sources: The San Francisco Call, Wikipedia, Ancestry.com, Find-a-Grave, City of Oakland Planning Department, Sacramento Daily Record-Union, History of the Port of Oakland by DeWitt Jones, Oakland Tribune

Monday, May 13, 2019

John McHenry (1809–1880): Southern Anti-Slavery Judge

Judge John McHenry
PLOT 14B

John McHenry was born of Scottish ancestry on October 19, 1809 in Allington, Montgomery. In 1847, he married Ellen Josephine Metcalfe.

The couple settled in New Orleans where he became a noted attorney and judge. He became controversial as a trial judge in the South, as between 1846 and 1851 he ruled in favor of nearly twenty enslaved petitioners who sought freedom on the basis of having touched free soil. These rulings directly contravened Louisiana state law, but McHenry reasoned that they were in keeping with higher sources of law: constitutional, federal, and international.

President Martin Van Buren offered him the post of Minister (Ambassador) to Spain, which he declined in order to sail aboard the Northerner and head to California, where he arrived on August 15, 1850. In California, he was asked to assist in setting up the State's constitution.

In San Fransisco, he opened a law firm and as a judge in the County Courthouse. He commuted across the San Francisco Bay from his property situated on the Temescal Rancho. He moved to San Francisco in 1864 where he successfully invested in real estate (in what is now Mission Bay), but returned to the East Bay in 1878.

He also owned additional property across the Bay, which is the site of the Emeryville Shellmound. After his death, his widow bemoaned the fact that the land contained  “tombs and treasures of Indian royalty.”

Despite his anti-slavery ruling, McHenry still held deep sympathies for the South and was arrested in San Francisco for “enticing a private on Alcatraz Island to join an anti-Union activity” in 1861.

His daughter was Mary McHenry Keith, a noted social justice advocate, suffragist and wife of  artist William Keith.

SOURCES: Vanished Waters by Nancy Olmsted, Bancroft Library, California Art Club, Emeryville Historical Society, Find a Grave, Alta Californi

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Norbert "Nubs" Kleinke (1911-1950): Baseball player who died at sea

Nubs Kleinke
Nubs Kleinke was a right-handed pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1935 and 1937, playing in just nine games during his career. He posted a career record of 1-1 with a 4.86 ERA.

He was born Norbert George Kleinke on May 19, 1911 in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

He started his professional baseball career with the Cedar Rapids Bunnies of the Mississippi Valley League in 1931, going 17-7 in his rookie season. He follow up in 1932 with an impressive 15-10 year.  His best seasons were with the Rochester Red Wings of the International League, where he pitched from 1935-38. He posted a 19-7 record with a 3.27 ERA in 1934 and a 19-8 record with a 3.47 ERA in 1937. He played his final years for the Oakland Oaks from 1942-44. His career minor league record was 159-123.

In 2001, Kleinke was inducted into the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame. Other notable baseball figures in the Red Wings Hall of Fame are Cal Ripken, Jr., Dennis Martinez,  Earl Weaver, Boog Powell, Don Baylor and Red Schoendienst.

Nubs Kleinke's high school yearbook photo (left) and short stint in a Cardinals uniform
Kleinke died on March 16, 1950 off the coast of California while fishing with friends. His obituary states that he was "stricken" and "dropped dead" while anchored off the Golden Gate Bridge. Aboard the boat with him that afternoon were two fellow baseball players, Cotton Pippen and Willard Martin.

SOURCES: Long Beach Independent, Baseball-Reference.com, Find a Grave, milb.com, mlb.com


Monday, May 6, 2019

Dean Hayes (1919-1943): Killed on submarine sunk by Japanese in WWII

Dean Hayes
Dean Marriott Hayes was born in Midvale, Utah on September 27, 1919 to Ethel and William Hayes. He was living in Berkeley when he joined the military during World War II.

He served aboard the U.S.S. Wahoo submarine as an Electrician's Mate Second Class during World War II. The submarine was sunk by Japanese aircraft in the La Perouse Strait between Japan and Russia on October 11, 1943. Eighty men lost their lives in the depths of the icy cold waters. Hayes was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart.

Main deck of the USS Wahoo (Photo: Iskra)
The U.S.S. Wahoo was one of the most famous American submarines of World War II.  It was  launched on February 14, 1942 at the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo, California and was commissioned on May 15, 1942.

The U.S.S. Wahoo left from Pearl Harbor for its seventh and final patrol on September 9, 1943 under the command of the aggressive and celebrated Navy Commander Dudley "Mush" Morton. The Wahoo sank at least nineteen Japanese ships, more than any other submarine of the time.

The submarine was believed to be lost in the depths of the sea until the Wahoo Project Group was launched in 1995. The project was made up of an international team of Americans, Australians, Japanese, and Russians, and led by a relative of Commander Mush Morton.

Main gun of the USS Wahoo (Photo: Iskra)
The group's search focused on the review of historical records by Japanese Vice Admiral Kazuo Ueda, who correctly predicted the location of Wahoo. In 2005, electronic surveys in the region yielded what turned out to be a U.S. Gato-class submarine in the Strait. In 2006, the U.S. Navy confirmed that images provided by the Russian "Iskra" team were of the Wahoo, which was sitting in about 213 feet of water in the La Pérouse Strait.

On July 8, 2007, the US Navy held a wreath laying ceremony at the confirmed site of the sinking of the Wahoo. On October 11, 2007, the US Navy held an official remembrance ceremony for the crew of the Wahoo. The ceremony was conducted at the USS Bowfin Museum and Submarine Park at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Hayes' only brother Staff Sergeant Rhuel Hayes was killed one year later in the Mediterranean.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

John Marcovich (1859-1907): Restaurateur gunned down by employee

Oakland Tribune headline and picture of murderer Frank Smith
Elks Plot 32, Grave 120

John Marcovich was a noted restaurateur who was killed by a waiter who he had fired earlier in the day for stealing a bottle of wine. 

According to the Oakland Tribune, he was leaning over a chair talking to two guests at The Gas Kitchen when Frank Smith walked up to him and shot him at point blank range while his Marcovich's wife looked on in terror. Smith unloaded five bullets, three that hit Marcovich in the back and two under his arms, one entering his heart. He uttered, "Goodbye, wife" and died. 

Frank Marcovich and his grave in the Elks Plot
A witness tried to stop Smith, but the gunman threatened to shoot him. He was then followed by a group of citizens on bicycle until the police could continue the chase, albeit unsuccessfully at first.  He was arrested in St. Louis, Missouri ten years after the murder. According to the Oakland Tribune (August 7, 1917), Smith was convicted and sent to San Quentin to serve a life sentence, but was paroled 10 years later. 

Parole document of Frank Smith
Smith allegedly had both a drinking problem and an addiction to gambling.

Marcovich's services were held at the Elks Lodge in Oakland and he is buried in the Elks Plot at Mountain View Cemetery. 

Source: Oakland Tribune, San Quentin Prison Records

Hettie Blonde Tilghman (1873-1933): African-American suffragist; NAACP President

Hettie Tilghman (photo Oakland Tribune) and her grave
Plot 55

Hettie Blonde Tilghman was born in San Francisco in 1873 to early pioneers Captain John Jones and his wife Rebecca. Her father was in charge of ammunition and rifles for the San Francisco Vigilante Committee housed at The Armory. She was the youngest of three daughters and attended school in San Francisco, where she lived until she was about fourteen years old. [Some sources list her birth as 1871].

Around 1887, her family relocated to Oakland, where she would remain for the rest of her life. In 1890, she married Charles F. Tilghman and they moved in with his mother, Lucinda. At the time of her marriage, she was an organist and secretary of the Bethel A.M.E. Church of San Francisco. The couple had two children, Hilda and Charles.

In addition to her involvement in the church, she ran a private language school out of her San Francisco home, where her parents were still living. It was in this home that she taught English to local Chinese students. 

Hettie retired from teaching shortly after Hilda's birth. After Charles and Hilda enrolled in school, Hettie became active in public life once again, participating in a variety of clubs and community building projects. She also served on the board of the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People, which was opened in 1897 near Mills College. In 1917, she was elected president of the California State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, a post she held until 1919.

Hettie Tilghman had a lifelong commitment to service for the African-American community. Tilghman became the financial secretary for the Northern Federation of California Colored Women's Clubs after its creation in 1913. The Northern Federation was an organization composed of Northern California's many arts, education, and advancement clubs created by and for women of color. This organization was largely in response to the widespread exclusion of non-whites from existing groups. 


Fannie Wall Children's Home
Tilghman worked closely with civic leader and activist Fannie Wall, raising money between 1914 to 1918 to fund the opening of the Fannie Wall Children's Home and Day Nursery in West Oakland – the only daycare and orphanage facility available to children of color in that area at the time. After the success of the first Children's Home in meeting the needs of lower-class children and families, Tilghman worked to launch and manage a "Colored" YWCA establishment, and contributed to the operation of a second children's care facility. This second facility was one that required significantly more capital to open so this is an impressive accomplishment. The YWCA served African-American members by providing academic and occupational training, as well as entertainment and special events for younger girls. The second location for the Children's Home was ultimately taken over by the Oakland Redevelopment Authority.

During WWI, she also raised money and collected the names of all of the black soldiers who had been drafted into the war and organized the first reception for "colored troops," as the Oakland Tribune referred to them at the time.

In the 1920s, Tilghman took on a major leadership role alongside African-American women in the League of Women Voters (LWV), and was chosen to be president of the Alameda County League of Colored Women Voters. In both organizations, Tilghman advocated for laws that would address the unique needs of women and children. 

Daughter Hilda Tilgman (Image: SF Call)
She was also elected president of the Fannie Wall Children's Home and Day Nursery in the early 1920s. Around the same time she also took charge of the Oakland branch of the NAACP. Thirty-six years after her death, her son Charles was honored by the NAACP for his contributions to the organization. He owned a printing business in Oakland. In 1906, her daughter Hilda led the effort to raise money to help restore African-American chruches destroyed by the earthquake and fire, as well as assist with the rebuilding of homes within the community.

Throughout the 1920s, she was active in the women's suffrage movement, and her political involvement continued until her death in Alameda in September 1933.

Sources: The Negro Trail Blazers of California (1919), Biography of Hettie Blonde Tilghman  by Pat Roberts, Oakland Tribune, Ancestry.com, San Francisco Call

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Franklina Gray Bartlett (1853-1934): Author; Founder of Women's Social Club

Grave of Franklina Gray Bartlett
Plot 30

Franklina Gray Bartlett was the founder of the Ebell Society in Santa Ana and President of the organization in Oakland, California. She was the wife of the prominent banker William S. Bartlett and stepdaughter of the wealthy businessman David Hewes.

The Ebell Club is a women’s social club that still operates in a number of cities. Established in 1897 as a substitute for the university education that women were largely denied, the club had 2,500 members in its heyday in the 1920s, and activities included Shakespeare, gardening and art appreciation. 

Franklina's mother Matilda Gray married David Hewes in 1875, taking her and her sister Rosa  on a two and a half year honeymoon. The group visited 22 different countries including England, France, Italy and Greece, collecting art and allowing David to explore his religious interests.

Franklina kept a journal chronicling her adventures and wrote hundreds of letters to William Springer Bartlett, her fiancé in Oakland, California. The Camron-Stanford House published a collection of her writings and letters, showing her to be an atypical Victorian woman. Franklina shows herself to be an opinionated, imperfect woman of wit, spirit, and determination. In her writings she discusses many of her grand adventures, including climbing the Alps and sailing the Nile.

Images from Camron-Stanford House book on Franklina Bartlett's writings
In 1878, Franklina married William Bartlett at the Camron-Stanford House in Oakland. In 1882, the couple moved to Tustin, California where they built a sprawling Victorian mansion and her husband became active in the development of the city. He was a shareholder in the Tustin Land & Improvement Company, a director for the Bank of Tustin and a member of the organizing committee for the Tustin Presbyterian Church, which his father-in-law financed.

While in Tustin, Franklina started the Ebell Society of Santa Ana Valley, modeling it on the Oakland society, where she was its first president.

Franklina was also a prolific writer, contributing many short stories to “The Overland Monthly and "The Out West” magazine, a San Francisco publication. Her stories appeared frequently along with submissions from well known authors such as Brete Harte, Willa Cather, Jack London and Mark Twain.

Sources: Find a Grave, Camron-Stanford House, Orange County Register, Old Homes of Los Angeles blog

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Abraham Holland (c1830-1910 ): Black Gold Rush Pioneer

Abraham Holland grave (Photo Michael Colbruno)
Abraham Freeman Holland was born in Pennsylvania around 1830 and joined the California Gold Rush around 1849/50, arriving in the Sierra foothills near Marysville. The African-American migration to California brought incredible opportunity to gain freedom and economic independence for black people. He joined a number of other black miners in founding the aptly named Sweet Vengeance Mine. Holland selected "Freeman" to be his middle name.

In 1861, his son Albert was born, but he died of pneumonia at age 18 in 1879 while attending college.

One of Holland's business partners was Edward P. Duplex, a native of Connecticut, who opened a string of successful barbershops throughout the region and was elected mayor of the community, quite probably the first African-American mayor west of the Mississippi. Holland, Duplex and the other black miners had to repeatedly defend themselves against white miners who tried to overtake the mine by force.

At the time when Holland and Duplex were mining in California, the population of blacks ranged from around 1,000 at the time the State was admitted to the Union in 1850 to 2,200 in 1852. Black residents were technically "free," as a condition of California becoming a State was that it would be a free state, however the California Fugitive Slave Act of 1852 allowed black residents to forcibly be returned to slave states if they resided here before statehood. Holland, along with a number of other black residents, purchased the freedom of numerous slaves with their earnings and brought them to California. 

The grave of Holland's business partner Mayor Edward Duplex
In 1876, using the money he had earned in the mines, Abraham moved to Oakland where records have him listed as a widower. His 18 year old son Albert died of pneumonia while attending college.

The elder Holland went on to become a Pullman porter when the Central Pacific Railroad terminus was in West Oakland, serving passengers on the Transcontinental Railroad. Although Pullman porters worked long, hard hours, they made better wages than they could in most other jobs available to African-American men at the time. The pullmans got to travel across the U.S., making important connections with people along the way.  They distributed information pamphlets about civil rights and were key to keeping others across the country informed.

The Pullman Company, whose sumptuous dining and sleeping cars catered to well-heeled travelers, only hired African-Americans to work as their porters. These jobs held great prestige, paid well, and provided opportunities for travel and tips.

Abraham Holland took an active role in African-American cultural and political organizations. He was Grand Master of the African-American lodge of California Freemasons known as the Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Mason. He also served as president of the Literary and Aid Society of Oakland and directed the Colored Colonization Association of Fresno County.

Sources: "Contemporary Issues in California Archaeology" edited by Terry L Jone, Docent Gia White, "Structure, Agency, and the Archaeology of African Americans" by Adrian Praetzellis, Sierra College archives, Browns Valley by Roberta Sperbeck D'Arcy, California: A History By Andrew Rolle and Arthur C. Verge

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Frank Day (1853-1899): Councilmember in Los Angeles and Monterey

Frank Day obituary in the San Francisco Call
Plot 14B

Day was born in South Bend, Indiana, on April 9, 1853 and moved with his family to Sacramento, California in 1866. He moved by himself to Los Angeles in the early 1880s.

In 1882, he was elected to represent the 2nd Ward on the Los Angeles Common Council. The Los Angeles Common Council was the predecessor of the Los Angeles, California, City Council. It was formed in 1850 under state law, when the city had only 1,610 residents, and it existed until 1889, when the city had about 50,400 residents and a city charter was put into effect. Day represented one of the wealthiest Wards.

In November 1885 Day argued against a motion made by Councilman Hiram Sinsabaugh that a picture of a nude woman hanging "at the lower end of the council chamber" be removed. He said the canvas was a "work of art. belong to Conference [Fire] Engine Company, and had been on exhibition in Preuss A. Piroul's window for four months." The council nevertheless ordered it taken down.

On March 7, 1885, "the fire delegates" elected Day as chief of the volunteer fire department. It was said that Day was the first chief of the fire department when it became a paid department instead of a volunteer force. He resigned in January 1886, with a message to the Common Council that he could no longer serve because he would be "out of the city a good deal of the time."

After selling his business, Day moved to Monterey where he was an organizer and manager of the Monterey Electric Light & Development Company and operator of a saloon. In 1893, he became a member of the Monterey Town Council.

Around 1898, he ended up in San Francisco, where he worked as a clerk at Wells Fargo. But his stay in the city was short, as he committed suicide in 1899, leaving the following note:

"If my body is found, tell my friends at Wells, Fargo & Co. to bury me at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland. My father, Loth [sic] Day, and mother, Celine Day, are buried there." His father owned property in Oakland, which he bequeathed to his son.

According to his obituary in the San Francisco Call, "The stopcock of the gas jet was fully turned on and the room was full of the suffocating odor. All the crevices, including the keyhole, were stopped with bits of cloth tightly wedged in to prevent the escape of the death-dealing fluid."

The obituary also stated that he had a problem with alcohol.

Sources: San Francisco Call, Ancestry.com, Wikipedia


Bella French Swisher (1837-1893): Author, Editor & Spa Founder

Bella French Swisher
Bella French Swisher was born in 1837 in Georgia.

Around 1841, her family moved to the Midwest. By 1868 she was owner, editor, and publisher of a newspaper, the Western Progress in Brownsville, Minnesota. She later edited and published the Busy West at St. Paul and at Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the American Sketch Book in La Cross.

The American Sketch Book originally called itself "an historical and home monthly," although it generally appeared only six times a year. The magazine, a hefty collection of poetry, stories, plays, engravings, reminiscences, and county histories as well as recipes and farm hints, was largely written by Mrs. Swisher and a small number of contributing writers. The last issue blamed printing delays for its erratic appearance and announced the advent of the Sketch Book Publishing House, but the Sketch Book never became a commercial success.

In 1878 she married  John M. Swisher, a wealthy veteran of the battle of San Jacinto. In 1880 Mrs. Swisher began another venture, the Thermo Water Cure or Hot Air Bath and Hygienic Institute, a health spa designed to relieve rheumatism, neuralgia, paralysis, and other disorders.

Bella Swisher's "American Sketch Book" (Photo: Heritage Auctions)
In 1881 she dropped the Sketch Book's subscription price from three dollars to a dollar a year and announced that she was available for a lecture tour. In 1883 the American Sketch Book ceased publication.

Bella Swisher wrote two novels, Struggling Up to the Light: The Story of a Woman's Life (1876, published under the name Bella French), and Rocks and Shoals in the River of Life (1889). The protagonist of Struggling Up to the Light, Martha Bright, overcomes a childhood of abuse and neglect, marries a man hostile to her talents and aspirations, and conquers the stigma of divorce to become a successful poet who writes particularly about the status of women.

Swisher also wrote two volumes of poetry, Florecita (1889) and The Sin of Edith Dean (1890). Her "History of Austin, Travis County, Texas," which originally appeared in the American Sketch Book, was issued as a reprint in 1880.

After the Sketch Book ceased publication, she moved to Sausalito, California, where she died on September 28, 1893.

Sources: Texas State Historical Society, Find a Grave, Wikipedia,  Austin Weekly Statesman, Heritage Auctions

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Jimmie Stanislaus (1910-1993): "The Singing Fireman"

Jimmie Stanislaus (Photo left: Stanford University archives)
PLOT 16

Jimmie Stanislaus had four careers in life, starting as a lightweight boxer from 1926-1934. He had 86 fights in his boxing career, losing only a handful of matches. After he retired from boxing, he opened a shoeshine stand while making extra cash on the side as an attendant for Yellow Cab.

In 1943, he joined the Oakland Fire Department at Engine 31 at High & Porter Streets. He retired and in 1975, but not after having created a sensation singing with Turk Murphy's band in 1972. Even before his retirement as a fireman, he was traveling with Turk Murphy and performing in international clubs and aboard cruise ships. One of his popular songs, "Lock Goon Strut," would be considered culturally inappropriate today, as it referred to a Chinese restaurant at 8th & Webster Streets and the term "goon" was used to denote low intelligence, particularly in regards to Asians.


That led to a whole new career as a singer, with his voice often drawing comparisons to the great Louie Armstrong. He caught Turk Murphy's attention singing "Yama Yama Man" at the Earthquake McGoon jazz club in San Francisco, run by the famous trombonist and bandleader who played traditional and Dixieland jazz. He was quickly dubbed "The Singing Fireman."

Jimmie Stanislaus (Photo right: Stanford University archives)
"Yama Yama Man" was a bogeyman character named to rhyme with pajama, a reference to the costume. In 1918, cartoonist Max Fleischer created Koko the Clown, who wears a similar costume, and a popular children's novel called Yama Yama Land was also written. Stanislaus often dressed in a loose fitting clown costume when he performed the song [photo above]. 

He also recorded with Turk Murphy and appears on his Live at Inverness and Turk Murphy Jazz Band albums performing some of his biggest hits, including Yama Yama Man, Back O Town Blues, and You Rascal You (I'll be Glad When You're Dead).

Elizabeth Flood (1828-1867): Opened first private school for black children

Elizabeth Thorn Scott Flood (1828-1867) was born a free woman in 1828 and educated in Massachusetts. When her son by her late first husband, Joseph Scott, was not allowed into a school in Sacramento, she opened a private school for black children in 1854. 

Elizabeth and Isaac Flood (born into slavery in South Carolina) married in 1855 and moved to Brooklyn (now part of Oakland), where she started another school in their home on East 15th. Elizabeth and Isaac went on to help found the First African Methodist Episcopal church, which eventually took over the school. 

Their son, George Francis Flood was born in 1856, and was said to be the first black baby born in Alameda County. Their daughter, Lydia Flood was born in 1862, and became the first black student to attend John Swett School in Oakland in 1872. Lydia went on to become active in the movement for women's voting rights. 

In 1871, Isaac petitioned the Oakland School Board to accept minority children, based on the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In 1872, Brooklyn admitted minorities into its schools, and shortly after the Oakland School Board voted to accept them as well. Integrated schools didn't become the law in California until 1880. 

Elizabeth died at the age of 39. Elizabeth and Isaac are buried at Mountain View Cemetery. The plot is unmarked, but a cemetery docent discovered it when she noticed the name Isaac Flood on an old plot map of the cemetery and did some investigation.

[Reprinted from Oakland Wiki]

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Horace Wilds (1867 or 1868 -1902): Black baseball pioneer paralyzed from line drive to head

Obituary of Horace Wilds
Tennessee native Horace Maynard Wilds (1867 or 1868-1902) was a well-known African-American baseball player, who played catcher for the all-black Tribune Nine and other teams.

Described by the Oakland Tribune as the "colored beauty," he played with white players on amateur teams before spending five years with the Pacific Baseball League, a rival to the popular California League. After the Pacific Baseball League folded, he joined all-black teams, which received little to no coverage in the local press.

As with other black baseball players of the time, no major league team would add him to their roster because of his race.

In 1892, he married Joanna Dickson of San Francisco. His wife and two children lived with his family at 1008 Tenth Avenue, which had previously been the Brooklyn Colored School.

Wilds died in 1902 due to the lingering effects of being hit in the head with a baseball injury that occurred six years previously. Although he didn't feel like the injury was serious at first, he had ruptured his optic nerve and suffered from progressive paralysis. He was blind and nearly paralyzed at the time of his death.

His funeral was attended by several prominent elected officials, including the City Manager, Superintendent of Schools and Chief of Police. He was the eldest son of John A. Wilds, a popular janitor at City Hall.

Sources: The Golden Game: The Story of California Baseball by Kevin Nelson, Oakland Tribune, Ancestry.com, San Francisco Call, Morning Call


Royal Towns (1899-1990): Helped integrate Oakland Fire Department

Royal Towns as a child and as a member of the Oakland Fire Department
Plot 54, Grave 1915

Towns was born in Oakland in 1899, and when denied union membership in his factory job because of his race, went to work as a railroad porter. 

In 1919 the city of Oakland began seeking and testing African Americans applicants to serve as firefighters for a segregated unit of the Oakland Fire Department. In 1925, the first all-African American firehouse 22 Engine opened in West Oakland at 3230 Magnolia Street. Towns joined the Oakland Fire Department in 1927 and was assigned to Engine Company No. 22. He was the city's eleventh black firefighter.

After data that he compiled showed that African-Americans were being promoted in other cities and not Oakland, Towns became the first to be promoted with the Oakland Fire Department. He eventually became a chief's operator and eventually retired as a lieutenant in 1962.

He helped recruit African American firefighters and conducted classes to help them study for the fire-fighting exam. His recruitment efforts resulted in 25 African American fire fighters being hired.

After his retirement, he became interested in his family genealogy and black history. He traced his roots on his paternal side to his grandfather's departure from Jamaica just two years after slavery was banned in the West Indies. He traced his maternal roots back to Charles Humphrey Scott in 1822, a Kentucky slave who bought his freedom and moved to New Orleans. 

He was interviewed by the Oakland Tribune about his family history and also co-convened a group of "West Oakland pals" who got together annually to reminisce.

Sources: Find a Grave, Oakland Library, Oakland Wiki, Oakland Tribune (Feb 6, 1977)

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Albert "Shrimp" Burns (1898-1921): Member of Motorcycle Hall of Fame

Shrimp Burns (photo AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame)
PLOT 51

Albert "Shrimp" Burns was one of the top dirt and board track racers of the 1910s and early '20s. He was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame in Pickerington, Ohio in 1998.

The diminutive Burns rode for both the Harley-Davidson and Indian factory teams during his career. He was the youngest champion of his era, winning his first titles at the tender age of 15.

Known for his tenacity, Burns was always a crowd favorite. Fellow competitor Wells Bennett noted that Burns took the turns with his tongue hanging off to the side of his mouth as if to give him extra balance. He was a gritty and determined rider who often rode injured.

At times Burns also wore his emotions on his sleeve. At one of his early races, several competitors protested allowing the speedy 15-year-old Burns to race, because of his age. When he was told his entry was rejected, Burns went out and sat on the outside rail of the race track and taunted his fellow racers by making faces at them as they rode by. Burns was promptly ejected from the facility.


Shrimp Burns (photo AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame)
Burns was born in Oakdale, California, on August 12, 1898. His family moved to Oakland when Albert was a toddler and that is where Burns grew up and went to school. As a youngster, Burns' favorite place to hang out was a local Pope motorcycle dealership. At first, the managers of the shop chased Burns away for meddling with the bikes parked in front of the shop, but later they relented and hired the 12-year-old as a shop helper.

One day when the owner was out to lunch, the temptation was too great for Burns and he sneaked out on a Pope lightweight and rode around the block. Before long Burns was allowed to run messages for the shop and occasionally was even allowed to borrow a machine for Sunday afternoon rides.

On May 4, 1913, Burns entered his first professional motorcycle race in Sacramento and finished an impressive fourth. That summer, Burns continued to hone his racing skills on the tracks of Northern California. Later that summer, Burns rode against the stars of the day such as Bob Perry, Ray Creviston, Otto Walker and Carl Goudy in a championship race in Sacramento. Burns took fourth in the 10-mile feature and finished second in another race. The established stars didn't like being upstaged by a 15-year-old kid who looked even younger and rode inferior equipment. Their protests kept Burns out of several big race meets that season. He was allowed to race against the same group of riders late that season in San Jose and he shocked the fans by earning his first victory. 



Shrimp Burns (photo AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame)
For the next several seasons, Burns continued to race in his home state and steadily earned a following of loyal fans. One reason the fans loved Burns so much was because of his toughness. In a Marysville, California race, Burns suffered a hard tumble. Groggy from the accident, he hobbled to the pits and put his machine back together in time for the next race. Riding in agonizing pain, Burns went on to win the five-mile final to the roar of the crowd. His friends insisted that Burns be checked by a doctor after the race and it was discovered that he had ridden with a fractured collarbone and broken shoulder.

World War I brought a temporary stop to Burns' racing career. Early in 1919, Burns came home to win one of the first major West Coast races after the war in Fresno, California. In June of that year, Harley-Davidson signed the 20-year-old rider to his first factory contract.

With Harley-Davidson, Burns was able to show his talent outside of his native California. On July 4, 1919, Burns made his first appearance on the East Coast, riding a national meet in Baltimore. Burns, who rode in an unusual style by hugging the inside rail around the circuit, won a five-mile solo race as well as a sidecar event. The Baltimore performance set him on the road to gaining a reputation as one of the country's best racers. Burns spent much of the summer of 1919 on a winning streak in Midwest races and even gave the legendary Gene Walker a serious challenge in Atlanta, something no rider had been able to do against the South's almost unbeatable rider.

In the final major race of the 1919 season, Burns earned the 100-mile national championship by edging out Ralph Hepburn by mere inches on the board track at Sheepshead Bay, New York.

Burns shocked the motorcycling community by signing with the Indian factory for the 1920 season. In those days the rivalry between Harley-Davidson and Indian was so intense that it was rare for a rider to make the switch from one factory team to the other. Burns felt he was playing second fiddle to the more established stars of the Harley team and was promised the best available equipment by Indian.

It didn't take long for Burns to prove his worth to Indian. He took home the very first national title of the 1920 season, winning the 25-mile national at Ascot Park in Los Angeles. According to magazine reports of the day many of the estimated 15,000 spectators on hand flooded the track and carried Burns on their shoulders, cheering until they were hoarse. Burns was indeed one of the most popular riders of his day. 


Grave marker of Shrimp Burns
Only a series of mechanical failures kept Burns from winning the big national races at Dodge City, Kansas, and Marion, Indiana, in 1920. Burns led major portions of both races before being forced to drop out at Dodge City with stripped cam gear and with a broken oil line at Marion. Burns came back to win the five-mile solo championship race in Denver in September of that year.

Burns opened the 1921 season with a spectacular win on the new 1.25-mile board track in Beverly Hills, California. After having won the first race of the day, Burns crashed heavily in the next event, resulting in his hands and arms being a bloody mass of large splinters. The day's racing proceeded with Burns apparently out with his injuries. Before the final event of the day the large crowd came to its feet when it was announced that Burns would attempt to race. He borrowed a machine and rode with bandages covering him from his fingertips to shoulders. Early in the race it appeared that Burns was content to simply ride mid-pack in the draft of the other riders. On the last lap Burns made his move and went high on the final turn and sped down the steep banking to win the race in one of the sport's most dauntless performances. Later, a cartoon strip in a motorcycle magazine showed a bandaged from head-to-toe Burns racing in front of admiring fans shouting his praises.

On August 14, 1921, Burns tragically lost his life in a racing accident in Toledo, Ohio. Coming out of a turn, Burns ran into the back of Ray Weishaar's bike. The impact sent Burns into the railing and he later died of massive head injuries. Sadly, Burns' fiancée, Genevieve Moritz, had come to Toledo to deliver a birthday gift and stayed to watch the race and witnessed the fatal accident. Motorcycling deeply mourned the loss of Burns. Numerous tributes were written about him for weeks after the accident.

[Bio from AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame]

Thursday, January 17, 2019

John Charles Adams Jr (1905-1931).: Grandson of Oakland's founder; Died in mystery fall

Adams Family mausoleum at Mountain View Cemetery
John Charles Adams, Jr. was the grandson of Edson Adams, considered one of the first white settlers in Oakland. His father was a well-known and prominent businessman and property owner along the Oakland waterfront. After his father's death, his mother Ernestine married San Francisco Supervisor and three-time mayoral candidate Adolf Uhl.

John Charles Adams, Jr. died mysteriously on the night of August 2, 1936, when his near lifeless body was found at the bottom of a hillside at a friends house in Corte Madera. He was declared dead at 2:15 AM after being transported to Ross General Hospital.


Witnesses said there was plenty of alcohol consumed at a party that evening. Newspaper reports claim that witnesses and Adam's wife Marion gave different accounts of how the evening progressed. Adams was found with two black eyes, which initially led investigators to believe that he had been involved in a confrontation before plunging to his death. However, the death was ruled an accident with the sheriff claiming that he fell while trying to climb down a drain pipe.

The autopsy revealed that all the ribs on his left side had been fractured, both lungs punctured and his backbone broken.

Sources: Marin Coroner's report, Oakland Tribune, Find a Grave, Ancestry.com