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

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