Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine History Article February 2006.
By Lauren Coodley
Who decides what is of historical importance? History has been expanded in the last several decades to include the stories of “real people.” The recent Faces of America photo contest (sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, 2000-2002) gave us an opportunity to learn from the family histories of those who were working or studying at Napa’s community college.
Our first photo shows us how California was a destination of adventure and opportunity for some European immigrants: Preschool teacher Maggie Cole described her grandmother, Ruth Berg Longhurst, seen in this photo taken in Oakland around l895, as “the daughter of German Jewish parents, who came to the U.S. in the l870’s. As a single independent woman, my grandmother homesteaded near Susanville, wrote a column of her adventures for the Oakland paper, and became friends with Mark Twain.”
Our second photo shows us how whaling and earthquakes helped to shape one family’s destiny. Electrician Joseph Alexander contributed this image of his family posing at the Palace of Fine Arts, site of the Pan-Pacific Exposition in l9l5. On the right is his grandfather Joseph Alexander (for whom he was named), an electrician whose parents immigrated to Monterey when it was still a site for whaling. Joseph moved to San Francisco from Monterey to help rebuild the City after the l906 earthquake. Alexander wrote that a few years after this photo was taken, “Joseph moved his family to a southern San Joaquin Valley ranch where one of his sons, his grandsons, and his great-grandsons continue in the electrical business.”
Mail room clerk Mary Ann Watson described her father, Fred Behrens, at his store The Hippodrome Sweet Shop, Napa l921: “a favorite place to visit over ice cream. My father was later a spray painter at Mare Island.” Mare Island Naval Shipyard was a major source of employment for Filipinos, Euro-Americans, and eventually African-Americans as well. But in the Thirties, life expectancy was 58 for men and 62 for women, the average salary was $1368 per year, unemployment was 25%, milk cost l4 cents a quart and bread, 9 cents a loaf. Student Christina Granero wrote:
”My maternal grandmother, Edith Cecilia Garrigan Gentry, holding the day’s bounty. This was taken in a Pacific Gas and Electric camp, where my grandparents and family lived during the Depression and my grandfather worked as an electrician on the Oroville Dam. My grandmother had two small children and a husband to feed, note the hunting license stuck in her hat.”
The war years in California were shocking and traumatic for Japanese citizens who were forcibly relocated to bleak camps, yet at the very same time, women of other races found new pride and opportunity as “Rosie the Riveters.” More than a million African Americans left the South during the War, and 85% of the migrants came to California for the employment opportunities. For African-American women, as well as those of other ethnicities, well paid blue collar work brought decent pay and a sense of companionship with fellow workers, which they hoped to maintain when the war ended. Student Ashlee Gary wrote:
“This is my grandmother, Ethel Mae Gary, Magnolia Street, Oakland, l945…She and my grandfather moved to California where they bought a house and raised their six children, where she still lives and still wears that same look of honesty and wisdom. She is our family treasure and holds us together.”
Student Sara Courtney described another part of the World War II story:
My grandfather, Howard Baskin, after a hard day’s work outside government housing, Richmond, l943. Housing was provided to shipyard employees during World War II. Having volunteered for the Navy Seabees, he began work as a shipfitter. When they realized he could draw blueprints, he was exempted from the draft and promoted.
And as suburbs grew, freeways were built to connect them, and a new word called smog was invented. In the Fifties, service station attendants wore uniforms and checked your oil, and driver training was an important rite of passage in high school. Student Kira Bulger wrote: “At left, Donald Hevernor, my grandfather, taught business, accounting, and drivers training for the San Leandro School District. This photo taken in l955, shows him receiving their first dual control instructional vehicle built by Chevrolet. As President of the CTA [local teachers union], he worked with March Fong Eu in the development of driver’s education programs for the state.”This family photo helps us realize that behind -the -wheel drivers training had a history. Widespread deaths from traffic accidents created a need that public officials worked to meet. Now that free driver training has been removed from most public high schools, we realize that originally it was provided for the public good.
In the Fifties, Cesar Chavez began registering Latino voters in San Jose, and when the Rumford Act began to address the housing discrimination suffered by African-Americans. In l948, a coalition of progressive white and African American voters campaigned for pharmacist William Byron Rumford, who was running for state assembly in a district that included much of Berkeley and part of Oakland. Rumford won the election, becoming the first African American from Northern California to serve in the legislature. He eventually authored two of the state’s most important civil rights laws—the Fair Employment Practices Act of l959 and the Rumford Fair Housing Act of l963.
Student Koy Lynn Hardy wrote:
“Karese Young, my mother, Washington Elementary School, Berkeley 1964. This second grade photo of my mother shows one of many darling children experiencing the benefits of the civil rights movement. Karese lived across the street from the Rumford family of the famed Rumford Act that banned racial discrimination in housing in l964.”
And student Rosa Tijero concluded:
“Jose Garcia, my father, alien labor ID card, taken l2/7/55, prior to coming to California to work in the fields of Salinas, where he toiled for 25 years, providing for his family in Mexico. In l969, he marched with Cesar Chavez. He retired from the fields in l985 and lives with his daughter (me) in Napa.”
People of every place in time deserve a history… What they thought; how they felt; what they got angry, fought, and cursed about; what they prayed for; what drove them insane; and finally, how they died and were buried.
– Joseph Amato, Rethinking Home
These photos will be included in a textbook, California: a Multicultural Documentary History (Prentice-Hall, 2006), written by Lauren Coodley. Thanks to Jayme and Tammy Rogers for contacting the contributors to the photo contest and helping to organize the textbook.