Local History – December 2009

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” December 2009.

Stories Of Suffrage
by Lauren Coodley

History is two things: it is the past, and it
is what happens in the minds of historians
who bring to the documents their own
interests and concerns, as well as the
interests, concerns, and historical
understandings of their eras… Carol Kammen

Those of us able to publish about the histories of our regions are few and fortunate. In writing, we try to honor the many whose names might be forgotten. Sharon McGriff-Payne has just published a revelatory history of African Americans in the North Bay between l845 and l925. Her survey of property records and census figures show that 200 to 300 African-Americans lived in Napa County between the 1860s and the 1890s.

Napa’s first Black church, founded in l867, was one of the first in California. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was on Washington Street between First and Clay. In addition to providing a place of worship, it offered educational opportunities for the children of its members. That same year, the play Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based on abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, opened in Vallejo, and Napans might have traveled through the countryside in their horses and buggies to attend the performance. McGriff-Payne found a review stating it was “well-played considering the short time in preparation and bad weather.”

Three years later, the l5th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. The Amendment prohibiting each state in the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” was ratified on February 3, 1870. Black churches in the Napa and Vallejo areas, along with those around the country, celebrated the ratification of the amendment which expanded voting rights to newly emancipated men.

The Vallejo Evening Chronicle announced: “The colored citizens of Napa will jubilee on Monday next.”  On April ll, l870, Napa’s Black residents gathered for a full day of activities, including a speech given by Rev. William R. Hillary, dancing, and a hundred gun salute, all at Napa Hall.

Frederick Sparrow was undoubtedly one of those attending the celebration. Sparrow, who owned a barbershop at 52 Main Street in Napa, was educated in one of the first schools for Black children established in the l850’s, in Sacramento. Because of his standing in the community, Sparrow was selected by his peers as one of those chosen to vote.  McGriff-Payne writes: In April l870, Frederick A. Sparrow strode the short distance from his home to the Napa County Courthouse where he registered to vote for the first time… Sparrow, who had long waited for this day, was ready.

Frederick Sparrow and his wife Alice had married in l865, and were the parents of three children. Unfortunately his youngest son died the year before his father was able to vote. The 1870 Census includes a “grandmother Nellie” among those in the Frederick Sparrow household. Frederick’s wife Alice died sometime before l877, when records show he re-married Jenny Hall. One fragment of evidence exists about Sparrow’s second wife: according to the March 31, 1877 Reporter, Jenny was enjoying the St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Napa when suddenly city Marshall Thomas Earl grabbed, arrested and jailed her. Mrs. Sparrow was brought to trial, but the presiding justice acquitted her of criminal charges after hearing the testimony. She won a $5,000 lawsuit against Earl.

By l880, the census lists only Nellie Sparrow, 84, and her twelve year old granddaughter as still living in the Sparrow household. What happened to Frederick Sparrow, to his mother, his daughter, or his second wife is yet to be documented. The ongoing struggle to gain voting rights for American women would surely affect the future of Frederick Sparrow’s female descendants.

Sixteen years later, in 1896, California men cast votes on whether to extend suffrage to women. The campaign for Women’s Suffrage sent Susan B. Anthony to Napa that year.  Anthony was born into a Quaker family, the first denomination to denounce slavery, and to actively work against it in the abolitionist movement. Women were not allowed to speak in public; thus for the female abolitionists, their struggle against slavery became a struggle for women’s rights as well.

Anthony was 76 years old when she came to Napa County, and the Napa Register reported that she spoke to enthusiastic crowds. Reporters also described the local suffrage conference that was held at the Opera House a month  later, where a Mrs. Mills stated that “the anti’s are in the minority in California; California has such excellent men; and the press in California favors equal suffrage.” Mrs. B. F. Taylor added: “We cannot claim that our Constitution is of the people, for the people and by the people when one half of them are disenfranchised.”

Despite their hopeful declarations, the Equal Suffrage ballot measure of 1896 failed by a large margin, primarily due to lobbying by alcoholic beverage associations, who feared that female voters would support Prohibition. In l906, Susan B. Anthony died, still unable to vote. We don’t know which of the Sparrow women might have been able to vote in l920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified only because a Tennessee suffragist telegraphed her legislator son from her hospital bed, urging him to change his vote to “yes.”  Thanks to Sharon McGriff-Payne’s research, we now also know that the Vallejo’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) established the Women’s Political Club on August l2, l920, six days before that ratification vote in Tennessee. Carol Kammen writes:

Most of what local history once was, stems from and documents a community’s elite… We consciously expand beyond this base, finding new ways to use the materials that are already in our collections and seeking additions to the archive of documents more representative of all the people of the past.

Vallejo museum curator Jim Kern is inviting the public to contribute photos, documents, and other artifacts to document African-American history between l850-l950. As our research and our collections grow, we will understand better the intersection of the l9th century struggles for equal voting rights for all Americans.

Works Cited:  Carol Kammen, On Doing Local History (Altimira Press), 2003.
Rebecca Yerger, “Suffragists Met in Opera House,” Napa Register, March 3, l996; “Napa Valley’s African-American pioneers,” Napa Register, March 01, 2009;
Sharon McGriff-Payne, John Grider’s Century: African Americans in Solano, Napa and Sonoma Counties from l845 to l925 by (iUniverse), 2009.
McGriff-Payne’s book is among those included in the author’s Napa Vallejo History class, History l53, in Spring 20l0.



One comment on “Local History – December 2009

  1. Patrice says:

    Napa’s first Black church, founded in 1876 was not the “African Methodist Episcopal Church” – it was the “African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church” – a completely different denomination which denomination was founded in 1796. The Napa church was one of three of “Zion” churches founded in California: “African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church” in Napa – First “African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church” in San Francisco and First “African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church” in San Jose.

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