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Guest Commentary: Petaluma’s black history marked by segregation

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On the afternoon of May 10, 1871, Constable Frank Adel was scouring the streets of Petaluma for registered voters to call to jury duty. Passing by the barbershop of George W. Miller, he noticed Miller taking a break. On his voter rolls, Adel noticed that Miller was one of the 15 local African American men who, thanks to ratification of the 15th Amendment the year before, had registered to vote. Deciding to put the new amendment to the test, Adel summoned Miller to jury duty.

Upon entering the courtroom, Miller was greeted by gasps from fellow jurors. “N— in the pit,” one of them shouted, “put him out!” After a few preliminary questions from the deputy district attorney, Miller was issued a peremptory challenge and sent back to his barbershop.

For those hoping the 15th Amendment would fully enfranchise African Americans, Miller’s experience was an early wake-up call, one that continues to resonate to this day, as a number of states prepare for the upcoming 2020 election by purging their voter rolls in order to whittle down members of groups like African Americans.

Such purges have become common since 2013, when the Supreme Court rolled back many of the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 meant to protect African Americans from the sort of deterrents George Miller faced on his day in court.

In selecting Miller for his jury test, Constable Adel undoubtedly knew he was choosing one of the leaders of Petaluma’s small black community. A native of New Jersey, Miller moved to town with his wife and two infant children in 1855, opening up the Humboldt Shaving & Hair Dressing Saloon on Main Street for a white clientele. The shop thrived, but Miller was interested in more than just providing a close shave and a good haircut.

In the fall of 1855, he set off for Sacramento as Sonoma County’s sole representative to the first state Convention of Colored Citizens. Although California had entered the Union as a free, non-slave state, California’s early legislature enacted a number of restrictions against people of color, including the rights to vote and to attend publicly-funded schools.

With mixed success, members of the California Colored Convention — a who’s who of prominent African Americans — lobbied elected officials over the years to rescind the restrictions.

The California legislature voted against ratifying the 14th Amendment, which granted African Americans citizenship, and also against the 15th Amendment, which granted them voting rights. These rights were not extended in California until the two amendments were ratified nationwide, the 14th in 1868 and the 15th in 1870. (California, in fact, didn’t ratify either amendment until the civil rights era of the 1960s).

As public schools were prohibited from admitting “Negroes and Mongolians” under the threat of losing their funding, blacks were forced to establish their own schools, which is what George Miller did in January, 1864, pooling resources with other blacks living in Petaluma to rent out a small house on Washington Street, furnish it with seats and desks, and hire a young black teacher from San Francisco named Mrs. Rachel Coursey.

Two months after Miller’s school opened, California’s Supreme Court ruled that public school districts were required to provide “separate but equal” schools for blacks. After Miller secured funding from Rev. Edward S. Lippitt, Petaluma’s Superintendent of Public Schools, Petaluma joined six other cities — San Francisco, Sacramento, Marysville, San Jose and Stockton — in having a publicly-funded “colored school.”

The “colored schools” provided limited and inferior education by design. Members of the Colored Convention succeeded by 1875 in convincing five of the cities to integrate their white schools. The lone holdout was Petaluma, which refused school integration until the state legislature finally mandated it in 1880. Sadly, George Miller did not live to see that day, having died unexpectedly in 1873.

Before his death, Miller celebrated the nation’s ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 by leading the Colfax Guard, a local black militia he had formed, in a public 30-gun salute — one gun for each state ratifying the amendment — followed by an address from Rev. Edward S. Lippitt.

Years later, Lippitt retracted his support of the 15th Amendment, contending that African Americans shouldn’t have been granted the vote until they had been properly educated to execute it, a process he believed would take generations.

Such racist attitudes remind us why, on the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment’s ratification Feb. 3, the fight George Miller and other Petaluma blacks waged for full enfranchisement continues, generations later.

(Historian John Sheehy is author of On a River Winding Home: Stories and Visions of the Petaluma River Watershed.)

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