Black History in Napa County, California

In light of everything going on, I decided to offer an excerpt of my chapter on Black history in Napa County, California, from my book Hidden History of Napa Valley, out 2019. I did extensive research for this chapter and it covers 1846-1940. This chapter is not a meditation on The Struggle (TM), but a celebration of Black culture, traditions, and survival.

In April 2020, my second book, Lost Restaurants of Napa Valley and their Recipes, was published. Like Hidden History, it also looks the history of marginalized communities in Napa County, but it focuses on food history.

If you can, please buy my books through an independent book store. And if you’re not Black and in need of some anti-racist resources, there are a ton available on twitter.

Part III

Struggle and Progress

“Why should we of this State be treated with so much injustice? Are we not as intelligent as any class of the community, and are we not taxed as well as others? Why this distinction? I think it is time we should be doing something for ourselves.”
—Edward Hatton



In 1850, California was inducted into the union as a free state, but racial equality was far from settled.  Anti-slavery legislation was inconsistently enforced, if at all.  No laws prevented slave owners from bringing their slaves to California on false promises of freedom, nor were there any limits as to how long a slave owner could sojourn in California with their slaves.  One of the most common ways to bring enslaved African Americans into California was through a bondage or indenture contract.  An agreement was made between slaveholder and enslaved person where the latter would agree to work for a set amount of time or to earn their purchase price.  When the terms of the contract were met, the slave was freed—or was supposed to be.

Nathaniel and Aaron Rice tested Napa County’s tolerance for slavery in 1860 when they went up against slaveholder William Rice.  William inherited Robert and Dilcey and their son and daughter-in-law Aaron and Charlotte and brought them from the North Carolina cotton plantation where they were born to Missouri.  In 1859 William and his family set out for California along with Robert and Dilcey, Aaron and Charlotte, and their two sons Nathaniel and Lewis.  Shortly after arriving in Napa, William freed Aaron, Charlotte, and Lewis, but not teenage Nathaniel.  What must it have felt like to be a child brought to an unfamiliar land then torn from your family by a man who did not care at all about your welfare?

Nearly all the slave cases brought to the California courts in the 1850s were instigated by free African Americans who pooled money together to pay for legal expenses, hired white lawyers to defend the enslaved, and submitted petitions for a writ of habeas corpus (court order requiring the accused to produce the imprisoned person so the court can determine if the imprisonment is valid).  Aaron did just that and tried to rescue Nathaniel.  William was arrested, but because state law barred all people of color from testifying in court, the case was thrown out.  Not only did William retain his contract over Nathaniel, but he also sued Aaron for perjury by claiming Aaron and Nathaniel had lied about not being coerced into a bondage contract.  Yet again Aaron was denied the right to testify and the justice of the peace saddled him with a $500 bail.  Prominent Black Napans Edward Hatton and John Sinclair paid Aaron’s bail. Nathaniel remained under William’s control for a while longer but was eventually freed.

Finally free, Aaron Rice and his family settled into life in Napa. Robert purchased a large farm near what is now Napa State Hospital, and the family ran it together for years.  He also frequently preached at Napa’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) church.  Sadly, Lewis died of tuberculosis in 1862; he was not yet twelve.  When African Americans won the right to vote, Robert, Aaron, and Nathaniel were among the first in the county to register to vote.  Nathaniel married twice, first to Rebecca who died of tuberculosis in 1875, then to Annie Elizabeth Dyer, Edward Hatton’s stepdaughter.  Robert passed away in 1875, followed by Dilcey a year later, and Charlotte two years after that.

William relocated to Walnut Creek two months after the 1860 court case where he died in 1885.  His widow, Louisa, somehow convinced an almost 80-year-old Aaron to move into her mansion as her live-in servant.  Aaron may have continued living in the house after Louisa died and her daughter Zarrissa Hill inherited it.  Aaron Rice died in 1905, but rather than interring him at Tulocay Cemetery with the rest of his family, he was buried at the Alhambra Cemetery in Martinez down the hill from William Rice.  Nathaniel moved in with the Canners, another family of formerly enslaved African Americans living in Napa, and died sometime in the early 1900s. Insert pic. 064

Besides than the Rices, there is little history on the first Black pioneering families in Napa.  Some will never have their stories told, like “Negro Billy” and “Negro Girl C,” two African Americans listed on the 1852 state census, but others we know a bit more about.  The earliest on record is Elizabeth “Lizzie” Brooks, who arrived in 1849 at sixty years old, and lived in town for another forty-five years.

Abraham Seawell and his sister Matilda were enslaved first in Tennessee and then in Missouri before arriving in Napa about 1857.  Once in California, Abraham married Judy, another newly freed African American, and eventually ran a 200-acre farm in Napa.  Both Abraham and Matilda were well-liked by Napans of all races, and were pillars of the Black community.

Hiram Grigsby was born into slavery in Tennessee about 1824 and arrived in California in his thirties.  Hiram married Anne Hurges, a widow from New York who worked as a cook, in 1861.  By the end of the Civil War he had 40 head of stock on 30 acres, and six years later acquired 133 acres just west of Yountville.  In 1873 he, like thousands of other former slaves, placed a newspaper notice requesting information on his wife, Patsey Stokes, and their children Margaret, Amos, and Hiram Jr.  He had not heard from them since they were all enslaved in Pulaski County, Missouri.  It is unknown if he ever reunited with his first family.

Paul Canner was born enslaved in Missouri.  Once freed, he used the money and livestock he was given to head west; he arrived in the valley in 1856.  Paul and his wife Julia lived on a ranch in Dry Creek where he hauled tanning bark and worked as a teamster for neighboring ranchers.  A few years later the Canners relocated to Napa city to ensure their children would get a good education.  Tragically, several of their children died from tuberculosis contracted during an outbreak in the 1890s.  Matthew died first in 1894, followed by Richard and Polly in 1897, and Polly Ann in 1902.

In 1862, Den Nottah, an African American man living in Napa, totaled 43 Black people in Napa city alone, comprised of “8 farmers, 2 blacksmiths, 2 carpenters, 3 barbers, 5 wood speculators and poultry dealers, 4 jobbers. There are 13 families; 9 of them own the houses they live in.”  Pioneering Black families, both free people and former slaves, were staking their claim on the valley.



As the conflict between conservatives and progressives finally came to a head in 1861 with the start of the Civil War, tensions spread out across the country.  Napa County was far from the fighting, but not exempt from hostilities.  The sharp divide between Republican abolitionists and Democratic slavery supporters played out in local newspapers.  The Napa Register was staunchly Republican, but Democrats had the The Pacific Echo, a secessionist rag pushing the racist notion that abolitionism was a cancer on society.

The Civil War ended in 1865, but the tide of white supremacy did not yet turn.  With the passing of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments in 1865 and 1868, slavery was abolished and African Americans were granted full citizenship.  Yet while African Americans jumped at the chance to participate in the political and legal processes long denied them, they were still excluded from many other rights white Americans enjoyed unencumbered.  Nevertheless, Black Californians worked tirelessly to improve their lives and those of their children.

Like all other Californians, they were required to pay school taxes, but state laws barred African Americans from enrolling in white schools.  Any public school that tried to integrate risked losing state funding.  A separate school could be set up if there were at least ten Black children in the school district, but it could not receive public funds.  So African Americans took matters into their own hands and opened colored schools throughout the state. Unfortunately, while colored schools were separate, they were hardly equal.

Napa’s colored school opened in the fall of 1867.  Within two years there were seventeen Black school age children in Napa County, ten of whom were attending the segregated school; that number remained fairly consistent during the school’s brief but successful existence.  Under the tutelage of a local white woman, four made honor roll in 1875: Lizzie and Lilla Bowser, Edward Hatton Jr., and Adeline West.

In 1874, the California State Supreme Court heard the case Ward v. Flood, wherein a Black girl named Mary Frances Ward was refused enrollment at the all-white Broadway Grammar School in San Francisco.  The case was funded in part by African American families across the state.  The court sided against Ward, saying her Fourteenth Amendment rights had not been violated because she had access to a colored school, regardless of the quality of its facilities or distance from home.  It was, in a way, a precursor to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 which established the legal justification for “separate but equal.”  The ruling further stipulated that in school districts with no colored schools and fewer than ten Black children, white schools were required to integrate.

S. Boon, an African American man from in Oakville, criticized the decision as one made by “a lot of ten year old boys.” He remarked that “if we must have separate schools for our children, I suppose it is all right; we will make some of our prejudiced citizens help pay taxes to educate them.” Four years later, the financial strain of maintaining segregated schools prompted the Napa school district to close the colored school.  Thirty or so school age Black children integrated into the public schools that fall.

At the same time they sought integrated education, African Americans pushed for their own churches.  While this may sound contradictory, there are deeper social contextual reasons at play.  Integrated schools generally provide better education for children of color by granting them access to more resources, higher quality teachers, and proper facilities.  Black churches, on the other hand, offer racial unity, protection, stability, financial assistance, and guidance in the face of anti-Black laws and attitudes.  The church was, and continues to be, the center of life for many African Americans. Churches were one of the first Black-run organizations to develop in Northern California.

At first, Black Methodists in Napa attended alongside white congregants, but in 1867 they collected funds to establish their own AMEZ church.  The Napa Register offered its support by encouraging donations.  Soon enough, African American churchgoers purchased the Methodist Episcopal Church’s old wooden structure and moved it to a site near the northwest corner of Randolph and Oak Streets in Napa.  A year later it also became the home of the colored school.

Despite the separation, relations between the two congregations remained friendly.  When AMEZ Bishop J. J. Clinton was invited to speak to the Napa white Methodist Episcopal Church in 1868, he also preached at the colored church.  His sermons attracted such attendance that many Napans went to both services; the white church was full of Black congregants for the morning service, and the tiny AMEZ church was packed with white attendees in the evening.  At the time it was the largest congregation ever assembled in Napa for a Black reverend.

Like the school, Napa’s AMEZ church was short lived.  It is unclear when the church was abandoned, but likely by the early 1880s.  A second AMEZ church was founded in 1893, this time somewhere on Vallejo Street just north of downtown.  How long the new church lasted is unknown, but at least until the late 1890s.  Why the two churches collapsed is a mystery, but the rapidly dwindling Black population did not help matters. Insert pic. 018

On March 30, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, granting all citizens the right to vote.  All across the nation African Americans celebrated, including Napa.  A large group led by Frederick Sparrow and Joseph S. Hatton met at Hartson’s Hall.  The celebrations included prayer and singing, a reading of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, and a 100-gun salute.  Black reverend and activist William H. Hillery from San Francisco gave a fiery, funny speech, followed by a dance at Quinn and Williams Hall that went on until midnight.  A few months prior, Hatton had recorded thirty-seven eligible Black voters, himself included—all were men, as women would not be able to vote until 1920.  At only 27-years-old, Sparrow became the first African American man to register to vote in Napa County.



As early as 1865 Black farmers were concerned about the lack of newcomers.  They wanted to hire their own people, but could not entice them to leave the limited employment opportunities in the big cities for the even more limited options of country life.  For African Americans, the economic glass ceiling in Napa County was low.  There were no Black-owned grocery stores, pharmacies, or saloons, and the Black community was too small and spread out to have their own neighborhoods.  Many of those born to Black Napans who arrived in the 1850s-1870s moved away or died at a young age, most before marriage or childbearing.

The remainder of the nineteenth century was a period of rapid decline for Napa’s African American community.  By the dawn of the twentieth century, Napa County’s Black population had dwindled to pre-Civil War rates.  As white Californians enjoyed the fruits of new technologies and better living conditions, African American development stalled as they were pushed out of respectable and well-paid jobs and trapped in service and menial labor.  Despite Napa’s reputation for abundance, opportunities for African Americans were just as finite here as everywhere else.  There was plenty of room for low-level lateral movement, but vertical movement was virtually impossible.

Without a community with its own entertainment, recreation, or services, it became increasingly difficult to both attract new African American residents and retain those already there.  The constant bombardment of Jim Crow attitudes and systemic racism was difficult enough for African Americans who had the support of their own communities to fall back on, but without a community to call their own, Black growth in far flung regions like Napa County was becoming untenable.  The longer those who were educated and politically active remained in the valley, the more frustrating and restrictive it must have felt.

The Roaring Twenties marked a decade where half the country seemed determined to hold on to the “good old days” while the other half sacrificed blood, sweat, and tears for social reform. For the first time in America’s history more than half the population lived in urban areas rather than rural.  Suddenly people of all races, religions, and economic stations were in direct contact with one another.  Conservatives used increasingly adversarial attempts to curb the calls for progressivism by activists and social reformers through a bloody counterrevolution of suppression and prejudice.  Fears of communism, socialism, fascism, and anarchy had everyone on edge, and the oversaturation of the job market stoked the flames of nativism.  Between the devastating Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927, severely limited economic and educational opportunities, and the rising tide of violent racism, nearly two million African Americans fled the South for the North and West from 1915-1930. A few made it to Napa.

The first iteration of the KKK took formed in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War, and terrorized and killed African Americans, carpetbaggers (Northerners who tried to profit in the South after the war), and white Republicans.  The Enforcement Acts passed by the federal government in the early 1870s put an end to the Klan, but by then Southern Democrats found ways to reinstitute white supremacy through political and social maneuvering.  When D. W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation premiered in 1915, it breathed new life into the dormant hate group.  The reborn KKK worked to change their image from violent racists to defenders of “traditional values.”  It worked.  By the late 1920s, the Klan had two to five million members throughout the country, including the governors of Texas and Oregon, and the mayor of Denver.

At the same time Wesley Jennings was living an unobtrusive life as a productive, tax-paying citizen, the Klan was picking up steam in the valley.  Napa County had a difficult relationship with the “Invisible Empire” during its heyday.  Many Napans denounced the KKK, especially the brutal activities of the Southern branches, yet plenty found the organization’s objectives in alignment with their own.  No matter where they stood on the issue, most white Napans could not recognize their own prejudiced and privileged attitudes.

Those who joined the North Bay chapters of the Klan did not fit the stereotype of bloodthirsty racists assaulting Black families.  They were politicians, community leaders, government employees, and everyday people. They were the neighbors, colleagues, and fellow congregants of Black Napans.  These Klansmen and women held barbeques at public parks and weekly meetings in local halls.  Game warden W. J. Moore was so proud of his membership that upon his death in 1924 he was buried in full regalia; managed by the Napa Chapter, his was the first Klan-sponsored funeral in the valley.  Henry Jennings once worked as a chef at a barbeque for a group of sportsmen in 1912 in St. Helena.  The host for the event?  Moore.

In all practicality, there was little difference between Klansmen and other racists except that the former felt the need to publicly organize.  During a contentious Napa city council election in 1926, two Klansmen, Eugene Potterton and Charles Brisbin, had a falling out and aired their grievances in the newspapers.  Brisbin declared he was leaving the Napa chapter because he didn’t think they should get involved in politics.  He also wanted everyone to know he wasn’t prejudiced and that Klan members could “vote for who he pleases whether he is a Klan, a Catholic, a nigger or anything.”

The Klan held three major events in Napa County in the 1920s.  The first took place on October 20, 1923, in a field near Napa State Hospital.  For two hours, several hundred Klansmen and women from across the Bay Area paraded about and sang hymns.  Several hundred to several thousand spectators watched the rally from a nearby hillock as the Klan lit a 20-foot tall cross on fire.  At least two hundred people from Napa and Vallejo were initiated that night, including 25 Navy seamen from Mare Island.  Those sailors likely interacted with some of the Black Napans who also worked at the shipyard, men like Jackson Bell, a rigger, Isaac Barnes, a roadworker, and brothers Chester and Frank Patterson, general laborers.

On August 2, 1924, another rally was held, this one near St. Helena in a field owned by H. J. Lewelling.  This time more than ten thousand onlookers goggled at the proceedings.  The Napa chapter even rented a three-car electric train for the journey to celebrate the initiation of 60 new members.  Dr. James Rush Bronson, an attorney and KKK lecturer, gave a keynote speech that where he insisted that Jewish people were not banned from membership in the Klan, but banned themselves by not being Protestant Christian, a meaningless distinction in practice.  He took umbrage against accusations that the KKK was against African Americans, Catholics, and Jewish people, and insisted, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that “the Klan is the best friend the colored man has in America today.”

In December of that year, the final large scale event was held.  Two hundred or so members of the Napa chapter donated a bible to the Calistoga Public Library through the Calistoga Civic Club.  They held a banquet then paraded down Lincoln Avenue. Although this event attracted far fewer spectators, speculation was that it had less to do with any general disinterest in the KKK than because they did not properly advertise it.  When the Napa chapter officially shut down is unknown, but it was active into the early 1930s.  What Black Napans thought of all this local Klan activity was not recorded, but they must have been disappointed and anxious.

5 thoughts on “Black History in Napa County, California

  1. Thank you for this information. I am the Great Great granddaughter of Joseph Hatton and a Grand & Great Grandmother who is very grateful and excited to share this with my family. Marilyn Hays


    1. OMG! I have been searching for descendants of the Hattons for ages! Would you be willing to email me? I’d love to chat with you and your relatives for a future book on Black Napans.


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