Snapshot of a Lost Era: Post Civil War Benicia

Vintage portrait of two young African American women, between 1900 and 1920
Vintage portrait of two young African American women, between 1900 and 1920. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Portrait Collection

In light of the recent nationwide civil unrest, let us take a look back in the history of Benicia and the surrounding area, and note that race relations have played an important and often controversial role in our city’s growth.  On January 1, 1863 the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in our nation, and slowly, in fits and starts, a transformation transpired. Up until that time some business owners used slaves in the mines, and took slaves to the gold fields. In 1863 an anti-slavery group called the California Volunteers, based in Benicia Barracks, began a campaign to free the slaves.  Robert Semple, the founder of Benicia was an avowed Abolitionist and supported the efforts to end slavery.  And even with these efforts, Abolitionists and freed slaves continued to work on the liberation of all slaves until 1869.   

 

After the end of the Civil War, the West beckoned to former slaves such as Catharine Jackson, Elizabeth Bundy and Mary Lane who purchased homes in Benicia and nearby communities.  These citizens and countless others had decided to abandon the constraints of the South and seek success in the West. But the long road to desegregation and racial equality was bumpy, and long held attitudes did not change overnight.  Still, some progress was being made:  mines like The Horncut Mine  and The Rare Ripe Gold and Silver Mining Company in Brown’s Valley were owned by ex-slaves. 

 

As early as 1863 private “colored” schools were established in Napa and elsewhere.  Public schools were established as well a year later,

Capt. William T. Shorey and wife Julia Shelton, daughters Zenobia and Victoria, ca. 1910. Courtesy of California Historical Society Portrait Collection

Capt. William T. Shorey and wife Julia Shelton, daughters Zenobia and Victoria, ca. 1910. Courtesy of California Historical Society Portrait Collection

although the public schools were segregated and were not desegregated until 1874 in Napa and even later in other counties.  Various African American churches sprung up in Solano to serve the growing African American newcomers. Communities were enhanced and improved by this influx of people.

 

In 1866 Congress provided legislation for African Americans to serve as peacetime military personnel.  These soldiers made up six units: two units were members of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments of the United States Army  and four units were members of the infantry (the 38th, 39, 40th and 41st  ).   Their purpose was to protect settlers, stagecoaches, wagon trains and railway crews from cattle rustlers and thieves, build roads, deliver the mail, and help control the Native Americans during the Western Expansion of the United States.  They also were instrumental in exploring and mapping parts of the Southwest and establish outposts that were the forerunners of future towns and cities.  

The Buffalo Soldiers were given the task to explore and map Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks before they became national parks.  They were the first park rangers of these national treasures.  During the Spanish American War, the Buffalo Soldiers departed and returned through San Francisco, and were garrisoned there.   The Buffalo Soldiers were in service from 1866-1951 when the U.S. military was finally totally integrated.  In total 23 Buffalo Soldiers also received the Medal of Honor for their service to our country.  They were truly national heroes. 

 

The hardship we as a community have faced during the ongoing health emergency and the civil unrest have been daunting to say the least.  But Benicia’s history has shown that our community can handle change and challenge.  Thankfully our citizens have proved time and time again that they are up to the challenge.

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