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Napa's Black community fought for freedom from the start
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Napa's Black community fought for freedom from the start

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Napa County is not exempt from racism and anti-Blackness. Like the rest of the country, they are baked into its very foundation.

Even slavery stains our soil. Brought to Napa from a North Carolina cotton plantation by slaveholder William Rice, Robert and Dilcey, their son and daughter-in-law Aaron and Charlotte, and Aaron and Charlotte’s two boys Nathaniel and Lewis arrived in Napa in 1860.

William quickly freed the rest of the family but kept 14-year-old Nathaniel, violating the bondage contract he and the Rices had signed.

What must it have felt like to be brought thousands of miles from the place you were born then torn from your family by a man who saw you as nothing but property?

At the time, African Americans could not testify in court, so they used other means to work the system. Aaron scrounged up enough money to take William to court, but because the only person allowed to produce evidence was the defendant, the case was thrown out.

William turned around and sued Aaron for perjury, and again the courts fell back on white supremacist laws and Aaron was thrown in jail. It took two other prominent freeborn African Americans, Edward Hatton and John Sinclair, trading their labor in exchange for bail to get him out.

William released Nathaniel a little while later, but the trauma was set.

In the 1860s, Black Napans wanted to send their children to good schools, but state law barred integration. Once more, they fought back against state tyranny, this time by forming their own school.

Operating out of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church on Randolph, several made the honor roll in 1875.

But separate schools were hardly equal. Black schools had fewer resources and teachers, often functioned in spaces not designed as schools, and might be located far from many students’ homes. J. S. Boon, an African-American man from Oakville, joked 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.”

By that point, Black Californians had a lot of practice finding ways to work around an inequitable and unjust system of laws while strategizing political reform. Five years after statehood, they held the first of four Conventions of Colored Citizens (CCC), where they worked together to gain the rights to testify in court, vote, and attend public school, as well as to end slavery nationwide.

The same Edward Hatton who tried to break Nathaniel free of enslavement was also a member of the CCC, as well as a well-liked local barber, an agent for two San Francisco-based Black newspapers, and one of the first Black restaurant owners in the county, perfectly encapsulated the drive of early Black Californians to fix an broken system: “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.”

The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is new, but the underlying principle is not. Do not wait for the system to change itself, those early Black Napans said. Make the system change.

Resistance goes hand in hand with Blackness, just as condemning those who resist often goes hand in hand with anti-Blackness. Since the first enslaved Africans were brought to American shores, Black people have pushed back against systematic oppression. The enslaved rebelled against slaveholders and ran away from plantations. The free fought for the right to vote and the right to live free and in any neighborhood they wanted.

Today, the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who struggled so hard and for so long are taking to the streets and demanding to be heard.

The protests not only honor the lives of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Taylor McDade but decry the police brutality that took their last breaths. They are part of a long tradition of resistance and reform.

They use the same tools of rebellion the white founders did to ask for the fulfillment of the promise made by this nation: that all people are created equal and that we are all endowed with the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Historian Alexandria Brown is a Napa native and the author of several books, including “Lost Restaurants of Napa Valley and Their Recipes” and “Hidden History of Napa Valley,” looking at marginalized and minority communities in Napa County.

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