Sunday, June 26, 2011

Early African Americans in Oakland

After sharing information with a fellow researcher about the African American soldiers buried in the GAR plot, I made the decision to go ahead and share what I know about these veterans...taking them out of their chronological order of death. It seems right, on several levels, to group these gentlemen together, since the small community they were a part of would have known one another well. They also deserve to have a light shone on them for their service and separating them will highlight this. But, I cannot deny that the personal motivator of having my research work protected in some way is the primary driving force (Sorry, guys.).

Before I move on to the biographies, however, I wanted to talk a little bit about the African American community in Oakland at the time.

We are used to, in modern day Oakland, thinking about the city as having a prominent African American community, but this was not always true. The largest immigration of African Americans to Oakland happened during WWII when jobs in manufacturing and the military became available in large numbers.

Before that, the black population of Oakland was a small percentage of the whole. In 1900, there was just over 1000 in a city of about 67,000. The number jumped dramatically by 1910 to 3055 in a city of 150,000. 1 Part of that jump was the result of population shifting from San Francisco to Oakland after the 1906 earthquake.

There was much to recommend California to African Americans, including a tepid, by modern standards, Civil Rights law passed by the state legislature in 1897. 2 However, there were still restrictions and prejudice. In most industries, white laborers were preferred, and despite legislation, blacks were effectively segregated from joining white organizations. 3 African Americans created a parallel culture, starting black fraternal organizations, churches, and social activities.

Black union veterans, however, did belong to integrated Grand Army Posts. The GAR went through internal debates about the segregation of units, particularly in the south, in the 1890s with the prevailing attitude being that all men, regardless of race, who fought in the war were comrades. 4

How this played out for Oakland GAR members is a little unclear. Scholarship suggests that African American members of the GAR were expected to be deferential to their white comrades. 5 But I have not been able to find any primary source documents for the GAR posts in Oakland to look for clues. While their day to day actions may not have been clear, what is clear is that they were welcomed enough to share an eternal resting spot. This is enough of an oddity in practice for those times, that the issue of the Grand Army plot in Mountain Views Cemetery had never been questioned before.

1 Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West 1528-1990 New York: N. W. Norton, 1998, pg. 193.

2 Oakland Tribune, April 6, 1897, pg. 1.

3 Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier, pg 198.

4 Shaffer, Donald R. After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2004, pg. 150.

5 Ibid., pg. 153.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

James A Chase, 1834 - December 12, 1877

As previously discussed, there are times when there is almost nothing that I can prove about a veteran. James A. Chase is another of these gentlemen. The earlier gravestones are different from later veteran stones, and it is unclear to me if they were paid for by the GAR, the deceased's family or money that was in the estate of the deceased.

In later burials, the veteran's service info, if known, is on the stone, and often I can confirm that there was a veteran's stone for said gentleman who was interred on a specific date. But if the government did not provide the stones, as they did later, my first lead into finding information on the veteran is gone. Indeed, if I had not found the Mountain View Cemetery record books at my local Family History Center, I would know only that James A. Chase had died on December 12, 1877, aged 43 years.1

Having found his information in the Mountain View records, I was able to confirm his date of death, and learned that he was born in Maine and died in Oakland.2 I also learned the cause of his death, but I'll get to that later.

When I have a regimental history, I can usually find the veteran's service record, and, if one was filed, a index card for the pension. That index card is a door to another level of information, if the widow applied for pension after her husband's death. This assumes a widow, of course. If she exists, it is much more likely that I can confirm that a possible veteran found in a census record is actually who I think he might be. Later census records can confirm the address of a residence in a City Directory listing, which may confirm the job listed on the census. All these can be reinforced by any newspaper articles or biographies.

One link broken can mean that all other information which your gut tells you is about your veteran may be, by necessity, left in the realm of speculation.

So I will speculate, a bit. There is a James A. Chase who enlisted in Company F of the 1st Maine Cavalry on October 19, 1861 in Freeport, Maine. He was born about the right time, so I'm not just spitting against the wind, entirely. During the course of his service he was promoted twice, attaining the rank of Full Sergeant before being discharged June 20, 1865.3

This speculation is strengthened by an article about his death in the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune, which reports that he was a cavalry soldier in the "late war."4 There is another James Chase living in Oakland at this time, and I had previously wondered if they were the same, but this one was working as a carpenter when he died and the other was a grocer.

I don't have to speculate about cause of death: anemia.5 Even the cause of death is a little unclear to me since there is no elaboration in the cemetery records about the cause of the anemia (or even how it might have been determined), and I have been unable to locate a death certificate for Mr. Chase. The article about his death only states that he "fell suddenly ill and died a few moments afterward."6

With some veteran's, I have the luxury of trying to verify all of this by looking into getting the pension records, but since it does not appear that James applied for one, even that avenue is closed and I may be left with this mystery.

1 Jas A. Chase headstone, GAR plot, Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland.

2 Mountain View Cemetery Record Book 1, pg. 76.

3 Historical Data Systems, comp.. U.S. Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2009.

4 Oakland Daily Evening Tribune, December 13, 1877.

5 Mountain View Cemetery Record Book 1, pg. 76.

6 Oakland Daily Evening Tribune, December 13, 1877.