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Documenting The History Of African-Americans In The California Gold Rush


Now picture the California Gold Rush, the people that traveled cross-country, the forty-niners. It's probably a safe bet that the first people who come to mind probably aren't black, but the history of African-Americans in the West is about to get more recognition when the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture opens a week from today. NPR's Nathan Rott has the story.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: It's easy to tell when you've hit gold rush country. There's Mother Lode coffee-roasting, Mother Lode market, Mother Lode motors all tucked away in the oak-covered foothills of the Sierra Nevada in little frontier-style towns like Sonora. The story of William Sugg starts in Sonora at the Tuolumne County Recorder in an old book of deeds.

I don't even know if I can read this handwriting.

SYLVIA ROBERTS: I know it's a challenge. Let's see. Let me give it a try. Yeah. I think you had better do it.

ROTT: That's Sylvia Roberts. She's a local historian of sorts. And what we're trying to read is a deed of manumission written in 1854 between a slaveowner...

...that, I, Francis - is it Drake?


ROTT: Francis Trale.

And a man he had enslaved named William Sugg. This deed of sale bought Sugg his freedom for the cost of $1. It's all recorded here.

ROBERTS: Because California was a free state, there was no other place to record such a transaction.

ROTT: The history of African-Americans and the gold rush is clearly a complicated one, and it's often overlooked. Roberts' book "Mining For Freedom: Black History Meets The California Gold Rush" is one of only a few that have ever been written on the subject. And it includes the story of William Sugg and his family. After he was freed, Sugg married another former slave Mary Elizabeth Snelling. And together, they hand-built a red adobe home that's still standing a few blocks away from the county courthouse.

BOB BRENNAN: Everything here is exactly the same as it was when the house was built.

ROTT: Bob Brennan is the owner of the house now. He takes us inside for a tour.

Brennan is white. He's a rancher whose family's been in the area for five generations, and he came to own the house because of his family's long friendship with the Sugg's grandson Vernon McDonald or Scoop as he was known in town because of his career as a newspaper reporter.

B. BRENNAN: Vernon was like part of our family. We never had a birthday party or Christmas without Vernon sitting there.

ROTT: As Vernon got older, Brennan bought a share of the house to make sure that his family friend could keep living there. And when he died roughly 40 years ago, Brennan and his wife Sherri promised to keep the house standing and to preserve its contents.

SHERRI BRENNAN: When we started going through the pieces of what was in the house here, it was literally a time capsule.

ROTT: The Suggs had saved everything.

B. BRENNAN: Every tax receipt, every dog license.

ROTT: Every letter, picture frames, furniture, quilts. There were about 15,000 documents in total.

PAUL GARDULLO: It is an unmatched collection of material related to a single African-American family in the West.

ROTT: Paul Gardullo is a curator at the African-American Museum. He filled a moving van of stuff from the Sugg household, items like clothes and leather-working tools from William's shop to put on display at the Smithsonian's Power of Place exhibit. He says the collection is remarkable in part because it captures a fairly well-integrated family in a Western town.

GARDULLO: They were middle class, and they were proud of it.

ROTT: And remember this was at the same time as the Civil War. Now, there was hate and racism out West, just as there is today, which is why Sylvia Roberts is always trying to relate this history to people. She, too, is black and living in gold rush country in a town that is almost uniformly white.

ROBERTS: My favorite response when I give a talk is for somebody to say I hadn't thought of that or I didn't know that.

ROTT: That, she says, is why it's so important to share the subcollection and the story on a national stage. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Sonora, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.