• Dante Mazza

#1013: SITE OF THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN EPISCOPAL CHURCH ESTABLISHED ON THE PACIFIC COAST

Updated: Jul 12


SITE OF FIRST AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH ON THE PACIFIC COAST
THIS IS THE SITE OF THE FIRST CHURCH BUILDING ASSOCIATED WITH AN AFRICAN AMERICAN RELIGIOUS CONGREGATION ON THE PACIFIC COAST. THE CHURCH WAS THE METHODIST CHURCH OF COLORED PEOPLE OF SACRAMENTO CITY, FORMALLY ORGANIZED IN 1850. IN 1851 THE CONGREGATION WAS ADMITTED INTO THE AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH, BECOMING THE FIRST AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH ON THE PACIFIC COAST. FIRST KNOWN AS BETHEL, THE NAME WAS LATER CHANGED TO ST. ANDREWS. THE ORIGINAL 1850 WOODEN CHURCH BUILDING WAS THE SITE OF THE FIRST STATEWIDE CONVENTION OF THE CALIFORNIA COLORED CITIZENS WHICH MET NOVEMBER 20-22, 1855.
CALIFORNIA REGISTERED HISTORICAL LANDMARK NO. 1013
PLAQUE PLACED BY THE STATE DEPARTMENT OF PARKS AND RECREATION IN COOPERATION WITH ST. ANDREWS AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH AND SACRAMENTO COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY, JANUARY 7, 1995

The oldest African American church on America's West Coast has a proud history of breaking barriers in its community. Formed in the home of a prominent Black man in the pioneer days of Sacramento, St. Andrews, as it is now known, was the nerve center of several important social movements for Californians of color. The state's last known slave was set free thanks to the efforts of its congregation. Children of all colors and creeds were welcomed inside to be educated without fear of prejudice. A political movement that made the state more equal for all was nurtured here as well. While the physical church moved to a new location in 1951, where service is held today, its original site and the groundbreaking things that occurred there are remembered today with the plaque above, which officially designates the sacred spot as California State Historical Landmark No. 1013.

The Church

St. Andrew's Church at the downtown Sacramento location marked today by the plaque in 1938.

A wooden structure at the same site preceded the building shown here.

Photo Source: California State Library


In 1850, California was a land of possibility, a place where new settlers from all over the world were coming to write bold new chapters in their own stories. They were drawn to California by the Gold Rush and its promise of enduring wealth, and that universal appeal had overnight made the region one of the most diverse places on earth, a status it has never lost. Having successfully won control of the territory from Mexico in the Mexican-American War, and already recognizing its unmatched value, the United States of America sought to admit what would soon become its Golden State into the Union as soon as possible. However, the politics of that antebellum era were sadly but clearly fraught with sectional and racial tension. California was not admitted on its own, but rather as part of the famed Compromise of 1850, allowed to enter the Union as a free state only in exchange for the passage of a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law and the promise of "popular sovereignty", in which settlers would decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery, for the territories which lay in between California and the rest of its new nation.


It was in the midst of this historic moment for America, still reckoning heavily with the institution of slavery and its role in the nation's public life, that Daniel Blue (much more about him below) opened his home to fellow worshippers and organized California's first Black church. With the assistance of Maryland brothers Barney and George Fletcher, Blue was able to get the fledgling congregation off the ground, and by the end of the year, a board of trustees (which included George Fletcher) had purchased the site which is today marked with the plaque for the sum of $250. By early 1851, a small wooden building had been erected there at the cost of $3,000, and the church, then known as the Methodist Church of Colored People of Sacramento City, was up and running.


The group applied for and was granted admission to the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME for short), which would soon become the largest African American religious denomination in the country. The Sacramento congregation applied to the Indiana Conference, which at the time was the westernmost division of the AME. The general Methodist Episcopal Church, however, was widespread enough to include an Oregon and California Conference, which itself acknowledged the existence of the first AME church in the West. The 1851 Minutes of the Annual Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church lists the "Bethel (coloured)" church beneath the Sacramento City chapter, with a congregation count of 27. The 1851 Annual Report of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church lists Barnet (Barney) Fletcher as the church's pastor, effective in the spring of that year.


From these humble beginnings, the Bethel church and its congregation grew and developed to become a strong community force in Sacramento. The church's name was soon changed from Bethel to St. Andrews, the name by which it is now known. In 1867, construction began on a new, more permanent brick building, the one shown above, to serve the community, and serve it did, for over 80 years until 1951, when a new church building, the current one, was opened on the southern edge of downtown Sacramento, across from the city's Southside Park.


1995 proved to be another significant year for St. Andrews. A new education center was opened on the church's modern campus, and the congregation joined forces with the California State Department of Parks and Recreation to dedicate the plaque marking its original location. The site remains even today the most recently designated State Historical Landmark in Sacramento County. While St. Andrews' status as the First AME Church in the West is surely enough to earn it historic recognition, the early efforts of its community in the fight for justice and equality in California, as detailed below, are what truly set the church apart, beginning with its founding congregant, Daniel Blue.

Daniel Blue

Born a slave in Monroe County, Kentucky, Daniel Blue found his way to the Gold Rush fields of California as a man already fairly advanced in age. His obituary in the Sacramento Daily Union, a glowing tribute to a man beloved by the whole city, says Blue lived in Sacramento for over 35 years. Since he died in 1884 at age 88, that means both that he arrived in the Golden State while in his fifties and that he was somehow freed from slavery before it was ended by the Civil War. While it's not clear how exactly Blue made it to California, it is certain that he made a big impact on the state when he arrived.


Blue was one of the lucky few who found actual gold in the Gold Rush, and he wisely used his earnings to invest in Sacramento real estate, buying a plot of land near what is now the city's Amtrak station (not far from the original site of St. Andrews) where he built his home and started a laundry business. Ironically, Blue's next-door neighbor was the first Governor of Californa, Peter Burnett, a noted racist who had helped pass laws in Oregon banning all Black people from the territory, and later unsuccessfully pushed for the same rules in California.


Blue married an African American woman named Lucinda and together they had at least three children, including a son who shared Daniel's name and two daughters: Annie and Henrietta, who in 1873 were granted permission to attend the Sacramento Grammar School. A newspaper account of that decision made sure to mention that the girls were "colored." The Blues also welcomed others into their home frequently. As previously mentioned, the first meetings of St. Andrews were held in their home, but the family also opened a school for students of color and raised money for its operation by appealing to the public for donations. By 1880, they were listed in the census as hosting a 50-year-old boarder named John Wilson. Three years later, according to a newspaper report, Daniel and Lucinda took in a young Black girl named Martha. The girl appeared to be fleeing an abusive or otherwise dangerous situation, for when her father took her to court to try and get her back, the judge ruled that she could stay with the Blues.


Despite their inherent and well-recorded generosity, life for Daniel's family was not always easy. While the Blues were cherished members of the Sacramento community, this often sadly appeared to be in spite of their race. Blue's daughters need special permission to attend public school in the city, and when Daniel himself tried to join the city's Pioneer Club, his application was "referred to directors". While this could have been standard club procedure, it is also possible that Blue, like his daughters, needed special permission to join the city's institutions, at least the ones that he did not found himself.


Tragedy struck the family twice. First in 1860, their home at 9th and F Street in Sacramento caught fire at one o'clock in the morning. According to a report in the next day's Sacramento Bee, Daniel was able to save his wife and children "with great difficulty, in their nightclothes" and was "much injured in so doing." While the family's lives were saved, the entire property and all of the furniture inside was destroyed. While the article states that the fire started in the property's woodshed before spreading to the kitchen outbuilding and then the main house, it makes a deeply disturbing claim about its cause: "It was undoubtedly caused by an incendiary, as the family are very careful people and there had been no fire allowed near the spot." The Blues were given food and shelter after the blaze by their new neighbor, no longer Governor Burnett, but now one General Reddington, who was apparently a far more tolerant and generous man.


Adding insult to injury, the property where the house once stood was taken from the family entirely just five years later when it was sold by the county sheriff to pay the debts imposed by an over $1,200 lawsuit judgment against Daniel and Lucinda. It is unclear what the case was about, but according to the sale information, the sale ended their "right, title, interest, and claim of, in, and to" the plot of land, just two blocks from where the Landmark Plaque now stands, that they had called home.


Despite that unfortunate experience in the courts, Daniel Blue was rather politically active, and, as described below, even used the criminal justice system to his advantage on occasion. One of the leading African Americans in Sacramento, Blue was chosen along with other prominent Black citizens and business leaders to greet President Rutherford B. Hayes when he visited the city in 1880 and became the first sitting President to travel West of the Rocky Mountains. The family was active also in state politics. In 1871, a Daniel Blue was appointed as a porter for the State Assembly, and then later that same year named rear porter for the gubernatorial inauguration of Netwon Booth, the Sacramento businessman who later also served as a U.S. Senator from Californa. It's unclear which of the two Daniels received this honor, but it could have been either, as both were politically active. Voting records from 1874 show both 21-year-old Daniel Jr. and his 77 year-old-father were registered to vote, ages which placed them among the youngest and oldest registered voters in Sacramento County.


Known around town as "Old Man" or "Uncle" Blue, the elder Daniel was one of the best-known and best-loved of Sacramento's citizens. He was so famous, in fact, that one year at the annual masquerade ball held by the Our Friends Social and Dramatic Club, H.A. Kidder won the first prize of a gold cane in the "Best Local Character by a Gentleman" category for his portrayal of Old Man Blue. A newspaper report of the event states the costume was well-received and "immediately recognized by the audience." While it's likely that Kidder's impression would be considered deeply offensive by today's standards, it is a potent example of Blue's star power in the city.


Perhaps the only better example is the glowing obituary of Blue that was published in the Sacramento Daily Union a few days after his death. Titled "An Old Man Gone", it is a tribute so touching that it must be reprinted in full:


Daniel Blue, a colored citizen known to all the people of Sacramento, and who died suddenly this week in the 89th year of his age, was one of the most familiar figures on Sacramento streets for over a quarter of a century. He is to he buried to-morrow. For a Sacramentan to have said be did not know Uncle Daniel Blue was to argue his ignorance of the city and its people.
Daniel Blue was a slave in Kentucky until far into manhood's prime. He came to California in the earliest of her pioneer days, having been here, over thirty-five years. He was practically the founder and main-stay of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in this city, and the most persistent solicitor for means to maintain it. What was especially noticeable, however, about Uncle Daniel was his native gentility. He greeted all men with a smile, and his countenance was radiant when it beamed upon children. For every one he had a kind and a cheering word, and a graceful salute. His urbanity was not obsequious, nor his constant cheerfulness obtrusive. He was by nature a polite man, and though to manhood's prime he was under the cloud of slavery, in his later years he was notably well informed, intelligent and able to hold his own upon all the living topics of the time. He could raise more money for his church than any other member. As one citizen put it yesterday, "there was not a house door in this city that did not open to the call of Uncle Daniel."
Few men with such limited advantages so roundly tilled the measure of a peaceful life as this untutored but genial old man, whose countenance never frowned upon his fellows and whose life was one of sincere piety. The city will miss the familiar bent form of the old man, with his beaming countenance fringed with a beard of while; will miss the unstudied and graceful salute of Uncle Daniel ; will miss the persuasive pleas for the church of his heart; will miss the benedictions he ministered to old and young and middle-aged. It will miss the kindly old negro man. who lived up to his highest development, passed the allotted lease of life without a shade of querulous old age, and went to his rest known of all his fellow-citizens, and with fewer to speak ill of him than falls to the lot of most men.

As the obituary mentioned, Daniel Blue was "practically the founder" and always the biggest supporter of St. Andrews. This was true even to the very end. When he died on October 15, 1884, at the ripe old age of 88, a separate funeral notice announced, fittingly, "Services held at A.M.E. Church".


Freeing California's Last Slave


Daniel Blue wasn't just a booster of the church he founded and loved so. He was a man who lived his faith, not just in the way he treated others, but also in the way he pushed for a better California. Politically active, Blue took a leading role in the organization and education of people of color in their fight for justice. Always one to lead by example, he singlehandedly accomplished one of the great feats of social justice in California history: he successfully freed, through the state court system, the state's last known (and illegally held) slave.


Recent journalism from the California Report, as part of the Gold Chains project, has uncovered a little known but deeply heartening story. It seems that in 1863, a 12-year-old slave girl named Edith, referred to in court papers as Adda, was brought to California from the slave state of Missouri. California was a free state whose Constitution banned slavery outright from the start. While in 1852 the state did pass a strict Fugitive Slave Law that allowed for the extradition of slaves back to their owners in slave states, slavery was not tolerated within California's borders, and those who brought slaves in from other states could only stay for short periods. That did not stop Edith's owner from illegally selling her to another man, a local farmer originally from the slave state of Tennessee named Walter Gammon.


Gammon horribly mistreated Edith. According to witnesses, she was "inhumanely beaten, and let go without the necessary care and clothing to make her comfortable and decent." When Daniel Blue heard about this, he decided to use the state's legal system to help. Blue filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in Sacramento County Court. His request was granted and a writ was issued, compelling Gammon to bring Edith before a judge. The writ accused Gammon of the imprisonment and detention of "Adda, a colored girl", but Gammon claimed that the child was with him "of her own free will and choice."


Blue seriously disputed that claim and filed for custody of the girl. At the trial, the judge was able to hear from other members of Sacramento's Black community, who testified to the brutal nature of Edith's mistreatment at the hands of Gammon. Their testimony had only recently become permissible after the repeal of racist California laws that had barred people of color from speaking in court. Those laws were repealed thanks to the efforts of Blue and other members of the state's Colored Conventions, as outlined below. The judge ruled in the end that Edith must be turned over to Blue.


Her story appears to have a happy ending, as the 1870 census shows Edith married to a Black man and raising a one-year-old son. Yet her story could never have been possible without the political efforts of California's pioneer Black community, who had come together at St. Andrews and succeeded in making the state a more just land for all.


The Conventions


According to the Colored Conventions Project, over 200 state and national Colored Conventions were held across America from 1830 through the 1890s. These gatherings were "a powerful structure and platform for Black organizing" and usually organized in response to a specific legal slight or discrimination against the Black community in a particular area. For example, the first Colored Convention was held in Ohio in 1830, when delegates gathered to discuss both exclusionary laws passed by the state in the year prior, and a wave of mob violence that sent Black residents fleeing the state.


In California, the issue that galvanized the Black community enough for the state's first Colored Convention to be called was an 1851 law which stated that “persons having one-half or more of negro blood, shall not be witnesses in an action or proceeding, to which a white person is a party.” A later decision by the California State Supreme Court expanded the testimony ban to Native Americans and Asians as well. Not being able to testify in court excluded Blacks from the legal system, often to their great detriment. One successful Black businessman, Peter Lester, had his store burglarized by two white men, but they were never convicted or even tried because he could not testify against them. Lester grew so frustrated with the discrimination he faced that he moved to Canada, as his success in business had given him the means to do so. Others who could also leave the country did so too, while those who remained decided to fight for their rights.


The first State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California was held at the Colored Methodist Church in Sacramento on November 20-22, 1855. Delegates from ten Northern California counties gathered at the very spot where the State Landmark Plaque now stands to discuss the issues of the day and build a brighter future for themselves and their fellow citizens of color. William H. Yates of San Francisco served as the Convention President.


The gatherings' minutes reveal that the testimony law was top of mind for the delegates. The first report of the Convention's Business Committee emphatically stated, "Whereas, we the colored people of California, believing that the law of this State, relating to the testimony of colored people in the courts of justice...to be unjust in it itself, and oppressive to every class in the community...resolved that we will memorialize the Legislature, at its approaching session, for a repeal [of the law]." The delegates spent much of the rest of their time together editing that resolution and preparing the official petition for the Legislature. The group also designted men from each county represented at the convention to be responsible for circulating the petition in their county and collecting signatures.


The convention also notably tabulated the wealth of the Black community in California. Recording the largest Black populations being at the state's largest city in San Francisco and in the mining country of El Dorado County, the convention estimated the total wealth of Black California at $2.4 million, equivalent to roughly $70 million today. One convention delegate also noted the fact that many slaves had traveled to California during the Gold Rush and earned enough to buy their own freedom, helping establish the pioneer Black community in the state. Tapping some of that wealth, delegates pledged a fund of $20,000 to financially support their lobbying campaign.


The convention adjourned on November 22nd after a performance from the St. Andrews choir and a farewell benediction. The minutes were printed and remain available to this day. The convention also published open letters addressed to all Californians of color, calling on them to seek an education for themselves and to farm the land and mine the hills in order to build a strong, financially stable Black community that had a serious stake in the state and its future.


When the State Legislature re-convened in Sacramento, the petitions for the repeal of the racist testimony law were presented and roundly ignored. The year after the first Convention, delegates gathered at St. Andrews a second time, where they resolved once again to petition the legislature to overturn the law, but also emphasized the importance of education to their cause. When they lobbied the legislature yet again, their pleas were further ignored. A third convention was held in 1857, this time in San Francisco, where the relentless delegates continued their campaign for repeal. Despite their best efforts, it was not until 1862, when the nation was fully embroiled in the Civil War, that enough Legislators sympathetic to the cause were elected to carry out the task. When the new Legislature gathered in 1863, State Senator Ricard F. Perkins of San Francisco introduced the repeal legislation that Black Californians had been demanding for a decade. Perkins's bill still excluded Asian and Native Americans, who were not given testimony rights until 1872, but the political activism that began at St. Andrews had achieved a great result, and California was a better place thanks to the work of the delegates who gathered there.


No sooner had the law been changed than Daniel Blue used its new provisions in the case of young Edith, who was set free based almost entirely on the testimony of Black witnesses. St. Andrews' promise had come full circle.


Significance

A roadside marker and the plaque itself are the only signs that this sacred, historic site lies quietly in the heart of Downtown Sacramento



The State Landmark Plaque which today marks this important site is easy to pass by. It is nothing more than a plate of bronze fastened to the concrete wall of the exit side of a parking garage for the county courts. A roadside marker announcing the Landmark's presence stands stiffly nearby, signaling to perhaps only the keenest passerby. While the physical presence of the tribute to St. Andrews and what happened there may be light and muted, the historical weight of those actions has rung loud and clear through the centuries. The City of Sacramento and the State of California are better places than they otherwise would be thanks to the brave and bold action of Daniel Blue and his compatriots in the St. Andrews congregation. Though they and the building where they acted are long gone, their memory inspires the modern congregation of the church and all who hear their story to seek justice, build community and chart the course to a better future for us all.

For Further Information


St. Andrews Church: Offical Modern Website


California Report Story on Edith and Daniel Blue


The Gold Chains Project


The Colored Conventions Project


Minutes of the First California State Colored Convention


California State Historical Landmarks in Sacramento County


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