Black Californians who shaped Calaveras County
Golden roots: Celebrating Black Californians who shaped Calaveras CountyMarie-Elena Schembri, Calaveras Enterprise, February, 24, 2022
February is Black History Month, a time to honor the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans throughout history and in the present day. Since 1976, African American history has been recognized during the month of February by the U.S. government, with the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) at the helm. ASALH, whose founder Carter G. Woodson is known as “the father of Black history,” chooses a new theme each year to honor and celebrate Black contributions in different areas.
According to ASALH, this year’s theme of Black Health and Wellness “acknowledges the legacy of not only Black scholars and medical practitioners in Western medicine, but also other ways of knowing (e.g., birthworkers, doulas, midwives, naturopaths, herbalists, etc.) throughout the African Diaspora.”
Slavery in California
While slavery was banned in California’s constitution in 1849, visiting slave owners from outside of California were permitted to retain, and even capture fugitive slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act enabled Southern white slave owners to capture a “fugitive” slave, and even required local law enforcement, judges, and commissioners to assist them without a warrant, despite California being a “free” state.
Lawmakers continued to favor slave owners, making exceptions and preventing Black or other non-white individuals from providing testimony in court.
Black history in Calaveras County
Calaveras County has maintained a small population of African Americans since the mid-1800s when both free and enslaved Black men and women came to California, alongside the many emigrants and immigrants who sought wealth and a new way of living during the Gold Rush. Some bought their freedom with earnings from the mines and went on to become hotel and restaurant owners and were respected figures in their communities.
While the Black population during the Gold Rush was small, especially compared to the large numbers of Chinese, Italian, Slavic, and other ethnic groups that settled in the area, men and women of color carved out their own space in the region’s history. Many worked in gold mines, others in agriculture. Some African Americans even owned successful mines and businesses in the Gold Country.
Data from the Seventh U.S. Census of 1850 shows that there were a total of 82 “free colored” residents of Calaveras County, only two of whom were women. The total population of Calaveras County that year was 16,884. The census also reported that California as a whole had only 962 free African Americans out of a total population of 92,597. Of those, the majority of California’s Black population were born in another state. According to the census data, 173 were born in another country, 69 born in California, 709 were born in another state, and 11 were unknown. This does not take into account the slaves who were brought to California from other territories, which is estimated to be anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand by different sources.
In a historical study published in 1980 by Dr. Joseph Giovinco, “The Ethnic Dimension of Calaveras County History,” the author writes, “In the case of Blacks, both the statistical score sheet and the paucity of items—pro or con—about them in the local press suggest that the group was never an important element in Calaveras’ history.”
Another possibility, however, is that the small population of recently freed or enslaved African Americans were simply not considered newsworthy. Giovinco also states in his study, “given the variety of limitations, it is impossible to ferret out and write a complete history of the ethnic dimension of Calaveras County.”
A family forges a legacy
One Black family of notable fame was the Binum family. Edmington Binum came to California as a slave from Mississippi and worked for Judge W.B. Norman and Robert Newton Cloyd on their ranch near Calaveritas Creek, peddling peaches. Norman allowed Binum to buy his family’s freedom, purportedly for $1,400. Binum’s wife, Margaret (Maiden name Lawless), and their seven children eventually came to Calaveras County, where one of their sons, Edward Levi, known as Lev, owned a restaurant on Main Street in San Andreas called the Bon Ton Chophouse. Lev was born and died in San Andreas, while some of the other children headed west to San Diego and San Francisco.
The restaurant was located in the historic Black Bart Inn building on Main Street, which was originally built as an office building in 1893 and hosted a watchmaking shop for E.V. Boynton. Lev Binum operated the restaurant in the building in the 1920s. The location also served as a barbershop, general store, millier’s shop, and district attorney's office over the years. William T. Treat turned the building into the Treat Hotel after the 1926 burning of the Metropolitan Hotel.
A 1971 article written by Raymon H. Cuslidge reports that Lev was “a colored man and the only one in Calaveras County at the time” though he did occasionally employ a “colored” cook in his restaurant. The author, who worked for Binum as a dishwasher and waiter in high school, recalled that “he was kind of hard to work for” but was “quite a cook.” The article makes light of a man with a short fuse, big personality, and immense pride. Cuslidge recounts stories of how Lev would flirt with female customers, “smiling graciously” and promising to cook their meals himself. Cuslidge also tells tales of a proud proprietor, who balked at an out-of-town customer offering 25 cents for a meal, when his price was 30, and grumbled that he offered “the best homemade bread” for 10 cents a loaf or 2 for 25, yet customers opted for “that bakery bread.”
Lev was also known for complaining to his acquaintances about slow business, lack of “decent help,” and being “worked to death”.
A poignant story Cuslidge tells that another businessman in town referred to the restaurant using a then-common derogatory term, and word got back to the proud business owner. “Old Lev was boiling,” wrote Cuslidge. Binum announced that “Nobody is going to call me a N—-” and promised to “punch him in the neck” the next time he saw the offender.
The article garnered a response from L. Harold Getchell, in the form of an article titled “I, Too, Knew Lev Binum” published by the Calaveras Prospect in 1987. In this, the writer describes how as a boy he and others would sit in Binum’s restaurant on summer afternoons, drinking sodas from the soda fountain. Binum would sit with them, offering “good sound advice.” Getchell writes, “Maybe a better boy grew into manhood, a little taller and a little straighter because of Lev.” Getchell tells of a man who was caring and generous with his opinion, but when the recipient of jokes or insults, would “roar from the kitchen depths and the air would turn blue.”
Another article from the Calaveras Prospect featured a letter from reader Sumner Pforner, in response to Cuslidge and Harold Grretchell’s stories about Lev Binum.
Pforner writes, “I recall that I stood somewhat in awe as he was the first colored person I had ever seen.” Pfortner recalls fond memories of the man, who walked with a limp and had bad bunions on his feet. Pforner would hitch a ride on the back of a horse-drawn wagon that delivered bread to Binum’s restaurant. According to Pforner, when customers wouldn’t buy Binum’s homemade bread, he ordered oil paper-wrapped bread from a commercial bakery in Stockton to offer his customers, so that she could be “the first to grab the carton” of bread as it was unloaded. According to Pforner’s letter, Binum was unable to carry in the carton himself, so he enticed local kids by offering candy in exchange for their little bit of labor.
Pforner writes that as a child, she was unaware of Binum suffering the “sick jokes or torment” that Getchell told of in his article. She recalls her father calling him “the whitest negro” he had ever known and views this as a “never ending compliment” which “could be accepted in its broadest sense.” Pforner ends her letter saying, “My respect for Lev has resulted in continued tolerance of others, regardless of race. The image of all that was good in Lev Binum lives on and on.”
The announcement of Lev’s death in a 1928 issue of The Prospect told readers “Mr. Binum had lived in San Andreas his entire life and although of the colored race he was highly respected by the people of this county.”
Senior Binum was also well respected, though less has been written about him. He was described as “a quiet man but of keen intelligence, and always a good citizen” by a 1901 issue of the Calaveras Prospect newspaper. As a free man, he kept an orchard and sheep on his land in Lower Calaveritas along Calaveritas Creek.
Margaret Binum, Lev’s mother, was well liked in the community and worked as a nurse and midwife. In a 1919 issue of Calaveras Citizen newspaper, Mrs. Binum’s death was announced, saying that “Calaveras mourns another early pioneer, who was well known to the older residents of this section, to whom she endeared herself by her sterling character and kindly ministrations to neighbors and friends in sickness and distress.”
The article calls Binum a “famous nurse” and says that “many living here today owe their lives to the tender care of 'Aunt Margaret,’ who never failed them, and they are sad over her passing."
There were two funerals—one in San Diego, where her daughter lived, and one in San Andreas—which the paper says were widely attended by her many family and friends.
Black success during the Gold Rush
Another Black business owner in San Andreas, Phillip Piper, ran the Main Street House, offering meals and boarding to travelers in the area. A 1969 issue of Las Calaveras, the Calaveras Historical Society’s newsletter, reports that “most of all Southerners boarded with old Piper.” Main Street House burned down in 1858 when San Andreas was ravaged by fire and was never rebuilt.
The same issue describes the famous gold miner, Ben Buster, who arrived in Calaveras County in 1852. According to the historical society, he made about $15,000 working the mines in Mokelumne Hill and then retired in a cabin by himself at Red Gulch a few miles from Mokelumne Hill, where he was said to have buried his winnings. Reaching legendary status, many have sought to find his buried wealth, and he even fought off an attempted robbery by three men in 1864. According to the Las Calaveras newsletter, Margaret Binum, who knew Buster, “thought a Mexican woman got his money.”
In neighboring Amador County, two Black men founded what would become the Argonaut Mine in Jackson. William Tudor and James Hager, both freed slaves, established the mine in 1850. Then called the Pioneer Mine, the two worked the mine for a decade. Then, they sold to the Pioneer Gold & Silver Mining Company, who operated it until it was sold to The Argonaut Mining Company in 1893. The mine reportedly produced more than $25 million in gold and was the site of one of the state's deadliest mine disasters when an underground fire caused the death of 48 immigrant workers in the mine.
There are many other reports of African Americans finding success during the Gold Rush. “Place names like Negro Hill, Negro Bar (a large sand bar located on the south bank of the lower American River) and Negro Flat attest to the presence of Blacks in California,” reports a story published by the African American Registry about the life of pioneer Edmond Edward Wysinger.
The fight for equal education
As the catalyst for change in laws that allowed Black children to receive an education alongside white peers in California schools, Wysinger is an important historical figure not only throughout Gold Country, but the entire nation. He was recently honored by the town of Visalia, Calif., where he lived with his family in the late 1800s.
Wysinger was of mixed race, the son of a Black slave and a Cherokee woman. As a slave, he traveled to California with his German owner of the same name (Wysinger’s given name was Bush, according to the African American Registry).
Wysinger purchased his freedom for $1,000 by working mines in the area, including those near Mokelumne Hill, Murphys, Diamond Springs, and Grass Valley. Wysinger was married and moved to Visalia in 1862 with his wife, Penecia, a Black woman whose parents emigrated to California from Missouri. They had eight children: Jesse, Arthur, James, Reuben, Hervey, Marion, Martha, and Bertha.
Wysinger worked as a laborer and a preacher but is most known for sparking the flame that eventually led to the desegregation of schools in California.
Wysinger attempted to have his oldest son, Arthur, admitted to Visalia’s high school when he was 12 years old, in 1888.
Arthur was denied admission, as at the time Black and Chinese students were taught in separate schools. The Visalia Colored School was a one-room barn located on the property of a Black farmer, while the white children attended the Visalia School.
Wysinger attempted to sue the school district but lost the case as the school claimed it was in full compliance with the laws at the time, which required native, Black and Chinese students to be taught at separate schools.
Wysinger decided to take his case to the California Supreme Court, and in 1890 the court decided in favor of Wysinger, prohibiting separate schools for African American children in California. Months later, the Supreme Court also overturned Tulare County’s earlier ruling, requiring them to enroll Arthur in the Visalia School. Arthur Wysinger was the first Black student at the Visalia School. Unfortunately, Edmond Edward Wysinger died a year later, before seeing his son admitted, according to historian Michael Smith.
Wysinger’s case was the beginning of a battle to desegregate schools that lasted for decades. When racial segregation was finally deemed unconstitutional in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board, Wysinger’s case was referenced as legal precedent, according to the Gold Chains Black History project, created by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.
The project highlights Black and indigenous stories with the mission to “uncover the hidden history of slavery in California by lifting up the voices of courageous African American and Native American individuals who challenged their brutal treatment and demanded their civil rights, inspiring us with their ingenuity, resilience, and tenacity.”
For more information on Black History Month, visit blackhistorymonth.gov and asalh.org.