Redirect to CHS blog

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Quiet Civil Rights Hero: Mitsuye Endo’s Landmark Supreme Court Case

American-born Mitsuye Endo, at her job as a Sacramento civil servant, 1942
Courtesy National Archives

During World War II, four legal cases challenged the U.S. policy of Japanese incarceration. All of them reached the United States Supreme Court. But only one, the 1944 case of Mitsue Endo—Ex parte Mitsuye Endo—was successful. CHS invited guest writer Alison Moore to explore the significance of the Endo case as the story of an unsung hero and a triumph of civil rights in time of war.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066.  Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it required the evacuation from the West Coast of nearly 120,000 persons of Japanese descent—most of them American citizens. The stated justification by the government at the time was for reasons of national security. In addition to evacuation and without due process of the law, everyone who fell under the government order was also imprisoned in a succession of hastily fashioned barbed-wire-surrounded facilities scattered throughout the west and as far east as Arkansas.

Sites in the western United States of Japanese Americans relocations during World War II 
Courtesy Portland Japanese American Citizens League

In 1942, Mitsuye Endo, a 22-year-old native of Sacramento, was working for the State of California when she was ordered to leave her job, along with all other employees of Japanese descent.  “We were given a piece of paper,” Endo later recalled, “saying we were suspended because we were of Japanese ancestry.” Like many others, Endo worked for the government because “there was so much discrimination against the Japanese Americans the only position we could get was with the state unless we worked for a Japanese firm.” Following her dismissal by the state, she was subsequently ordered to evacuate her home and community per the requirements of the Executive Order.

Japanese Ousted from Sacramento, 1942

Courtesy of The Sacramento Bee

Sent first to the Walarga Assembly Center near Sacramento, Endo was then imprisoned in far northern California at the government’s isolated Tule Lake War Relocation Center (renamed the Tule Lake Segregation Center in 1943). While there, she answered a questionnaire given to her and other prisoners by San Francisco attorney James Purcell, who had been retained by a number of the fired State employees. Purcell was seeking a good candidate among the group for a test case challenging the government’s authority to imprison loyal American citizens. Mitsuye Endo’s answers satisfied Purcell’s requirements, and Endo agreed to pursue the legal challenge.

Aerial View, Tule Lake War Relocation Center, 1941/46
Courtesy California State University, Sacramento, Special Collections and University Archives 

Site of former Tule Lake incarceration camp, 2016
Courtesy Alison Moore

According to the Densho Encyclopedia: “While Endo was incarcerated at Tule Lake, Purcell filed [a] habeas corpus petition seeking her release on July 13, 1942, arguing that her detention had deprived her of the right to report to work as a state employee, and that Public Law 503 did not allow military officials to order Japanese Americans detained. He further claimed that her detention was ‘undeclared martial law’ since she had been detained without trial despite the fact that the courts had been functioning.”

James Purcell (1906–1991)
Courtesy Kathleen Purcell

Other, more well-known cases concerning the Executive Order were also filed during these years, including those of Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Minoru Yasui, each one challenging a different aspect of the government order. In two of these four cases—all of which made it to the Supreme Court—the individuals, Hirabayashi and Yasui, chose to challenge the government. Korematsu and Endo on the other hand, were asked to participate in the test cases. To the attorneys, their unassuming lives and absence of any loyalty to the nation of Japan made them no different than any other U.S. citizens. “They felt that I represented a symbolic, ‘loyal’ American,” Endo later recounted.

(Left to right) Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, Fred Korematsu, 2009
Courtesy Family of Fred T. Korematsu

After Tule Lake, Endo, like Korematsu, was transferred to the government’s Central Utah Relocation Center, also known as the Topaz camp—another prison camp in a stretch of empty desert, surrounded by barbed wire, with armed guards in watch towers. Endo’s case, argued by Purcell in court in July 1942, was not decided for an entire year when in July 1943, a judge dismissed her petition. In 1944, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California filed a brief of Amicus Curiae (friend of the Court) in support of Mitsuye Endo. Purcell, with support from the ACLU and others, appealed the case, which was ultimately sent to the Supreme Court.

Application for permission to file an Amicus Curiae brief, 1944
Courtesy of the California Historical Society, ACLU Northern California Records

Despite an offer by the government to leave Topaz—as long as she did not return to the West Coast—Endo stayed at the camp upon the advice of Purcell, who thought that remaining in the camp would improve her chances of success. Many other Topaz prisoners, including Fred Korematsu, did take the government’s offer to leave the camps and, for the duration of the war, made their homes in the Midwest and other places away from the Pacific Coast.

Staying in camp became difficult for Endo, she recalled in a later interview: “During that time in camp, I was anxious to have my case settled because most of my friends had already gone out, been relocated, and I was anxious to get out too. But I was told to remain there until I got a notice from our attorney that I could leave. . . . I could have left earlier, but Purcell needed me to be in camp.”

Topaz internees gather to bid goodbye to friends and relatives leaving the camp, 1943
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

On December 18, 1944, the same day that the Supreme Court ruled against Fred Korematsu, the justices decided in favor of Mitsuye Endo, ruling unanimously, 9-0, in Endo’s favor. Writing for the entire Court, Justice William O. Douglas said, “We are of the view that Mitsuye Endo should be given her liberty. In reaching that conclusion we do not come to the underlying constitutional issues which have been argued. For we conclude that, whatever power the War Relocation Authority may have to detail other classes of citizens, it has no authority to subject citizens who are concededly loyal to its leave procedure.”  (Emphasis added)

Having been tipped off that the Endo case would prevail in court, the War Relocation Authority announced the day before her judgment that all detained citizens were to be released from the camps starting in January 1945.

First Family to leave Topaz Camp for California, 1945; photograph by Charles Mace

It is often stated that it took a number of years for the government to admit the racism inherent in the Executive Order signed by President Roosevelt. Speaking for the majority in the Endo case in 1944, however, Justice Frank Murphy wrote, “Detention in Relocation Centers of persons of Japanese ancestry regardless of loyalty is not only unauthorized by Congress or the Executive but is another example of the unconstitutional resort to racism inherent in the entire evacuation program. . . . [R]acial discrimination of this nature bears no reasonable relation to military necessity and is utterly foreign to the ideals and traditions of the American people.”

Of the four cases heard by the Supreme Court, Mitsuye Endo’s was the only one that was successful. Despite the landmark nature of her case, and the way in which it forced the government to admit its own anti-democratic tendencies, Endo is an almost unknown figure in the pantheon of American civil rights heroes, having consciously chosen to avoid the spotlight. Law Professor Eric Muller of the University of North Carolina, who has written extensively about the denial of civil liberties to Japanese Americans during World War II, has called Endo a “quiet civil rights hero.”

(Above and below) Topaz camp site, 2013

Endo’s own daughter was unaware of her mother’s role in U.S. civil liberties history until she was in her twenties. In her only interview, an oral history by author John Tateishi in the 1980s, Endo said, in typically understated fashion: “Do I have any regrets at all about the test case? No, not now, because of the way it turned out.”

Mitsuye Endo, whose job with the State of California was never reinstated, chose not to return to California after her release and died in her adopted home town of Chicago in 2006.

Guard Tower at Tule Lake, 2016
Courtesy Alison Moore



Learn about CHS’s Collection of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California Records
link to:

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Remembering the Black Panther Party Newspaper

Remembering the Black Panther Party Newspaper 
The True Voice of the People
April 25, 1967- September 1980

By Billy X. Jennings

The Black Panther Party (BPP) newspaper was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1967. The BPP newspaper was created to inform, educate, organize the people and promote the 10-Point Program and Platform. The BPP newspaper grew from a four page newsletter to a full newspaper in less than a year and about 500 issues were printed.  The first cover featured the case of Denzil Dowell, a brother murdered by the Richmond police.  The BPP was called in by his family to investigate what happened to him.  You can read the story in Bobby’s Seale Book, “Seize the Time”.
Bobby Seale, Elbert “Big Man” Howard, Eldridge Cleaver, JoNina Abron and David DuBois were some of the editors.  World reknowned artist, Emory Douglas, provided timely images and set the standard for revolutionary artwork.  Other contributing artists were Malik Edwards, Ralph Moore and Gail Dixon.  Ducho Dennis was the early BPP photographer.

After Huey Newton was shot and jailed in October 1967, the BPP newspaper grew along with the Black Panther Party.   The BPP newspaper was being sold not only in the Bay area but around the world.  The BPP newspaper came out every Wednesday and was printed in San Francisco by Howard Quinn Printers.  The BPP newspaper became the number 1 Black Weekly newspaper from 1968-1971, selling over 300,000 each week.  It contained both national and international news.  The paper sold for 25 cents.  In the beginning, each person selling the newspaper got a dime from each copy. Every Panther had to read and study the newspaper before selling it. Big Cities like LA, Chicago, NY, Seattle, and Kansas City were distribution centers for the BPP newspapers in their regions.

Sam Napier, Andrew Austin and Ellis White from National Distribution in San Francisco were the heart and soul of the newspaper.  They worked endless hours making sure the paper reached its destinations and always looking for new locations to “Get the Paper Out”.

Wednesday night was when the paper came out.  Every Panther in the Bay Area came to help  “Get the Paper Out”.  It was an opportunity for Panthers from different offices to work together and socialize.  When the paper came off the press, it went to the SF office and we packed it up in boxes by region and BPP offices.   We had 48 offices in 30 major cities. Students from SF State Black Students Union (BSU), UC Berkeley, SF City College, Merritt and Laney BSU’s and a lot of high school students showed up to work those nights.

The BPP newspaper set the standard for alternative press and inspired many other progressive groups, including Basta Ya, the Young Patriots’ paper, and the Young Lords paper.

The FBI and police targeted the BPP paper by interfering with delivery of the paper at the airport and outright sabotage by destroying the papers, with water and fire.  BPP members selling papers on the street were routinely harassed.

 “It’s About Time,” the Black Panther Party Archives, has an extensive collection of BPP newspapers and memorabilia.  Our mission is to preserve and promote the legacy of the Black Panther Party through exhibits.    For more information visit:, or Facebook – itsabouttime/BPP or Facebook-Bill Jennings

Friday, April 21, 2017

Los Angeles State Historic Park: Grand Opening of an Urban Oasis

Los Angeles State Historic Park Grand Opening Poster, 2017
Courtesy Los Angeles State Historic Park

Saturday—sixteen years since its establishment and after three years of renovation—is the grand re-opening of the Los Angeles State Historic Park, also known as Cornfield Park. As downtown Los Angeles redevelops, we recall the cultural, historical, and environmental history.of the park, now 34 acres with 1,500 trees, picnic areas, grassy hills, and wildlife habitat just off of Los Angeles's Chinatown neighborhood.

Aerial view of a swollen Los Angeles River showing the Southern Pacific Shops and its Alhambra Avenue Roundhouse, Los Angeles, 1938 -  CHS/USC

It was the site of an abandoned rail yard in downtown Los Angeles. Historically, it is where Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola crossed the Los Angeles River and camped in the area of Yanga (or Yan-gna), a Tongva village. In 2001, it was targeted to become an industrial center. 

But other visions prevailed: make the site—between the river and Chinatown—an urban oasis.

Site of Not a Cornfield, c. 2005
Courtesy Wikimapia

In 2005, artist Lauren Bon acquired a $2 million grant for her “Not a Cornfield” project. Corn seeds from the trains of the Southern Pacific’s River Station year had resulted in their sprouting, and Bon turned the cleaned-up deserted railroad yard into an actual cornfield as a living sculpture.

Steve Rowell (Photographer), Not a Cornfield, 2005
Copyright © Not a Cornfield

California State Parks then took over, after 35 community, environmental, civil rights, civic, and business organizations successfully convinced the state to purchase the site for a park. Los Angeles Historic State Park opened in a small part of the park in 2006. The area was closed to the public in 2014 for the complete development of the space. Construction was intended to be complete in 2015, but drought and budget concerns along with the discovery of trace contaminants in the soil pushed back the timeline until today's opening.

LASHP Master Development Plan Phase I, 2011
Courtesy California Department of Parks and Recreation

Los Angeles State Historic Park, 2012
Courtesy KCET

Los Angeles State Historic Park, 2012
Courtesy, Curbed Los Angeles

Los Angeles State Historic Park, 2017
Courtesy of Los Angeles State Historic Park

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager


James Brasuell, “Full Cornfield Park Project Finally Moving Forward,”Feb. 27, 2012;


Robert Garcia, “L.A. State Historic Park: A Deserted Railroad Yard is Transformed Yet Unfinished,” February 23, 2012;


Carren Jao, “Field of Dreams: The Cornfield Throughout Los Angeles History,” April 14, 2017


LASHP Master Development Plan,


Not a Cornfield historic photographs;


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Mystery of the Azusa Bell

Photographer unknown, Roger Dalton with Azusa Bell, date unknown 
California Historical Society

Inspired by the photograph above, the following essay will be published as the historical photograph Spotlight feature in California History 94, no. 1 (Spring 2017), © 2017 by the Regents of the University of California. The author has further illustrated it to provide a visual sense of time and place. California History is published by the University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society.
By Shelly Kale

The image appears rather straightforward: a man is posing beside an old, timeworn bell resting on a wooden platform. A closer look reveals the year 1845 on the bottom inscription of the bell and the word “Azusa” at the top. Look even closer and you’ll notice the man’s hands in physical contact with the bell—as if he is demonstrating a familiarity, perhaps even intimacy, with the object.

The letter accompanying the photograph’s donation to the California Historical Society identifies the man as Roger Dalton, grandson of Henry Dalton (1803–1884), an early Los Angeles merchandizer whose ownership of one of the region’s principle ranchos spanned the Mexican and U.S. eras of California, from 1844 to his death forty years later.(1)

Henry Don Enrique Dalton, date unknown
California Historical Society Collections at University of Southern California

A British subject until the end of his life, Henry Dalton began trading in South America and Mexico from the age of sixteen. Known as Don Enrique, Dalton’s business ventures brought him to Alta California, where in 1844 he made his home in Los Angeles, purchasing a lot on Main and Spring Streets. There he opened an adobe store selling hides, tallow, wine, and grain and built the pueblo’s first wooden residence—known as “La casa de tres picos” and “The Three Sisters”—among other properties.(2)

View of the Los Angeles Plaza, first known photograph of Los Angeles, c. 1857–1861
California Historical Society Collections at University of Southern California

Late that year, Dalton increased his land holdings.(3) In December 1844 he obtained the deed for the purchase of the rancho El Susa (The Azusa) from Luis Arena, who had been granted the land from the Mexican government in 1841. The Azusa Rancho de Dalton (present-day San Gabriel Valley) was desirable property. Located at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, with direct access to the San Gabriel River, it supported the cultivation of a variety of crops—including grapes, avocados, grains, oranges, cotton, and tobacco(4)—and multiple ventures undertaken by Dalton as he expanded his acreage to about 48,000.(5)

Detail, Aumento de tierra Asusa: [Calif.] / Rancho Azusa (Calif.), 1840s
Courtesy The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

In addition to maintaining a residence and herds of cattle, horses, and sheep, Dalton built an irrigation ditch, winery, distillery, tannery, grist mill, cotton gin, vinegar house, cigar house, and meat smokehouse. With “its strategic location, fertile soil, impressive irrigation potential,” noted one historian, the “fame of this progressive ranch had spread far and wide as one of the most diversified operations in southern California.”(6)

The Dalton Winery
Published in Sheldon G. Jackson, A British Ranchero in Old California: The Life and Times of Henry Dalton and the Rancho Azusa (Glendale/Azusa, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Company/Azusa Pacific College, 1977)

Such operations demanded a large work force and, like most rancheros Dalton drew from Native American populations and housed them on the land.(7) Some sources indicate that the Azusa Bell was used at the rancho as a dinner bell(8) or chapel bell.(9) In this way, it typifies the mission bells in Spanish- and Mexican-era California that called people to meals, to work, to religious services.

Dalton Homestead, c. 1870
Published in Keith Vosburg, Azusa Old and New: Being a True Recital of the Founding & Development of a California Community (Azusa, CA: Azusa Foot-hill Citrus Company, 1921)

Accounts of both the Azusa Bell’s use and fate vary. “On September 13, 1845,” according to C.C. Baker’s 1916 publication, “there arrived at Azusa a bell which Dalton had had cast at Tepie, Mexico. It was hung on posts before the ranch house, and was used to call the people to meals. It now hangs in the belfry of the Catholic church in Azusa, at the corner of Centre street and Pasadena avenue.(10)
In 1932 the History and Landmarks Section of the Covina Woman’s Club published a paper based on the work of Keith Vosburg, whose accounts, the club deemed, were “undoubtedly authentic, as he says he had access to Mr. Dalton’s diaries and other papers, which are in the possession of Mr. Dalton’s grandson, Roger Dalton of Azusa. Mr. Roger Dalton has seen this paper and has given it his approval.”(11)

The paper reprinted the history of the Azusa Bell as it was reported in the September 1931 issue of the Azusa Herald:
The bell was cast for Henry Dalton in 1845 at the town of San Blas in Old Mexico, and brought aboard the Dalton private sailing ship to the port of Los Angeles, thence overland to the Azusa Rancho, where it was used as a chapel bell for many years until it was loaned to the Azusa Catholic Church. On one side of the rim of the bell is engraved the words, “Maria del Refugio” (Mary of the Refuge), and on the other side the date “1845.” On the opposite side is a cross engraved in the metal. The date, 1845, is in raised letters.(12)
“The bell,” the 1932 paper continued, “was used in the church until last year when it was replaced with a new one and the old bell is now in the possession of Mr. Dalton’s son, Joseph, who lives in Azusa.”(13)

In 2007, one researcher noted that the bell—“weighing 375 pounds and measuring 24 x 24 inches in diameter”—was featured in a parade down Foothill Boulevard during May 1937 Azusa Golden Jubilee 50th Anniversary Celebration. Photographs of the bell in the collection of Azusa Pacific University have been indexed as “Azusa Rancho Bell, Lost in 1938 Flood.”(14)

The Azusa Bell
Courtesy Azusa Pacific University, Special Collections

The California Historical Society’s donation letter, dated June 9, 1972, suggests a more intriguing destiny. The letter indicates that Henry Dalton brought the Azusa Bell from Lima,  Peru—where many California mission bells were cast—and that Henry’s grandson Roger Dalton (1888–1952) used it in his duties as Master of Rituals for E Clampus Vitus, a fraternal order dating from the Gold Rush.(15) As the letter recalls, the first few meetings of the order’s Los Angeles chapter “which were at the Dalton Ranch near by Asuza were called to order by the sound of the Azusa Bell rung by Roger Dalton.” The bell was taken by a descendent of the Zamorano family to San Andreas, Calaveras County, where it might still be to this day. “This Bell is probably the most historic item in Calaveras County and they don’t know they have it,” the letter writer surmised.(16)

Donation Letter to the California Historical Society, June 9, 1972
California Historical Society

Regardless of these discrepancies, Henry Dalton’s multivolume Daily Occurrences at Azusa, a meticulous, bilingual account, attests to the bell’s importance: “locked the Bell poles,” and “to canyon for sticks for Bell,” Dalton wrote in response to floods and other weather-related maintenance.(17)

Whether or not the bell’s fate is eventually determined, the photograph invites us to consider its place in the life of a California family, its role in California history, and perhaps more imaginatively its call to us over the years.


  1. Principal sources consulted for this essay include: C. C. Baker, “Don Enrique Dalton of the Azusa,” in Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California 10, no. 3 (1917): 17–35, hereafter cited as Baker, “Don Enrique” (1917), and in The Grizzly Bear (September 1916), 4, 10–11, hereafter cited as Baker, “Don Enrique” (1916); Sheldon G. Jackson, A British Ranchero in Old California: The Life and Times of Henry Dalton and the Rancho Azusa (Glendale and Azusa, CA: The Arthur H. Clark Company and Azusa Pacific College, 1977); and Keith Vosburg, Azusa Old and New: Being a True Recital of the Founding & Development of a California Community (Azusa, CA: Azusa Foot-hill Citrus Company, 1921). 
  2. Baker, “Don Enrique Dalton of the Azusa” (1917). 
  3. The fate of the Dalton rancho during California’s transition years from Mexican to U.S. rule has been well documented. See, for example, Baker, “Don Enrique” (1917).
  4. Donald Pflueger, “From Castor Beans to Citrus in Glendora,” The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly 31, no. 4 (December 1949), 247–48.
  5. “History of Azusa Rancho Accepted by History and Landmarks Section,” Covina Citizen, January 28, 1932.
  6. Jackson, A British Ranchero in Old California, 164–70, 171.
  7. “Aside from a few American workmen, labor on the Azusa,” Keith Vosburg writes, “was entirely furnished by the Cahuilla Indians, recruited from a tribal settlement near San Bernardino. They had their huts (jacals) on the hill east of the Dalton homestead”; Vosburg, Azusa Old and New, 18. It should also be noted that the rancho’s name derived from the Gabrielino term for the native village in the region, Asukasa-gna,, and the Serranos name Ashuksha-vit; Vosburg, Azusa Old and New, 9.
  8. Baker, “Don Enrique” (1916), 11.
  9. “History of Azusa Rancho,” Covina Citizen, 7.
  10. Baker, “Don Enrique” (1916), 11.
  11. “History of Azusa Rancho,” Covina Citizen, 7.  
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Jeffrey Lawrence Cornejo Jr., Azusa (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2007), 104; Roger Dalton Collection, Azusa Pacific University, Special Collections email correspondence, September 7, 2016.  
  15. The group’s motto, Credo Quia Absurdum (“believe because it is absurd”), suggests an eccentricity that does not appear to be lost among the group’s preservation efforts today. See Jesse McKinley, “Promoting Offbeat History Between the Drinks,” New York Times, October 13, 2008.
  16. Unidentified donor to California Historical Society, June 9, 1972.
  17. Henry Dalton, Daily Occurrences at Azusa, June 7, 1860, vol. II: 1856–1860 and January 19, 1861, vol. III, 1861–1864, Henry Dalton Collection, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

Friday, April 14, 2017

Not Everything is Digitized: The Art of Discovery in a Public Archive

By Ivy Anderson and Devon Angus

The public archive is a sacred space; like any public library, these spaces offer free, democratic access to information and are staffed by trained professionals ready to help you turn that information into knowledge. In our capitalist society, access to information usually comes with a price. One must pay for Internet access, higher education, museum entrance fees, journal subscriptions, but public archives are accessible for anyone, for free. As amateur researchers, the California Historical Society archive was an indispensable resource for us, a space of transformative discovery, where our casual fascination with yesteryear lead us into a multi-year research process that culminated in the publication of an award winning book, Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute (Heyday, 2016).

Neither of us had advanced degrees, but we are both the type of people who become immediately excited by the smell of musty old paper. We’d visited archives as college students, working on research papers. We’d done our duty, using snippets of primary documents to assist our papers, looking for something to give us a bump in grades. This felt professional, yet temporary. Archives were for academics or students, we’d thought. We’d most likely move on and have little future use for them. As historians working outside of academia, we sometimes felt nervous about our access to archives. But as we went down the rabbit-hole of discovery, neither of us could stop. We’d go to the CHS archive on our weekends for the thrill of revelation; each slip of paper told a story, held a clue, added depth to our own understandings of the past and thus the present.

During our first visits to the archive as independent researchers, we were admittedly a bit embarrassed about our inexperience. There seemed to be a code of conduct that we weren’t yet aware of. When were you supposed to wear those little white gloves while handling documents? Were you always welcome to photograph the documents? It is laughable, now that we have developed relationships with many of the librarians at the CHS archive, but early on we were nervous to reveal our lack of experience to the librarians in charge. We had unknowingly bought into a tragic myth of the archive: that it is a pretentious space, a space meant for professionals and professionals only. It wasn’t long before this myth was, thankfully, shattered.

Looking through the James Rolph Jr. papers, a collection of one of San Francisco’s most colorful mayors (1912-1931), we were on the hunt for information concerning the closure of San Francisco’s infamous vice district of yore, the Barbary Coast. We had discovered evidence of a prostitute’s memoir, published by the controversial newspaperman Fremont Older in the San Francisco Bulletin at some point during Rolph’s mayoral tenure. We were working through the early stages of research, and still not fully comfortable. Instead of asking our librarians for assistance, we confined our research to the names, dates, and files we found in our own secondary research. As we sifted through folders, quiet as church mice, we heard a loud man enter. His sharp boots, echoing his speech, broke the cathedral-like solemnity of the room with an urgent request: he needed to get to Bodie, a ghost town in the Eastern Sierras, that weekend, and he needed information. What information, he wasn’t sure about. Could they help him? We paused over the hand-written letters to Rolph in 1913 complaining about interracial dancing in the Barbary Coast. His gregarious demeanor and eccentric request seemed to break all of these unwritten “codes” of intellectual propriety that we had tried to emulate within the holy archive. Would he be shushed and shunned? Is that not what every librarian in every film depiction throughout history would have done? Of course, the librarians were nothing but helpful, warm, and knowledgeable. They were soon deep in conversation with the Bodie-bound man. Advice and information was passed back and forth without a single stroke of a computer button. This moment struck us as something essential about libraries and archives that had been passed by in the digital age. It made us feel much more comfortable working with the staff, where before we had been perhaps too shy.

While we certainly did much of our research online, there were several instances where the online materials were either non-existent, incomplete, or simply inaccurate. None of the documents that lead us to our ultimate discovery, the memoir of the San Francisco based prostitute “Alice Smith,” written in 1913, existed online. Our project depended upon the diligent preservation of materials by librarians. While we found one mention of Smith’s memoir on a Wikipedia page, there were all sorts of inaccuracies in the article. It appeared that few, if any, had actually read her memoirs since they had been serialized in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1913. Every book we had found that spoke of the publication had either gotten the date wrong or didn’t mention a date at all. Many sources dated the publication of her story to 1917, though we were doubtful. We eventually found Alice’s memoirs on microfilm after scrolling for days through years of one of the city’s most popular dailies, housed on the 5th floor of San Francisco’s Main Library. We spent countless hours, days, and months, in cafes, bars, libraries, and our living room transcribing the hundreds of pages of Alice’s story from the scanned microfilm.

At the California Historical Society’s archives, we found vital primary documents that helped us to unravel the story behind Alice. Letters written by 20th century anti-vice reformers to Mayor Rolph were typed on stationery branded with an iconic symbol of San Francisco’s 19th century vigilante gangs: the all-seeing eye. We had the pleasure of digging through the meeting minutes of early League of Women Voters organizers, in which they revealed the challenges they faced trying to do outreach with sex workers who wanted nothing to do with their anti-vice reform efforts. We had read letters penned to the Bulletin by sex workers in 1913, where they discussed how suspicious they were of the women’s clubs and their reform agenda. These handwritten meeting minutes, which were still being catalogued by the CHS and thus had not been looked at for many years, if not decades, contained admissions that reinforced our growing understanding of the complex divisions between the feminist ideals of Progressive Era reformers and the feminism of sex workers. At the University of Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, we found unsettling letters sent to Fremont Older, who had published Smith’s story in the San Francisco Bulletin, threatening to dynamite his home and office, written in an unnerving scrawl reminiscent of San Francisco’s own Zodiac-killer. We also, after a long search, discovered the possible real name of Alice Smith, a pseudonym. In 1913, Smith bemoaned the ways in which sex worker voices were marginalized and discarded by society. If it were not for the due diligence of later librarians and archivists, her story, too, would have faded away into obscurity. And if it were not for the principle of the public library, the public archive, us amateurs would have never had the opportunity to engage in this work, work that has defined and shaped our lives, and, we hope, the lives of our readers.

Ivy Anderson and Devon Angus are both writers, artists, and activists based in San Francisco. Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute, which won the 2015 California Historical Society Book Award, is their first book.

For more information about Alice: Memoirs of a Barbary Coast Prostitute, please visit:

Thursday, April 13, 2017

National Library Week: "Damned Disruptor"

[Portrait of Leland Stanford], California Historical Society, CHS2017_2278
In undertaking a major book project very much about California’s ribald past and how it is shaping its crazy present and fascinating future, I have found the California Historical Society to be an unusually critical component in my work. Having plumbed many regional historical societies from New England, to the Midwest and certainly here in our glorious Golden State, the California Historical Society distinguishes itself time after time as a premier repository of vital historic fact and perspective. More than that is the astonishing help the research librarians at the society so cheerfully and competently supply in my ambitious explorations.

My book, Damned Disruptor: Leland Stanford & the Scandalous History of How One Man Created Silicon Valley’s Upheaval of Almost Everything We Do, (Skyhorse Publishing, NY, expected to be finished sometime next year) relies heavily on primary sources, both unexamined and unappreciated. I initially came to the society’s research library with some skepticism. But from the first I found priceless materials for my work at the California Historical Society such as a surprising letter from John Sutter to Mariano Vallejo that cast a sharp illumination I had not seen anywhere in any research.

As a UC Berkeley history graduate and long–time Bay Area investigative journalist, I know the value of serious archival research and those rare places such as the Bancroft, Huntington and California Historical Society that make it possible. I am indebted to it and all those who work at and support the institution.

Roland De Wolk