The same year as the Dred Scott decision, 1857, the daughter of Peter Lester, one of the leaders of the Underground Railroad in San Francisco and California, was denied admission to a school because of her race. It was less than a decade after Capt. William Alexander Leidesdorff dedicated California’s first public school. But by 1854, colored students were placed in a segregated school on Broadway. The exclusion of Lester’s daughter was one of the incidents which led to the Exodus of 1858 when 700 of San Francisco’s 1,500 black residents moved to Victoria, British Columbia at the invitation of the black provincial governor James Douglass.
Those who stayed continued the fight for justice. Mary Ellen Pleasant would fund the case of Charlotte Brown, the teenaged daughter of her associate James Brown, in the 1864 case which found that street car segregation was illegal. Later that year, she would file her own case on the same issue.
By 1872, soon after the passage of the 15th Amendment, Mary Frances Ward, an eleven-year-old would attempt to enter Broadway Grammar School, which had been reserved for white students. When the principal, Noah Flood, refused her admission, her parents, A.J. and Harriet Ward, filed suit in the case Ward v. Flood to end school segregation. That case was unsuccessful exactly 80 years before Brown v. Board of Education.
In 1890, Wysinger v. Cruickshank did end school segregation in California, 64 years before Brown vs. Board of Education. The sites of Lester, Leidesdorff, Ward, Pleasant and the schools are part of the African-American Freedom Trail in San Francisco, a collection of locations which contributed to the growth of democracy in the United States and worldwide. More details on the history of civil rights litigation in California can be found in Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in San Francisco. or in the documentary The African-American Freedom Trail.
It matters that California school children like Earl Warren in the early 20th century were already accustomed to attending integrated schools. Among his playmates in Bakersfield were the brothers of Mrs. Tarea Hall Pittman, the regional director of the NAACP, and a fellow graduate of the UC-Berkeley, like Warren. One of Warren’s friends at Berkeley was Walter Gordon, the school’s first black football player and later among the first black policemen in Oakland, when Warren would start his political career as district attorney.
In Oakland, Warren would see the extraordinary role of African-Americans in the World War II victory and witness the integrated labor unions along the waterfront. In 1946, California would vote on an initiative to create a fair employment practices law. He would be governor of California when Loren Miller,, a Los Angeles attorney, would win the U.S. Supreme Court case ending restrictive racial covenents for real estate subdivisions and when Pasadena’s Jackie Robinson, a UCLA alumnus, would desegregate major league baseball.