Emperor Norton in Black San Francisco: Resources, Video and Links | Mechanics' Institute

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Emperor Norton in Black San Francisco: Resources, Video and Links

In September 2020, MI hosted John Lumea of the Emperor Norton Trust for the talk Emperor Norton in Black San Francisco: Empire Day Notes on SF's Monarch of the Marginalized. This talk was MI’s kickoff event to the annual history festival in the City, San Francisco History Days, but also an observation of the precise day when Joshua Abraham Norton (a failed Gold Rush era rice merchant who had suffered a mental breakdown) declared himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States.

Norton was what we’d call “a heavy user” of the Institute’s services, enjoying both the Library’s resources and the delights of the Chess Room from roughly 1857 till his death in 1880. An astute social observer, the Emperor considered himself a leader in the City’s socio-political whirl. He was a regular at a lot of places where decisions were made as shown in this interactive map. The Mechanics' Institute was one of the Emperor’s regular afternoon haunts: a place where he wrote many of his Proclamations — on Institute stationery — where he kept up with all the local papers (including the Pacific Appeal and the Elevator), and where he is reputed to have played a mean game of chess.

If you missed the event, the link to the video is ready. During the event, John Lumea and I both referenced certain essays, books and primary source documents relevant to the subject matter.  I hope you enjoy them and if you have any questions, please contact me: Taryn Edwards, [email protected]

About Emperor Norton

The Emperor Norton Trust is a trove of information about all known (and suspected) aspects of Joshua Norton’s life. John specifically wanted to alert you to these articles:

Emperor Norton’s Early Engagement With an African-American Editor Reveals the Essence of the Emperor’s Mission — And Foreshadows a Key Relationship

The First State Convention of the Colored Citizens of the State of California; The Mirror of the Times; Philip Bell; Emperor Norton's engagement with Bell in the pages of the Mirror, August 1860; Bell and Peter Anderson as partners in converting the Mirror to The Pacific Appeal; the "break-up" of Anderson and Bell; Bell's diminishing view of the Emperor

Emperor Norton at a Pro-Civil Rights Lecture, March 1868

Freedom's Defenders and their March 1868 lecture at Platt's Music Hall, with General Oscar Hugh La Grange as the keynoter and Emperor Norton in the audience; San Francisco Examiner's withering coverage of the event.

Emperor Norton on the Front Row of the Fight for Ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment Removing Race as a Barrier to Voting

Peter Anderson's November 1869 lecture on the 15th Amendment at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, with Emperor Norton in the front row; San Francisco Examiner's coverage

THE LONGEST PROCLAMATION? Emperor Norton at the Lyceum for Self-Culture

Emperor Norton's regular attendance at meetings of the Lyceum, where black equality was a topic of discussion; Image and text of the Emperor's 430-word Proclamation of 1 August 1874, publish in Common Sense a "Journal of Live Ideas" that was associated with the Lyceum.

Notes on His Majesty's Printers

Includes information about The Pacific Appeal and Cuddy & Hughes, the printer of both the Appeal and Emperor Norton's promissory notes — plus photos c.1865–1874 showing the building, at 511 Sansome Street (southwest corner of Sansome and today's Mark Twain Street) that housed both the paper and the printer.

And here are some books about the black experience (with the exception of Negro Trail Blazers, all are available at MI’s library):

Seminal works include:

Rudolph Lapp's Blacks in Gold Rush California which should be available at all local libraries. It is overall a wonderful survey, but I can't completely trust all his arguments due to an inaccuracy involving the Mechanics' Institute. But aside from that, read it!

Another important work that is available online for free is Delilah Beasley's The Negro Trail Blazers of California. Beasley published this book in 1919 so it is perhaps the closest source to Norton's time and surely some of the people she discusses were still alive when she was writing it.

Other great books: 

Pioneer urbanites : a social and cultural history of Black San Francisco by Douglas Henry Daniels

Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California published by the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. 

Another one is In Search of the Racial Frontier by Quintard Taylor

Robert J. Chandler's San Francisco Lithographer: African American Artist Grafton Tyler Brown (2014).

And the brand new Archy Lee's Struggle for Freedom by Brian McGinty (2020).

Primary sources:

As far as primary sources that you can access right now, the California Digital Newspaper Collection has in full text the papers Pacific Appeal and the Elevator. 

Mifflin Gibbs, a Gold Rush era businessman and intellectual mover and shaker, wrote a wonderful autobiography that mentions his life in San Francisco called Shadows and Light - See chapters 3-6.

John mentioned the first State Convention of the Colored Citizens of California. The proceedings for that meeting is available here: https://archive.org/details/proceedings00cali but there were four between 1855-1865 and possibly a fifth according to this resource, the Colored Conventions Project, which aims to provide primary source material from conventions that took place NATIONWIDE. The proceedings for all 4 California events are available here.

When life gets back to normal and libraries and museums open up please check out:

The San Francisco Public Library – History Center

The Oakland Public Library's African American Museum and Library

The Society of California Pioneers 

And contact the California Historical Society to learn when their library resources will be available.

Meanwhile, San Francisco History Days has a couple events that are relevant to this topic (I am sure there are more!):

On Saturday, September 26 check out:

1:00pm - : Revealing San Francisco's Hidden 19th-Century Black History: A Tour of California Historical Society Artifacts with the Institute for Historical Study by Susan D. Anderson, an amazing local scholar and current History Curator and Program Manager for the California African American Museum. Recent essays by her can be found here: https://californiahistoricalsociety.org/blog/author/dsfgafsdg/

3:00pm - I am offering my talk Libraries of the Barbary Coast in which I mention the Athenaeum, the library and learning center founded by the black community of San Francisco in 1853.

Posted on Sep. 23, 2020 by Taryn Edwards