It was in San Francisco in the 19th century that blacks in the West first gained a public voice in their struggle for basic political and civil rights. At the heart of this campaign was a group of newspapers owned and operated by free blacks.
California Newspaper Hall of Fame inductee Philip Alexander Bell, the founding editor of The Elevator, helped shape the political discourse surrounding the contested issue of enfranchisement in the years immediately following the Civil War.
Desirous of realigning San Francisco’s cultural and racial boundaries, Bell positioned The Elevator as the centerpiece in the campaign to win blacks the vote.
While some blacks headed west in the 1850s out of fear of the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Law, the majority were free blacks driven by the same dream of economic prosperity that gripped thousands of other individuals following the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento Valley in January 1848.
Yet blacks quickly learned that the newness of fledgling communities such as San Francisco and Sacramento and the richness of the gold fields did not mean that they had escaped the age-old prejudices and fears of the racially entrenched dominant culture. In particular, they encountered discrimination in public accommodations, were denied access to public education, and lacked the right to submit testimony in a court of law. Bell’s new weekly newspaper first appeared on April 7, 1865, only two days before Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Va. In the five years leading up to passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, The Elevator provided an important regional voice in this national campaign to win blacks the vote.
Born in New York City in 1808 and educated there at the African Free School, Bell got his first job in journalism in 1831, when he became the New York City agent for The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s Boston-based abolitionist newspaper. Along with Frederick Douglass, Henry Garnet and Martin Delany, Bell emerged as one of the most vigorous black abolitionists of the antebellum period.
Among his strongest supporters in San Francisco was a group of influential black Californians who represented the political power of the state’s Colored Convention, which had organized in 1855. Comprised largely of the educated elite from across the state, the Executive Committee was responsible for establishing and implementing programs and policies that would benefit California’s black population.
Although The Elevator addressed many issues that affected the black community in San Francisco, none was more important than the republican tenet of “Equality before the Law.” This motto, which was printed on the masthead, represented the underlying philosophy of the newspaper.
Before The Elevator’s appearance, the rhetoric of San Francisco’s black reformers can be characterized as pedantic. Writers had put forth the reasons they believed they deserved the vote in a sterile, straightforward fashion. Little emotion charged their language. A sense of history did not inform their arguments. The underlying principle, they seemed to believe, was enough. Furthermore, these previous leaders were reluctant to organize public demonstrations to show off the community’s solidarity in regards to this issue.
Influenced by his long abolitionist career, however, Bell revitalized the debate by infusing his weekly newspaper with a more assertive style.
While engaging others was a common practice in The Elevator, Bell was cognizant enough to realize that pointed attacks on white society would not resolve the problems of his constituency. As a result, Bell adopted a rhetorical strategy that emphasized the basic political allegiance that blacks and whites shared. He hoped to advance the cause of equal suffrage by demonstrating the overwhelming patriotism of the black population.
As Bell attempted to use his newspaper to bridge the divisions that separated the different races, the majority of those within the mainstream press wanted to keep the races apart. Most California newspapers at this time were against the idea of equal suffrage. The most-often-repeated reason the vote should not be given to blacks stemmed from the belief that blacks were by nature intellectually and culturally inferior to whites. Invoking the foundations of American history was another of Bell’s means toward his end. Yet, while it might have been easy to use examples that portrayed America at its worst, Bell instead published articles that pointed with pride to some of the nation’s finest moments as a means of drumming up support for black enfranchisement
In his editorials, Bell repeatedly returned to this theme. Faithful to the Republican Party, respectful of American institutions and customs, and dedicated to the progress of their community, blacks represented, in Bell’s opinion, America’s most ideal citizens.
Less than three months after Ulysses S. Grant was elected president, Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment, prohibiting the federal and state governments from depriving any citizen the right to vote on racial grounds. As Congress sent the proposed amendment to the states for ratification, The Elevator closely followed the process in each state.
Although California failed to pass the amendment, it was adopted by the necessary two-thirds majority of states and was ratified in February 1870. As the news spread across California, black communities came together to celebrate the victory. In San Francisco, the Executive Committee raised nearly $1,000 in two months in order to hold a grand celebration that included a procession and an evening dinner dance.
For the 62-year-old Bell and others who had worked tirelessly for years to win blacks the vote, this moment represented the culmination of a lifetime’s work. For Bell, however, the fight for other gains continued. No sooner was the amendment party over than he returned to his newspaper to continue writing on behalf of his race and his community. He published The Elevator for another 15 years. Illness finally forced him to retire in 1885. Now 77 years old, Bell was both physically and financially crippled.
For the last four years of his life, he lived on meals donated by the Palace Hotel kitchen help and funds raised by volunteers. On April 25, 1889, he died in a San Francisco almshouse. Memorialized by sociologist William W. Brown as the “Napoleon of the colored press,” Philip Bell provided unparalleled leadership in the campaign for racial equality.
Excerpted from “Beneath the Shadow of Her Flag: Philip A. Bell’s The Elevator and the Struggle for Enfranchisement” by Frank H. Goodyear