Emperor Norton at a Pro-Civil Rights Lecture, March 1868
[NOTE: This piece includes an editorial item from 1868 that makes repeated use of the n-word.]
FOR ALL the stories of Emperor Norton’s practice of alternating between wearing blue and gray military coats, as a gesture of political neutrality and equanimity, there can be little doubt that the Emperor was a Union man and a Republican — as Republicanism came to be symbolized in the 1860s and ‘70s by the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln.
One index of these sentiments is Emperor Norton’s Proclamations and other apparent gestures of support for African-American equality.
In 1871 and 1874, the Emperor issued Proclamations insisting on the rights of African-Americans to attend public schools and ride public streetcars. The Proclamations were published in the Pacific Appeal, an abolitionist weekly owned and edited by Peter Anderson, an African-American activist and editor who was respected and influential as an intellectual and political leader of blacks on the Pacific coast. Anderson had taken on Emperor Norton as a regular contributor to the Appeal in late 1870 and, over the next four-and-a-half years, would publish some 250 of the Emperor’s Proclamations.
Peter Anderson and Emperor Norton may have met in November 1869, when the Emperor attended a lecture by Anderson in support of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Amendment — passed by Congress in February 1869 and then on the way to being ratified in February 1870 — extended the vote to men of color.
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MORE THAN a year-and-a-half before Anderson’s lecture of November 1869, Emperor Norton attended another lecture where advocacy for civil rights was high on the agenda.
In September 1867, the Grant Club — a San Francisco political club — reorganized and renamed itself the Order of Freedom's Defenders.
The Freedom's Defenders club was dedicated to dedicated to preserving Lincoln's legacy; advancing Reconstruction; electing Grant as President; and securing the Constitutional protections necessary to guarantee the civil rights of African-Americans.
The club's early organizational hub was the Mechanics’ Institute (see 17 September 1867 notice in the Daily Alta California newspaper). But, its regular gathering place for large-scale public events was Platt's Music Hall. The hall, built in 1860 at the northeast corner of Montgomery and Bush, had a capacity of 3,000 and was one of San Francisco's major theater / auditorium spaces until it was demolished in 1890.
In spring 1868, Freedom's Defenders held a lecture series at Platt's Hall. The second of these lectures, on 24 March 1868, was by General Oscar Hugh La Grange (1837–1915).
La Grange, a staunch abolitionist and a Union Civil War hero, was born in upstate New York but settled in San Francisco after the war, becoming the supervisor of the San Francisco Mint from 1869 — when the branch still was on Commercial Street, just a couple of doors down from Emperor Norton's residence — until 1877.
La Grange oversaw construction of what now is known as the Old Mint, which opened in 1874 at the northwest corner of Fifth and Mission Streets — and which remains one of the great landmarks of San Francisco, having survived the earthquake and fires of April 1906.
According to the next day’s edition of the San Francisco Examiner, Emperor Norton was in the room for La Grange’s lecture.
In March 1868, the Examiner was three-plus years in to a re-branding introduced with the paper’s edition of 12 June 1865, where the name “Examiner” first appeared on the banner. The paper originated as a pro-Confederate, pro-slavery paper called the Daily Democratic Press, which published its first number on 20 October 1863.
Those political commitments — and the editors and reporters that advanced them — still were in place in 1868. Only the name of the paper had changed. This was crystal clear in the Examiner’s “report” of the Platt’s Hall event:
“FREEDOM’S DEFENDERS” — “NIGGER” — “SOUTHERNERS TO BE HANGED, ETC., ETC.” — General La Grange, who "fought and bled” to set the “niggers” free, talked to the “Defenders” at Platt’s Hall last night. The price of admission had been put at twenty-five cents, but it was soon found good policy in order to insure a “rush” that the doors must be thrown open and Tom, Dick and Harry let in gratis. We noticed on the platform, as usual, the “blow-hard” Rev. Dr. [Henry] Cox, and others of that ilk. There were many Democrats present, out of curiosity. In the body of the audience were Emperor Norton, several negroes, etc. — just enough to give variety to the occasion. Presently, here came a middle-sized, thin, spare, consumptive-looking man, with moustache — sandy-colored. It was “Gen. La Grange.” He orated about an hour, reading from carefully prepared manuscript. The only paper paper represented on the stage was the Times, and poor Parsons, we pitied him. He looked as if his soul was not in his work — doing something very much against his will. The speaker’s discourse, as may be imagined, was made up of extravagant and coarse abuse of the Southern States — the “niggers” must be protected — Southerns hanged if they molest them — Reconstruction — Johnson must vacate his office — Grant must be President — and other stuff of like character we have not space to elaborate.
It seems clear that the Examiner’s reference to Emperor Norton — and perhaps the paper’s apparent effort to associate the Emperor with “several negroes” — was meant to discredit both the event and the Emperor.
But, surely, it is precisely the Emperor’s presence at this event — keynoted by a leading abolitionist and presented by an organization committed to expanding the franchise for African-Americans — that brings credit to him.
No doubt, there were those who, as the Examiner observed, made it their business to be in Platt’s Hall the evening of 24 March 1868 simply “out of curiosity.”
But, in light of Emperor Norton’s support for the Fifteenth Amendment the following year; his subsequent relationship with Peter Anderson and the Pacific Appeal; and his early 1870s Proclamations insisting on specific civil rights for African-Americans, the Emperor’s on-point attendance at this early event of the Order of Freedom’s Defenders can be seen as “of a piece” with his broader egalitarian commitment to African-American equality.
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