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8th graders and Madera’s Overcomers

For The Madera Tribune

Tenisha Armstrong, Director, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project Stanford University, stands beside her mother, Sandra Carol Edwards.


Scott Gandy and Samuel Colunga’s eighth graders are writing a book. It is an attempt to tell the story of a community — the African-American community in Madera. Such a thing has never been done before, so the authors fully understand the challenges that face them in this endeavor. First, they are young — most of them are 14 or 15 years of age, eighth grade history students.

Second, for the most part, they are not African-American themselves; therefore, they can only see through the glass, but darkly as they attempt to look at the past through the prism of the Black experience.

Nevertheless, as daunting as these challenges are, the students have chosen to face them, primarily because when the narrative of Madera is written, the chapter on its Black history will have too many blank pages. They would like to change that.

It will not be the story, but it will be a story — one that begins with adversity and ends with victory, for in the beginning black and white did not exist in Madera.

Madera was founded by Whites in 1876 and then populated by Whites. The first African-American resident of Madera didn’t come here until four years later. His name was Dexter Hunt, a 31 year-old porter who worked for Captain Russel Perry Mace in his hotel. He arrived in 1880.

For the next 20 years, Madera continued to grow, from 217 residents in 1880 to 2,500 in 1900. By comparison, the African-American population of Madera grew from that single individual in 1880 to 42 in 1900. For the next two decades of the 20th century, the influx of Black residents to Madera remained at a trickle, until the Great Western Migration of the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. That’s when the direction of Black migration changed from North to West, and that’s when the foundation for Madera’s African-American community was formed.

Research into Madera’s African-American community reveals three distinct patterns in the lives of the town’s Black residents. Consistent with what was going on in the rest of the country, the first phase, from 1900 to 1940 can be described as the “Jim Crow” stage. Although Madera managed to avoid the lynchings that swept the South, a Jim Crow mentality did exist here. Living in that portion of the southeast quadrant of town that was referred to as “Colored Town,” Blacks tended to stay “in their place,” filled the need for manual labor, and entertained the white majority by conforming to the caricature of “Steppen-fetch-it” that was forced on them through the newspapers, and from the performances at the Opera House.

By 1940, however, change was in the air. Black soldiers returned from WWII only to discover they were still second-class citizens. That was just as true in Madera as anywhere.

The Madera City Pool was closed to Black patrons. Black students were discouraged from using the Madera High School swimming pool. The Madera High School baseball team was refused service in a restaurant because one of its players was Black. The all-Black drill team had to march in back of the band in parades. Several restaurants in town posted signs indicating that Black patronage was not welcome.

At the same time that resistance to integration was forming in the South, resistance to racial discrimination was forming in Madera. Led by the ACLU, a group from Berkeley led a protest against Madera’s attempt to segregate its city pool. Cries of injustice were raised when racial discrimination raised its ugly head at the County Hospital. Then in 1959, the Rev. Naaman N. Haynes moved to Madera to pastor the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. He involved himself in the community like few before him had. He threw himself into the struggle for Civil Rights, an effort that even took him to the streets of Birmingham to march beside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When he moved from Madera in the early seventies, the second phase in the growth of the African-American community in Madera was plain to see. From the ‘40s to the ‘70s, Madera had passed from the “Jim Crow Era” to the “Civil Rights Stage.” Now the Black Community was prepared to rejoice with a host of leaders in forming a third phase in the history of Madera’s African-American community, the “Overcomers.”

The era of the “Overcomers” is characterized by the achievements of some of Madera’s African Americans who stood on the shoulders of those who came before them. They rose above discrimination to become examples of faith and determination to the entire community and beyond.

They include people like Chief Warrant Officer Kirk Edwards, director of the Cadet Bands at the U. S. Coast Guard Academy; Rev. Namaan Haynes, clergyman and champion for civil rights; Tenisha Armstrong, Director, Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project Stanford University; Donald Holley and Derek Robinson, first African American members of Madera’s City Council; B.J. Robinson, first African American elected to Madera Unified School District’s Board of Trustees; Dr. Albert Wilburn, Madera Union High School graduate, and many more.

Colunga and Gandy’s students will face the blank pages of Madera’s Black community and their sleuthing and synthesis will bring an important piece of Madera’s past out of the darkness into the light. Please be on the lookout for it.

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