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From Jim Crow to Civil Rights

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

Dr. Albert Wilburn will be among the African-Americans featured in a Madera Method history project that will relate the Black experience in Madera.


Madera was founded and first populated by whites. The first recorded African-American resident of Madera was Dexter Hunt, a 31-year-old porter who worked for Captain Russel Perry Mace in his hotel. He arrived here 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, and ‘60s. 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. The years 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, which 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 the compliant, happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care “Steppen-fetchit,” which was forced on them through the newspapers, and from the Opera House.

By 1940, however, change was in the air. Black soldiers were returning 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 an African-American.

The all Black drill team had to march behind the band in parades. Several restaurants in town posted signs indicating that Black patronage was not welcome.

At the same time that the South was engaged in the fight to maintain its Jim Crow culture, Madera was gearing up to resist racial discrimination. Led by the ACLU, a group from Berkeley held 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 left Madera in the late seventies, the second phase in the formation of the African-American community in Madera was plain to see. Madera had passed from the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights stage. Now the Black community was prepared to enter its third stage to sing with a host of Black leaders, “We Have Overcome.”

This brief overview of Madera’s African-American community in its formative stages has become the heartbeat of a Madera Method project, which seeks to tell the story of Madera’s Black populace. Two eighth grade classes, one at Eastin-Arcola School and the other at La Vina School, have researched its history and are publishing their findings in two parts.

The first has been entitled, “Madera’s Journey from Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Journalistic Record.” The second will be named, “Madera’s Journey from Jim Crow to Civil Rights: Personal stories of Courage.”

Led by their teachers, Scott Gandy (Eastin-Arcola) and Samuel Colunga (La Vina), the students have analyzed articles out of the archives of the Madera Mercury and the Madera Tribune as well as personal narratives provided by some of those who were part of Madera’s evolution from Jim Crow to civil rights.

In “The Journalistic Record,” the reader will find newspapers articles from 1903 to 1966. Each article was chosen because it reflects some aspect of the Jim Crow mentality that once existed in Madera. The articles are arranged chronologically, and preceding each one is an introduction.

As one follows this journalistic trail left by local newspaper reporters from years past, Madera’s journey from Jim Crow to civil rights unfolds. The record shows that from 1900 to the late 1930s, Madera made no attempt to hide its Jim Crow mentality. The articles reflect an attitude of condescension and at times outright hostility toward African-Americans.

By the 1940s, however, the tone of the articles begins to change. By that time, Blacks had begun to stand up against racial discrimination, and that shift dominates the news as it relates to African-Americans.

Then by the late ‘50s, the push for civil rights becomes stronger until in the late 1960s, it becomes obvious that Madera’s Black community has “overcome.”

The teachers and students state this book is only the beginning of an attempt to fill some of the blank pages in the history of Madera’s African-Americans. Its sequel, Personal stories of Courage,” will no doubt enhance the project by allowing leaders of the Black community to speak for themselves.


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