Grimes told his own story so Regina Mason could amplify it
From that inauspicious beginning in 1852, Bethel A.M.E., two other churches and two Prince Hall lodges in San Francisco have attained their 160th anniversary. Nothing was more important to them, in a deeply personal sense, than ending slavery. The sixth annual Preserving California Black Heritage conference has spent the week documenting the extraordinary heights they climbed to bring that goal about. Friday, Rick Moss, State Historical Resources Commissioner, appears at Third Baptist Church at 4 p.m.
That was the same year that the relatives of Regina Mason arrived in California, a story she has unraveled over the past 20 years in her book The Life of William Grimes (OXFORD) and an upcoming film Gina's Journey.
It began in the fifth grade, as she related at Bethel Thursday afternoon, when she was asked to trace her family's roots in an oral assignment. She was frustrated by the lack of information until her mother took her to an aunt who gave her three clues. She had an ancestor named Grimes who was in the Underground Railroad and lived in New Haven, CT. "
That was exciting because it gave me something to be proud of, resisting slavery," said Mason. Mason had her own children when she decided to dig further. After long hours of going through books, she finally found a reference to William Grimes, who escaped as a stowaway by hiding in cotton bales in a ship which arrived in New York.
Grimes was spirited by David Ruggles to safety in New Haven, where he published the first fugitive slave narrative in 1825. "We have to put that in context," said Mason. "The narratives of the 1830s and 1840s had white sponsors who often helped with writing and publishing. Grimes did this completely on his own. It was even before Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper."
His children moved to California in the Gold Rush, where a granddaughter became a famous thespian in the latter 19th century. They were among 2,000 African-Americans which Ranger Guy Washington has documented in California with ties to the Underground Railroad. For the past dozen years, Washington has been western regional coordinator for the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
One of the objectives of the conference, themed The Resilience of Faith: the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, is the creation of an African-American Freedom Trail beginning with the Underground Railroad. The objectives of the abolition movement have continued a century and a half later.
In the audience were current fifth graders from Meadows-Livingstone School who are thoroughly grounded in African-American heritage. School founder Gail Meadows confirmed the same impact that Mason felt. "When they have a sense of where their roots are, they have unlimited possibilities."