|Visalia Public Cemetery||1300 W. Goshen Ave., Visalia|
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New chapter opens in historical figure's civil rights 'journey'
Tribute: New marker placed at forefather of civil rights movement's grave.
VISALIA — A forefather of the nation’s civil rights movement was honored today in Visalia with the addition of a new marker at his grave.
Placement of the marker, done without ceremony, gives new life to the efforts of a man credited with heling to end the practice of separate-but-equal in California’s public schools.
Teresa Ramirez of Visalia was on hand with her daughter, 9-year-old Andrea Martinez, to see the new grave marker placed.
Andrea learned about Edmund Edward Wysinger for a school project last year at Hurley Elementary School.
Ramirez said she brought her daughter last year to Visalia Public Cemetery to see Wysinger’s grave — and found it was essentially unmarked. She soon learned of an effort to have the grave marked, and followed progress leading to today’s culmination.
Andrea placed the first faux flowers on the grave after the marker was seated, bringing a ceremonial end to a school project that spanned two academic years.
“She felt strongly about it,” Andrea’s mother said.
Visalia City Councilwoman Amy Shuklian was on hand for the event because of the significance of Wysinger’s accomplishments.
“This is a small piece of Visalia history,” she said.
The quest for a fitting tribute
Former Recorder staff member Nick Gayton researched Wysinger’s life for a report he wrote for The Recorder in February 2006, titled “History Lost: One Man’s Legacy.”
At the time, Gayton hoped to establish a foundation, to change the name of Lincoln Oval Park in Visalia to Edmund Wysinger Park, and to establish a monument and plaque in memory of Wysinger.
Gayton died before he could see his dream realized.
Gayton’s research into Wysinger’s life and struggles shows a man who wanted the best for his children, even if that meant taking his cause all the way to the California Supreme Court.
Wysinger, who was black, brought his son Arthur to Visalia High School on Oct. 1, 1888 and said, “Here is my boy to put in your school,” Gayton reported.
He was told by the teacher, S.A. Crookshank, to take his son to the “colored” school, thus excluding him from a public school established for white children.
Crookshank denied Wysinger’s request on the grounds that Visalia’s Board of Education provided separate schools for black children.
So began a two-year journey through California’s judicial system that ended in California’s highest court, a journey that saw the end of the notion of separate-but-equal in area public schools.
Wysinger’s case eliminated one of the last vestiges of school discrimination in 1890.
An icon of American civil rights, Edmund Wysinger’s legacy was somehow lost — seemingly stricken from Visalia’s public record and California history.
“I read about the case a couple of years ago, but was surprised that I had not heard of it prior to then,” Jim Vidak, superintendent of Tulare County Office of Education, said in February 2006 for Gayton’s report. “I’ve always believed that you should work together as a community to change the course of events, and this is one case that certainly did.”
The man behind the story
Edmund Edward Wysinger was born Edmond Bush on a South Carolina plantation in 1816. His father was from the Cherokee tribe and his mother was a black slave.
Bush was his Cherokee name, according to the entry on Wysinger found online on Wikipedia. He took on the name of his owner later in life.
The Wikipedia entry offers a great deal of detail about Wysinger’s life:
In 1849, at the age of 32, Wysinger and his German owner made the journey across the U.S. through hostile American Indian territory, traveling by ox team and covered wagon. They made the perilous trek to Grass Valley by way of the Donner Pass, named for the doomed Donner Party whose members perished after being caught in a snow storm.
The two 49ers arrived in California in early October during the height of the gold rush.
In doing so, Wysinger had already passed a milestone in history by being one of the first black men to migrate from the South to California.
Working in the mines of California’s Mother Lode gold belt, Wysinger and a group of other black miners surface-mined in and around Mormon, Mokelumne Hill, Placerville and Grass Valley. Place names like Negro Hill, Negro Bar and Negro Flat confirm the historical presence of blacks during the time. Wysinger mined all through the Grass Valley area including Murphy’s Camp, Diamond Springs and Mud Springs.
The allure of gold mining for blacks was more than wealth. It meant freedom — freedom to buy themselves out of slavery, freedom to escape their owners once in California, and freedom for relatives still living on Southern plantations.
After a year of grueling work, Wysinger bought his freedom — for $1,000. He met and married Pernesa Wilson in 1862 and shortly thereafter moved to Visalia.
Wysinger remained in Visalia and worked as a laborer and community preacher. He always stressed the importance of education for all his children.
He died in 1891 at the age of 75. His wife died two years later.
Wysinger and his wife had eight children; Jesse, Arthur, Walter, Rueben, Carl, Harvey, Martha and Susan.
Arthur Wysinger went on to become the first black student to graduate from public high school in Visalia. The family eventually moved to Oakland, where Jesse Wysinger worked as a reporter. Other family members owned a farm near Fowler.
A project completed
Mike Smith of Tulare unofficially inherited the Wysinger project after Gayton’s death. He kept the vision alive, bringing the people and the resources together leading to Thursday’s event.
He said the concept for a memorial changed after Gayton’s death, but was changed with an eye toward making Wysinger’s legacy more available to today’s youth.
“Nick wanted it at Lincoln Oval Park, but the kids will never go there. So we thought of a marker at the cemetery,” Smith, 47, said. “He wanted to see it done. He put a lot of heart into it.
“To me, it’s just a matter of giving proper due.”
The effort caught the attention of those working at the Visalia cemetery, who decided to get involved.
Visalia Cemetery District Manager Dona Shores said her involvement was “a personal thing.”
Sometime after Wysinger’s death in 1891 his vertical grave marker and that of a 7-year-old boy buried next to Wysinger, Charlie Belting, who also died in 1891, were broken. The remaining pieces were mixed together, and remained that way, flat on the ground, as time passed.
That’s one theory.
As the Wysinger project moved forward, Shores said cemetery officials had a professional stonemason look at the pieces. The result of that inspection, she said, was a finding that the pieces could have been from the same grave marker — but she said nothing’s certain on that score.
Ron Greenlee has worked at the cemetery for more than 20 years. He said the pieces have been arranged together for as long as he can remember, although he said he suspects they are from separate grave markers.
The final decision was to keep the 1891 stones together, and to place them adjacent to the new Wysinger grave marker.
“It’s been like that forever,” Greenlee said. “We like to find answers to some of these little enigmas here.”
“We have such a great history here,” Shores said. “We have so many historical characters buried here, including the last survivor of the Donner Party [Mary Graves Clarke, 1827-1891], so whenever we get information like this that’s a history lesson, I get involved.”
Shores said the new grave marker will allow school-age children and adults to come and learn about one of the region’s true civil rights heroes.
“I don’t think he was given enough credit in our history,” she said. “This man has real political clout. Here’s a black man who refused to sit at the back of the bus.”
Because he wouldn’t, Wysinger changed the course of history in the Valley and in California.
-- Contact Glen Faison at 784-5000, Ext. 1040, or email@example.com.