The Incredible Jerry Forney
I have to say, when I first heard his story, it read like tall tale or legend, much like the stories of Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Bigger than life heroes, for sure; so the skeptical side of me decided to do some fact checking. What I discovered, despite the erroneous claim that he was the first black person to live in Santa Barbara, made me a believer. Jerry Forney was incredible!
Jeremiah A. Erwin was born into slavery on the Erwin family’s Bellevue Plantation in Burke County, North Carolina, about 1821. (Surnames of slaves were usually that of the mother’s owner.) Burke County was a non-staple producing area, meaning that soil, climate, and poor farm-to-market transportation made the area unsuited for growing the cash crops of cotton or rice. Most farms were self-sufficient. Though enslaved people were used for farming, they were also put to other work and often hired out as labor, with wages coming back to their owners. Slaves were employed in shops, in household manufacturing, gold mining, public works such as road maintenance, and in building the railroads.
In 1852, Jerry, along with other people held in bondage by the Erwins, was taken to work the California gold fields, most likely by Colonel Joseph J. Erwin, who had earlier engaged in gold mining in North Carolina. Jerry and the others worked for a long time in the gold mines near Marysville, and their wages were sent home to Erwin.
The Compromise of 1850 had declared California a free state and the rest of the lands won from Mexico in 1848 as open to popular sovereignty. The odious part of the compromise was a stronger fugitive slave law, which made it illegal for people in the free states to help runaway slaves or refuse to help catch runaways if called upon. Heavy fines and jail time were the consequence of giving aid to escaped slaves.
Nevertheless, after two years working the mines in California, Jerry decided to liberate himself and refused to do any more work in bondage. At this time, he took the name Forney, because that was the name of his father’s owner. Also, perhaps, since Jeremiah Erwin might be on the runaway slave list, Jerry Forney would not. The Jacob Forney Jr. family’s plantation, where Jerry’s father was enslaved, lay next to the Erwin plantation.
Jerry continued working in the California mines along with other African Americans and was still there in 1858 when the San Joaquin Republican published the following notice: “On the eastern side of Pompey’s Hill, Jerry Forney, a colored man, in sinking a well, at the depth of twenty-eight feet, came to rich pay dirt, and he and the other colored folks here are preparing to work it.” Jerry was still in Amador County in 1870, and lived in Ione, a Gold Rush supply town nicknamed “Bed Bug.” The Census for that year says he owned $600 worth of real estate and had a personal wealth of $100. ($600 then translates as about $12,000 today.)
Joining the Circus
By 1873, Jerry had had it with “Freeze Out,” another pet name for Ione, and joined the circus. Montgomery Queen’s Circus advertised thrilling trick riders, exciting trapeze artists, the world’s finest ascensionists, unrivaled acrobats, and the amazing boneless man. The Great Menagerie featured a large collection plundered from Africa and other climes. The unsurpassed street parade displayed the largest elephant that ever crossed the continent, a monster Bengal tiger, a genuine zebra as well as ibex, kangaroos, hyenas, sacred cow and calf, and an ostrich. Jerry’s stunt was riding a trick mule that he had trained himself. It was, apparently, a hard life, and Jerry was getting on in years.
Montgomery Queen’s Circus came to Santa Barbara on November 3 and 4 of 1874, and, as the story goes, left without Jerry and his mule. By July 1875, Jerry had registered to vote in Santa Barbara County and found work as a laborer. According to his obituary, he appeared in the centennial celebration parade in 1876 on his mule, wearing broken shackles and carrying an American flag, impersonating, in reality, the freedman. (Though the newspaper made no report of it at the time.) To earn his living, the budding entrepreneur opened the very first bootblack stand in the city at the Occidental Hotel, and he joined the Baptist church. Jerry had arrived.
Jerry Forney soon became part and parcel of the fabric of the Santa Barbara community. He was affable, talented, wise and entrepreneurial, and despite being denied an education, he could read and write a little, though his spelling was extremely creative. He was well-liked and enormously popular, so much so that his activities, welfare, and ideas were often reported in the newspaper.
Jerry worked as porter and lived in one of the staff rooms at the Occidental Hotel. In 1878, he was called upon to testify at the coroner’s inquest into the murder of Ah Yung. His testimony was transcribed as follows: “Ah Chung told me that Ah Yung told the boss that he [Ah Chung] was drunk and the boss discharged him; … he spoke about the trouble in a very angry manner; … Ah Chung told me last week that Ah Yung wanted to have him turned off, and that he was going to get his son for second cook and wanted me to use my influence with the bosses; I discovered the body this morning … lying on his face, dead, about 15 feet from the door.”
Having grown up in the South, Jerry’s accent was pronounced and tinged with remnants of patois. His admirers found it charming and amusing, and the Morning Press was wont to publish little snippets of his conversation. Jerry was quite the entertainer as well. When Bert’s Dramatic Troupe was in town to play at Lobero’s Opera House, several members joined Jerry to give an outdoor, free entertainment in front of the Occidental Hotel in the afternoon. “Quite a crowd gathered to listen to the old time negro melodies by the entire company; and to witness the dancing of ‘Jaba’ by Prof. Forney, which was done in his usual artistic style.”
Forney’s Colony Plan
In 1881, Jerry’s entrepreneurial nature took a different turn, one that was reported as far away as Sacramento. “Jerry Forney, a colored man at Santa Barbara, is arranging an exodus of colored people from his old home in North Carolina.”
Locally, the Press reported, “Mention was made in these columns sometime since, of a plan of Jerry Forney to induce a number of colored people to emigrate here from North Carolina… A paper setting forth that a limited number of colored people, who would be willing to work for reasonable compensation, has been circulated by Jerry, and has received upwards of five hundred signatures, who number among them our best and wealthiest people.
“Forney has opened a correspondence with an old acquaintance of his, and by the latter is informed that a colored colony of good mechanics, farm laborers, and house servants could easily be formed to come here, if their passage money be sent them. Jerry is confident he will succeed in his undertaking.”
To understand Jerry’s motivation in taking on this project at this time, one needs to remember that the Compromise of 1877 resulted in the beginning of the “Long Night” of racial segregation and subjugation. A disputed election between the party of Lincoln (Republicans) and their candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, and the party of the South (Democrats), who wanted Samuel J. Tilden, led to the terrible betrayal. The Democrats would agree to the election of Hayes if the North would remove its troops from the South. These troops had been stationed in the South to ensure that Reconstruction policies and programs that helped the former slaves were secure. Southerners, of course, promised to treat the freedmen fairly, but step by step, African Americans were denied the right to vote and segregation took hold. Violence against those who objected became common.
It is difficult to know how many African American families came to Santa Barbara at this time, but his scheme must have been somewhat successful, for as late as 1886, he was placing ads in the Morning Press such as the following: “A colored man and his wife want situations. No objections to going into the country. Apply to Jerry Forney, next to the Commercial Hotel.”
Jerry’s was not the only colonization plan at this time. As the situation for African Americans in the South deteriorated and the need for laborers in the West rose, colonies were established in California in such places as Shasta County and Fresno (1887 and 1888), and the A.M.E. in Los Angeles was involved in planning a colony in Lerdo, Sonora, Mexico, in 1891.
Jerry’s activities were constantly in the news. He acted on the Lobero stage when a travelling production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin came to town in 1881. That year he also participated in the annual multi-day Flower Carnival held at the Lobero Theatre. The Morning Press reported, “The most interesting feature of all, will probably be the exnouncement’ of the temperance principles of Jerry Forney.” Jerry also agreed to sing some songs from his former Carolina home.
When Major R.H. Hendershot, the heroic drummer boy of the Rappahannock, came to town, Jerry Forney participated in the closing tableau. It was entitled “Tenting on the Old Camp Ground” and showed a group of soldiers employed in their usual occupations while the famous song was sung. The audience was delighted to see Jerry on the stage. A haunting, beautiful rendition of the song that laments the tragedy and terrible losses for both sides during Civil War can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI67rO2zdC4
Jerry also immersed himself in the horticultural life of the community. He was experimenting with growing cotton and solicited the members of the Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society to experiment as well by giving them seeds. Jerry’s garden supplied his friends with clusters of fine large tomatoes and strawberries. The Morning Press reported, “Jerry has a typical southern garden and says he can raise the same things here as he did back there, though tomatoes the first of January are not common even in the South.” In 1891, he joined all the top horticulturalists in the area, like Kellogg, Cooper, Stow and Sexton, by sending an entry to the Agricultural Fair in Los Angeles. His was a cotton plant.
In 1885, Jerry, now about 64 years old, married 35-year-old Martha Harris. The two eventually moved to a house at 33 North Yanonali Street (today a parking lot on the southwest corner of Yanonali and Anacapa streets) and lived out their lives there. Martha worked at a laundry. In 1886, Jerry announced himself a candidate for mayor for the second time. Though he didn’t win, Jerry was not finished with politics; in 1890, he was on the ballot to be a delegate at the Republican primary.
In 1898, Jerry suffered a paralytic stroke and became crippled by his rheumatism. He was no longer able to work. They relied on Martha’s small earnings for their support and the generosity of his many friends. In 1903, Pio Calderon, a fellow bootblack who had learned his trade from Jerry, held a benefit for Jerry and Martha. He announced that the total receipts for that day would go to them.
In February 1904, Jeremiah A. Forney was summoned to meet his maker. He was nearly 90 years old. Despite its hardships, his was a life well lived. His influence on others of his race, his energy and spirit, his admirable amiability toward all people and his varied passions and interests made him a person who stood out from the rest. He would be missed. Though Jerry never had children, by 1908, there was another Forney family living in town. Their origins were Burke County, North Carolina. Their descendents live and work in Santa Barbara today, and many were members of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, which has recently been nominated to become a historic landmark. (More on that next time.)
Sources: Contemporary newspapers, City Directories, US. Census, Marriage Registry, Voter Registration Records; Ione city websites; Morganton, NC websites; Biographical History of North Carolina from Colonial Times to Present, edited by Ashe and Weeks, 1905; various websites on Bellevue and Forney plantations; “Slavery in Microcosm: Burke County, North Carolina” by Edward W. Phifer in The Journal of Southern History, Vol 28, No. 2 (May 1962), pp 137-165)