Standing Witness – Peter & Anna Cassey, Henrietta Lockwood
SJSU 4-18-15 talk given by Rev. Jerry Drino

Against the Odds

April 18, 1865.  The Civil War is over.  Shock is gripping the country as news spreads that President Abraham Lincoln died three days ago.  San Jose is in mourning, but there is an edge of fear in the homes and schools, the businesses and churches:  What will happen next?

This frontier city, with muddy streets is still gripped by deep divisions that plagued the community since it began to grow after statehood in 1850.  When news reached this pueblo that the Civil War had broken out on April 12, 1861, the populous was divided between Northern and Southern sympathizers.  Over the next four years rebels tried, but failed to seize the town, rob the banks and go from door to door taking what valuables could be found and send the loot off to the Confederacy.  The Methodist church in Berryessa was burned to the ground by rebels who found safe haven in several ranchos on the Eastside.

During the 1850’s San Jose came to be known as the murder capitol of California.  As this wild west city grew, the small black community, which numbered 43 in 1852, including 11 slaves, struggled for a foothold.  Slaves in San Jose where not limited to Negroes.   Malyasians and Kanakas (or Hawaiians) were brought from Hawaii starting with the Gold Rush.

The Federal Fugitive Slave act of 1850 was supported by the state’s first governor, Peter Burnett, who lived just six blocks away from here, on 5th Street.  He had declared genocide against all the indigenous tribes of California early in his term of office.

Something quite amazing was happening in the black community, which Dr. Ruffin will give a broader picture of in a moment.   A growing black middle class was developing in spite of threats of being wrongly abducted.  There was sufficient advocacy and support of blacks in the community so that the first two black institutions could be established under the leadership of one man:  Peter Williams Cassey with the support of his wife, Anna Besant Cassey, his mother-in-law, Henrietta Lockwood and other key leaders of the black community, such as Jacob Overton.  One of these institutions was a church and one was a school – they were inter-related and carried the same name:  St. Philip’s Academy and Mission for Colored Children.

The irony of geography is that St. Philip’s came to be located 7 blocks west of Governor Burnett’s home on 5th Street – a tension that would have been obvious 150 years ago.

Peter Williams Cassey:

Where did he come from? Here’s a brief introduction:  His life represents both a personal continuum of the Williams-Cassey family as well as the broader convergence of social movements that begin with the first protests against slavery when that horific institution was brought to these shores in the 1600’s.

The arc of Peter’s heritage is impressive.  He was a forth generation free African American.  His parents were prominent Philadelphia abolitionist, community leaders and among the educated and wealthy black elite.  Growing up Peter was shaped by the frequent visits to his home by such notables as Sarah Mapps Douglass, Margaretta Forten, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and Wendell Phillips.  His maternal great grand father, the Rev. Peter Williams, Sr. bought his and his family’s freedom from the Methodist Church in Manhattan to which they were bound in 1773.  He was a Revolutionary War veteran, and founded the second African Methodist Episcopal Church in the US.  His son, Peter Williams, Jr. was at the head of the abolitionist movement in New York.  In 1808, at the age of 28 he was chosen to give a speech on the first anniversary of the United States’ abolition of the international slave trade.  This speech was published as a pamphlet; it was one of the earliest publications by a black about abolition.  He was the first ordained black Episcopal priest in New York, the second in the U.S.

Anna, his wife, would receive a sound education.  This would serve her well as one of the primary teachers of St. Philip’s Academy and, later, the Phoenixonian Institute.

The theologian Howard Thurman, a San Franciscan, wrote: Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go and do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.(footnote)

Peter, Anna and Henrietta knew what made them fully alive and for the time that they were in San Jose and California, they made significant difference.  Peter arrives in 1853, looking for his fortune like the tens of thousands of others that sailed through the Golden Gate in search of gold.  A trained barber, he established a shop in the basement of the Union Hotel in the frontier town of San Francisco.  Even though California was a free state there were thousands of slaves, bound by southern families who had immigrated here.  Having a significant inheritance from his father, he joined others in buying slaves and giving them their freedom.  They were founders of the Underground Railroad.  He was instrumental in forming the first Congress of Colored Citizens of California in 1855.

Notice the audacious claim the he and other African Americans were asserting six years before the Civil War and ten years before the abolishment of slavery in the U.S:

The Congress of Colored Citizens of California.

He and Anna married and moved to San Jose 1860, where there was more ethnic tolerance.  However, slaves were still being sold in San Jose and, Peter along with a Mrs. Harriet Davis began buying bonded persons and setting them free.  When Trinity Episcopal Church was formed in 1861, Peter was listed on the roles, the only white Protestant church to have blacks as founding members. Their daughter, Amy, was among the first children baptized there.  In 1863, he led in the organizing of the third Congress of Colored Citizens of California that was held in San Jose, which made education and suffrage critical topics for convention delegates, according to Dr. Ruffin.   In his book, “Uninvited Neighbors” he goes on to say that the Phoenixonia Institute regularly brought national attention to the blacks in Santa Clara County…recruiting students through its fabulous reputation, black networks and African American newspapers.” (p. 39)

Public schools in the city at that time were limited to white students. So Peter and Anna, along with Henrietta gathered the black community to found both a school and a worshipping community called St. Philip’s Academy and Mission.  They eventually rented the former Bascom School for Girls at the edge of town at San Salvador between  3rd and 4th Streets only  a few blocks for here. Students were not only from the black community, but Chinese, Mexican and Muwekma communities, as well. Being a boarding school it drew students from throughout California and as far away as Portland, Oregon and Nicaragua.

There are two articles from the San Jose Mercury of 1863 that frame the significance of this man, the black community and the school and church;

The headline of the January 16-22, 1863 edition read:

“Negroes Establish School of the Own” – and went on to say,

“A sufficient sum has been subscribed by the colored people of this city for the support of a free school for themselves which commence on Monday at the old hospital building on San Carlos Street.  Peter W. Casey (sic) is the teacher.” (“When San Jose Was Young, Nov 20, 1933 SJMerc p 43)

Then in the November 13-19,, 1863 issue the headline read

“Editor Protests Negro Segregation”   with a subscript:

Excluded from the public schools, Negro children of San Jose attend a school of their own conducted by Peter W. Cassey and maintained from public funds. 

A clear shift had occurred from January to November of that year.  Thanks to people like J.J. Cliff, editor of the Mercury News, and other prominent white citizens, the San Jose School Board had contracted with Cassey to provide a free primary education for black students at public expense.  Upon visiting this institution, the article by Owen went on to say

There were 28 scholars in attendance, and a brighter, more intelligent, or more advanced set of scholars of their ages, taken as a whole, cannot be found in this city.  Many of the children are almost white, with fine intellectual heads, well dressed and tidy, in personal appearance cleanly and well behaved…” (WSJWY Nov 13-19, p 86)

We might call St. Philip’s Academy the first charter school in San Jose.   licensed and financially supports St. Philip’s as a school for colored students starting in 1863.  In that year Peter and the black community established the first secondary school for blacks in California: the Phoenixonian Institute or Hall, named after similarly named institutions that had been organized his grand parents and parents.

Peter was trained under the Rev. Dinsmore Chapin and ordained a deacon at Trinity Church in 1866 by the Rt Rev. William Ingrham Kip, first Episcopal Bishop of California.  Peter was the first person of color ordained in the Episcopal Church west of the Mississippi.  1871, at the direction of Bishop Kip he was to found Christ Church in San Francisco, now St. Cyprians.  He divided his time between the two cities, with Anna, Henrietta and black leaders like Jacob Overton keeping St. Philip’s and the Phoenixonia Hall going until 1875 when the State Supreme Court mandated all public schools integrated.

Anna died that year on September 3 and was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery.  Three years later Henrietta died and was buried next to her.  Her death certificate lists her as a nurse, undoubtedly the first black medical professional in San Jose.   Peter eventually shifted his efforts to San Francisco and Oakland where he would gather a small Episcopal community that would eventually form St. Augustine’s parish.  In 1883 he was called to found the first black Episcopal parish in North Carolina, St. Cyprians.  It was there that he helped found another school for black children.  He married Ella ____ in 1885.  In 1893 he was called by the Bishop of Florida to found not one, but three black parishes in succession, serving there until April 16, 1917 when he died at the age of 84 at St. Augustine serving as the vicar of his third St. Cyprian’s Church.

This coming July the national Episcopal Church will meet in their General Convention in Salt Lake City.  Among the considerations on the agenda will be the inclusion of memory of Peter, Anna and Henrietta in the calendar of saints, with prayers offered on their death days, their birthdays into eternal life.  Tomorrow you are welcomed to join us at Trinity Cathedral, 2nd and St. John’s for the 10:30 service honoring them where Canon Jamesetta Hammons from Los Angeles will preach.  At 2:00 pm we will gather at Oak Hill Cemetery at the graves of Anna and Henrietta for prayers and then again at 4:30 at the Cathedral for Evensong in their honor led by Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves with Fr. Ronald Culmer preach concluded by a Gospel music program.

It is my deep honor to recognize among us Dianna Cassey, great grand daughter of Peter and Ella Cassey, ________________ direct descendent of John Brown or Harper’s Ferry, Phil Hanasaki whose family were leaders at Christ Church, San Francisco when it became a Japanese parish and St. Cyprian’s was formed as the black parish in the City; and Canon Jamessetta Hammons, Treasurer of the Belfield Hannibal Chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians in the Diocese of Los Angeles who will preach tomorrow morning at Trinity Cathedral.

Jerry Drino
Cassey Memorial Project
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral