Saturday, March 3, 2018

Mountain View Cemetery Black History Month Tour

The following is a guest post by Sarah Wilson. Thanks, Sarah!

Mountain View Cemetery's 2018 Black History Month tour began at 10 a.m., on February 24th, in front of the cemetery's administrative office. I arrived a few minutes early and easily found a place to park. (Free and easy parking is to me as rare and valuable as pirate-treasure.) I saw people walk inside the office, and a woman stood in the lobby with a clipboard. I assumed that the woman was the tour organizer, and if not, a clipboard made anyone look official and attention-worthy. I followed the others up the steps and inside.

I opened the wide door and paused, not wanting to bump another person who stood inside the doorway. I waited as that person moved, and then I slid inside. I felt grateful for the warmth. The sun fell warmly, and I dressed warmly, but not warmly enough. The temperature hovered between 55 and 60 degrees. I wished I had a scarf to add to my long-sleeve shirt, sweater, jacket, and gloves.

"Sign the clipboard to get on our mailing list." The woman lifted her clipboard into the air. My eyes followed the upward movement, but kept going, to the vaulted ceiling. I knew nothing about the architectural style that surrounded us but guessed that it was Victorian, or Gothic. I noticed that behind me stood a miniature model of the cemetery. I noted the tiered layout of the grounds, or the model's way of representing significant changes in elevation. Either way, the cemetery expanded over the nearby hillsides. In fact, the model showed minimal flat ground.

More people arrived outside. Those that stood with me in the lobby were a mix of ages, men and women, black and white. If I were to guess, I would say that there were a few more women than men, and about 30 people total. I anticipated that the tour would begin soon, given the nearness to the hour, and went back outside. I found a sunlit patch of sidewalk and stood and tried to ignore the cold.

"There will be vans, or you can drive yourself, or you can ride with one of us," Lydia said. Lydia was the woman with the clipboard, professionally dressed for a Saturday. She had a scarf, which I envied.
"Can we walk?" Someone expressed what others likely felt -- the expectation that the tour was a walking tour.

"You can, but we will wind our way up and around. You'll have to follow our caravan, and it's quite a trek." I spied the nearest white van with the cemetery logo on the side and edged toward it. "Anna is here," Lydia sang. "Good."

I looked for 'Anna,' but did not see her. Anna blended into the background until she spoke. She did not raise her voice, and the group quieted. Anna introduced herself as a docent and tour-guide. Finished, she moved from where she stood on the steps next to Lydia.

I edged closer to the van, but Lydia said that we had a "stop, just over here." We moved a few yards from the office steps, and Lydia pointed to a stone structure behind her, about 200 yards away. Five or six rows of large, square, stacked sections rose four or five sections high. I did not know the cemetery-term for the structure, which obviously entombed remains. I found out later that the structure was a mausoleum. "The last time we gave this tour, last year, we said that this cemetery was never segregated," Lydia said. "We were wrong. We only just found out the truth, from records we uncovered."

In 1955, or thereabouts, Clara Mae Long, a black woman, intended to lay her husband to rest inside a mausoleum at Mountain View Cemetery. The cemetery denied Ms. Long's request, because that particular mausoleum was set aside for whites. Ms. Long sued, and the resulting case, Long v. Mountain View Cemetery Association (1955), ended in a California Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal upheld the lower court's ruling, affirming that though Civil Code Sections 51 and 52 ensured all citizens equal access to public accommodations, the law's provisions did not include cemeteries.
However, the presiding judge wrote that he could not resist a word of protest:
"I cannot believe that a man's mortal remains will disintegrate any less peaceably because of the close proximity of the body of a member of another race, and in that inevitable disintegration I am sure that the pigmentation of the skin cannot long endure. It strikes me that the carrying of racial discrimination into the burial grounds is a particularly stupid form of human arrogance and intolerance. If life does not do so, the universal fellowship of death should teach humility. The good people who insist on the racial segregation of what is mortal in man may be shocked to learn when their own lives end that God has reserved no racially exclusive position for them in the hereafter."
I felt uplifted by this story and the judge's sentiment, if not by the Court's decision. I liked that Lydia and Anna chose to bring the story and the judge's assertion to our attention. Others murmured their approval, and someone chuckled at the situation's audacity. On that note, it was time to board the tour-caravan.

En route, our driver explained that the cemetery stretched for 230 acres. That sounded large, but I felt more impressed by the variety of headstones and monuments on display – modest ones, ornate ones, and ones laden with unfamiliar symbols. It took less than two minutes to wind our way up to our first stop, and that timing remained true for the tour's entirety. We visited the grave of local hero Captain William T. Shorey, a.k.a. The Black Ahab, and local legend Bobby Hutton, the first member of the Black Panthers. At each stop, we learned about people who enriched or affected the lives of many and thus, did the same for Oakland's history.

I came away with a sense of what I would like my eulogy to say, a realization I valued. But, in truth, I attended the tour for a purpose. I sought Virginia Prentiss's final resting place and an answer to a question on her behalf: How could Ms. Prentiss, a significant member of Oakland's historic black community and Jack London's surrogate mother, be laid to rest without a headstone?
"Virginia Prentiss was buried here," Anna said, on our third of fourth stop. She gestured to the ground. "Probably about right... there." Anna pointed to the feet of a fellow tour-goer. He laughed and took his cap off and pressed it to his chest.

In that moment, I felt grateful for the cemetery's well-kept records. Otherwise, we simply stood at the top of a hill, under a tree, a few feet from a burial site for Elks-Club members. The rest of what Anna said about Ms. Prentiss, I already knew: that Ms. Prentiss was born a slave in 1832, escaped soldiers of the Civil War, married Alonzo Prentiss, and found her way to California, where she raised her children and became a mother-figure to an icon of American literature. She died in 1922.

I wanted to approach Anna as she stood under Ms. Prentiss's tree, but decided to wait. Just prior to the tour's end, and when I thought I could no longer tolerate my cold-induced sniffles, we found Alonzo Prentiss's grave. Mr. Prentiss lay in the veteran's section, near a Civil War memorial and burial plot.

"Why weren't Alonzo and Jennie Prentiss buried together?" I asked Anna as soon as I saw an opening to approach her, as the tour concluded, and the others departed. Anna shrugged and said something like, no one expects to outlive their children. I remembered then that the Prentiss children died young. So, their plot had room for mother and children only. Then, I asked my big question.

"I know," Anna agreed, "why spend the money on a plot and not include a headstone?" She shrugged. "I don't know the answer."

At that moment a woman with owl-rimmed glasses, who rode in Anna's car from one place to the next on the tour, interrupted us. Unsure that I hid my disappointment in her answer well enough, I left Anna to climb back up the hill with the elk statue at its peak. I shunned the paths for the direct route, wondering about graveyard customs along the way. Was it disrespectful to walk over a grave? Was it poor form to snack in a graveyard? One should not pick a flower that grew in a graveyard, I felt, (though I am not superstitious). I wondered what Ms. Prentiss would think about Black History Month, knowing that she viewed whites as ungodly, given their un-Christian treatment of black people.

I reached the unmarked plot for the second time and felt grateful for the solitude. I took pictures and hoped to share them with other Oakland-history buffs, who may also feel unsettled by Ms. Prentiss's unsung status in the cemetery. I resolved to return to Mountain View Cemetery, perhaps for one of their other tours. I hoped to build on what I knew about Ms. Prentiss:
  • Virginia Prentiss died at around 91 years old, at Napa State Hospital
  • Jack London's will included provisions for Ms. Prentiss's burial expenses
  • Charmian Kitteridge, Jack London's second wife, was the executor of his estate
  • Ms. Prentiss died on Ms. Kitteridge's 51st birthday, in 1922

Thanks to the tour, I learned that the wealth of history that resides at Mountain View Cemetery cannot be overemphasized. Of course, one also cannot overemphasize the wealth of information that resides on the internet, which provided the breadcrumbs that led me to the cemetery. However, the internet lacks a place where you can place your feet on the ground and stand in honor and wonder of what lies beneath. Mountain View Cemetery provides free, bi-monthly tours. Dress warmly, or according to the internet.