America Newton – Ava Smithmier

Throughout the history of our country, there has been little documentation of black women and black women in the workforce. At a time where it was difficult and frowned-upon for women––especially women of color––to have careers and be completely self-owned due to the power of white control limiting their opportunities, America Newton was a pioneer in black women’s entrepreneurship in San Diego. Since most black women at the time were restricted to domestic labor, Newton helped bring the movement and tradition to San Diego of black women creating work, opportunity, and success for themselves. This allowed them to create a space of self-ownership and independence, and limit the control that the white population had over them.

America Newton, a former slave from Independence, Missouri, arrived in California in 1872. She traveled to the west coast with the family of James Cole, a friend of her former master’s. During this time, many settlers were coming to California (and more specifically, Julian, California, where Newton settled) due to the possibilities of mining gold and opportunities for wealth. Julian was referred to as a “rising town” because so many people came there in such a short amount of time. Many other African American entrepreneurs were able to find success in Julian, such as the Robinsons (the owners of the Hotel Robinson). Like most former slaves at the time, Newton was unable to read or write, so Cole helped her to acquire her 80 acres of land for her to homestead and prepare her for life in America. He also provided her with a horse and a buggy to help her with travel and her business.

America Newton had her own laundry business, and was frequently seen riding her buggy through town to deliver clean laundry to her customers. Due to the gold rush, a large portion of Newton’s customers were miners, which was a popular occupation for men at this time and location. Newton was known by the town to be extremely chatty and loved to gossip with people who would pass by her home, as well as with her customers. However, she was also known to be hard of hearing, and that “chatting with Newton wasn’t the easiest thing to do” because the conversation ended up being extremely loud and long. Newton was a widow, and on the census she is recorded to have had one daughter, but information on her family is very limited. Newton passed away in Julian, California in 1917 at the age of 81. “America Grade,” the part of the route 78/79 that leads to Julian is named after her in her memory, and still bears her name to this day.

This type of domestic labor that America Newton performed was very common for black women during this time period. While many women still were not a part of the workforce, those who were typically were laundresses, as well as servants, cooks, or performed other types of personal services. This speaks to the society’s view at the time of not just black women, but also just women in general. Black women in particular were largely restricted to domestic labor and had little to no opportunity for any other forms of work. Gradually, more and more women of all races did begin to join the workforce as the country became more industrialized. Through her laundry business and self-ownership, America Newton was a pioneer of this movement to include more women of color in the San Diego workforce and helped to limit white control.

While researching America Newton, I had a lot of trouble finding information about her personal life as well as her work. This lead me to asking myself why the information on her was so limited and hard to access, and what this says about our country’s documentation of African American women’s history. According to Glenda Riley, this has been a prominent issue in our society: “Western black women still suffer from an unfortunate case of near-invisibility in the historical record”. Just like any other group of people, African American women play an important role in our country’s history, but much of their experiences and stories have been extremely overlooked. Riley explains that while many people assume that the limited knowledge and accessible information on African American women’s history is due to lack of materials, this is actually not the case. Most of the information is difficult to find and requires lots of effort in order to find it. However, according to Riley, “anti-black sentiment is responsible for the virtual absence of black women in western history”, and that since African American people (especially women) were not highly respected or treated justly throughout our country’s history, the historical documents and materials that recorded important parts of their history were not properly cared for and they “have not been widely or systematically collected”. Along with these systems of disregard to African American women’s history and documentation, there have also been processes of erasure that took place during times of discrimination due to people feeling these figures in our history weren’t important enough to be documented. Because of our country’s history and the way that African American women were regarded and treated at the time this information was being collected, it is now difficult to access an important portion of our country’s past.

Regardless of the systems of erasure and avoidance of black women’s documentation and history, America Newton’s dedication to her occupation and her importance in San Diego’s history is still evident. Without black women like Newton to help pioneer this tradition and movement of women’s employment and entrepreneurship in the United States, our society’s progress of allowing more women of color in the workforce would not have happened so quickly and effectively. Newton can and should be viewed as an example of a black woman who was completely self-owned and employed, and while the lack of documentation of her career and accomplishments prevents her from receiving the credit she deserves, she is still a significant figure in the history of San Diego. Works Cited

Primary Sources

America Newton. 1910. San Diego History Center’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection, San Diego. April 10, 2019.

This photograph shows America Newton riding in a buggy behind a horse. The photo was taken in roughly 1910. It is in black and white, and isn’t amazing quality, so it is a little hard to see the image. However, it is the only surviving photograph of America Newton. As many of my other sources have stated, she was frequently seen riding in her buggy to deliver clean laundry to her customers, and this is what she is shown doing in the photograph. This photo helped me to more clearly visualize what daily life was like for America and allowed me to put a face to her name as I continue to study her life. Also, it is important to comment on the matter of why there is only one photograph of her. This just proves how important it is to continue on the stories and voices of Black women during this time, because it otherwise becomes very easy for them to disappear into history and never hear their stories.

Kathryn A. Jordan, “Life Beyond Gold: A New Look at the History of Julian, California,” The Journal of San Diego History 54(2), 2008.

For me, this journal article was very useful. It helped to fill in some details about America’s life, such as the fact that she came to San Diego from Independence, Missouri. It also informed me that she was well-known around town. However, the main reason why this article was useful to me was for descriptions it gave me about the town at the time, and what living in Julian was like. For example, it taught me about the Robinsons (African American settlers in San Diego who later started the Hotel Robinsons), and other influential entrepreneurs from that time and location. Julia was a very large mining town, and most people came for gold and it was referred to as a “rising town” because so many people moved there in such a short amount of time. This article also provided me with important information regarding which other ethnic groups were living in Julian and how they were viewed in society, which also helped me to understand more about how America was treated by her community.

Ruth Lepper; Ruth Lepper is a free-lance writer based in Ramona..”Dreams of America”. The San Diego Union-Tribune. March 30, 2003, Sunday.

This newspaper article from the San Diego Union-Tribune is probably the most informative primary source that I have found. It told me many things about America Newton’s life in San Diego from beginning to end. America arrived in San Diego in 1872 with the family of her former master’s friend named James Cole. Cole is the person that helped America purchase her 80 acres of land in Spencer Valley (since she was illiterate and needed assistance filling out paperwork), and he also provided her with her buggy and horse that she used to deliver laundry. This article provided me with lots of other information, including things regarding her personality, her family, and more details regarding her personal life. Since there is only one existing photo of her, this article was also helpful in describing America’s physical appearance, saying that she was “big” and “a large woman”. America passed away in Julian, CA in 1917 at the age of 81.

Secondary Sources

Marne L. Campbell. “AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN, WEALTH ACCUMULATION, AND SOCIAL WELFARE ACTIVISM IN 19TH-CENTURY LOS ANGELES.” The Journal of African American History 97, no. 4 (2012): 376-400. doi:10.5323/jafriamerhist.97.4.0376.

This article helped to provide me with information regarding the different kinds of domestic labor that black women were performing during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This information was important to my paper because it provides context to the kind of work that America Newton was doing, and represents that she, among many other women of color at this time, was restricted to performing domestic labor. By starting her laundry business in San Diego, America Newton was a pioneer for this movement of more black women becoming entrepreneurs and limiting the control of white people in the labor force, allowing for the possibility of self-ownership.

Quintard Taylor. “Facing the Urban Frontier: African American History in the Reshaping of the Twentieth-Century American West.” Western Historical Quarterly 43, no. 1 (2012): 4-27. doi:10.2307/westhistquar.43.1.0004.

I enjoyed reading this article because it helped me to learn basic facts and statistics about what life was like for African American people during the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s (while America Newton was in the United States). For my paper, it was important for me to learn and understand the demographics of the United States (and San Diego) at this time and to learn what the social climate was like in order to better understand what life could have been like for America Newton and how she was treated. While there is little information on if whether or not America dealt with racism and discrimination, America worked as a laundress or “washer woman”; a type of domestic work that many women of color participated in during her time period. She also typically did laundry for miners, and this article talks about how this kind of work was common for many men (especially during the California Gold Rush).

Riley, Glenda. “American Daughters: Black Women in the West.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 38, no. 2 (1988): 14-27.

This article was very useful to me. Upon conducting my research, I realized that there is very little accessible information about black women from this far back in history, but there is endless information on white women. This began to bother me and I wanted to understand the reasons for this and what it means, and this article helped me to do so. In my paper, I am going to discuss the significance of the lack of black women’s history availability. This article states that “anti-black sentiment is responsible for the virtual absence of black women in western history” and that “few investigators have protested the situation or tried to remedy it” (15). The article continues further into the efforts that have been made by some historians to uncover and save these pieces of historical information. It also provides a general overview of what the lives of black women were like during this time period, and will provide good context for me to compare America Newton’s life to other black women of the era.

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