BLACK HISTORY LESSON
Philip Alexander Bell and the San Francisco Elevator, >part 1 of 3
by John H. Telfer, excerpted from “Blacks in the West” Monograph No. 1, 1976
…Arriving in California in 1860 at the age of 52 after long editing and publishing experience in the east, he helped found in 1865 the San Francisco Elevator, the strong and independent weekly newspaper, voice of Negro aspirations in northern California. Under his editorship from its beginning and with few interruptions for the next 24 years, the paper continued to be published until 1898, nine years after Bell’s death. …
Bell was an early associate of Samuel E. Cornish, who had been the partner of John B. Rustwurm in founding the very first Negro newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, in 1827. Russwurm immigrated to Africa soon after that, and Cornish continued to edit it and its successors for the next 20 years. Cornish was one of the major figures in abolitionist journalism. Bell and Cornish established the Weekly Advocate in Philadelphia in January 1837. Later it was moved to New York as the Colored American and Bell continued to edit it until about February 1840 when Charles B. Ray became editor.
Young Bell was fortunate in being chosen to attend … the African Free School in New York City. …This privately financed school…had been founded in 1816 by the Episcopal Synod of New York in New Jersey for a 4 year Academy. Two of Bell’s classmates at the African Free School were Ira Aldridge, Shakespearean actor, and James Fields, who later with Bell was the founder of the Negro I. O. O. F. In 1822. In 1830 Bell, Aldridge, and Fields, along with five others (among them David Ruggles, …) founded the Philomathean Literary Society in New York which again brought together several of those from the African School.
P. A. Bell knew most of the important Negro and white leaders of the civil rights movements of his period, many of them through long association and in part through his long years as editor of the Colored American in New York. As early as 1837 we find him the secretary of a political and civil rights meeting of Negroes in New York City.
The extent of Philip Bell’s activities in the Underground Railroad are not known, but he did tell some of his experiences and associations, which indicate that he was active to some degree. Reminiscing in the Elevator, he told of an event of his childhood involving his family and the Underground Railroad. In 1816…a slave named Margaret Green was brought by her master from Charleston, S. C., for their annual visit to New York City, arriving in the spring and returning home in the fall. …there was a law in New York which permitted visitors to retain slaves in the state for a period of nine months after their arrival and registration.
Margaret Green wished to stay in New York … brought the girl to Bell’s home. Bell and his sister were sent with the escaped slave to the home of the great grandmother "who lived on Mercer Street above Prince " where the slave was hidden. A few weeks later Bell’s great uncle, procured a situation for the girl in the country where she lived for several years.
In 1873 there appeared in the Elevator an advertisement for William Still’s book, The Underground Railroad. In response to this Bell wrote a column on the same page in which he told of some of his own experiences. He said that his efforts were unorganized, and that he had associated with the number of others in these efforts, among whom was Dr. David Ruggles, who formed the Vigilante Committee in 1838 which was the first organization for aiding fugitive slaves and was the basis for the Underground Railroad.
In 1860 Bell arrived in San Francisco, and within two years had founded in connection with Peter Anderson, the first Negro newspaper in San Francisco, the Pacific Appeal. As the Civil War was ending in 1865 the Executive Committee of the Association of Colored People of the City and County in San Francisco decided to establish their own newspaper and called P. A. Bell to be the editor. The Executive Committee agreed to support the paper for the first six months, then Bell was financially to be on his own.
A clear statement of principles in every issue showed that integration was to be a major objective of the new paper: "the Elevator, a weekly journal of progress, equality before the law."
This paper is the organ of the Executive Committee, and will advocate the largest political and civil liberty for all American citizens, irrespective of creed or color. .. we will labor for the civil and political enfranchisement of the Colored people
…The publishing committee for the Elevator was: P. A. Bell, editor, William H. Yates, James R. Starkey, R. A. Hall, James P. Dyer, F. G. Barbados, and S. Howard.
Keep watching this site for the next installment of “P. A. Bell” or download an abridged version here.
To read the article in its entirety or to see the bibliography, please refer to the original printed copy available at the Society, 762 Fulton St. 2nd fl., San Francisco, CA 94102.