GUINDA – From across Northern California, they came for links, ribs, jazz, gospel and a rare taste of Yolo County's secret African American past.
About 500 folks packed the old Grange Hall Saturday for Guinda's annual "celebration of our multicultural heritage and black history."
What many of them didn't know is that Guinda was once "a refuge for freed slaves" and one of California's oldest African American communities, said organizer Clarence Van Hook, a musician and amateur historian from Woodland.
In this Capay Valley town on Highway 16, beyond the vineyards, orchards, Mexican restaurants and the Cache Creek Casino Resort, African American pioneers homesteaded thousands of acres of land. They built a multicultural school and sent their offspring to UC Berkeley and other universities.
By the early 1900s, at least 50 African Americans lived along "The Summit" above Cache Creek on the north side of Highway 16, across from the Grange Hall.
"Yolo County was a haven for African Americans," said Monette H. Perrin, a local historian and performance artist who's writing a book, "Mending A Bridge – the African American Experience in Yolo County from 1850-1950."
Here in the Capay Valley, there wasn't much racial tension, Perrin said, "because the only way to survive up there was to help each other out."
One of the earliest pioneers was Basil Campbell, a slave from Missouri who settled land near Putah Creek with his master, J.D. Stephens, in 1854.
"He was in indentured servitude for 10 years, but bought his freedom for $700 after seven," Perrin said.
Stephens, who opened the Bank of Woodland, gave Campbell "$10,000 in stocks and bonds he'd invested for him," Perrin said.
Campbell used the money to buy his wife's freedom in Missouri, than returned to the Capay Valley to buy land and livestock, Van Hook said.
"By the time of his death in 1906, Campbell owned 5,000 acres of land in Yolo County, and the semi-weekly Mail of Woodland referred to him as the wealthiest negro in Superior California," added Perrin.
"Apparently there was a racial incident at a Yolo County school where his grandchildren went and he actually had the school moved to his property in (the) Zamora area in the 1890s," Perrin said.
African American pioneers also opened the Summit School House in Guinda, where 20 children of different races crossed a foot bridge over Cache Creek to learn the three R's along with history, art, geography and music from three white teachers who came up the hill by horse and buggy, Perrin said. "Whites, gypsies and children of other races would come up there to school."
Some of the pioneers' descendants still live in the area, including Jeannette Molson of Woodland, whose great-grandfather Green Berry Logan – born to an African American mother and a white father in Arkansas – farmed 160 acres in the Capay Valley in the 1890s.
Molson said her grandfather, Alvin Alfred Logan, was a skilled debater who went to Liberia to try to establish trade ties in 1903.
"He got a fever and came back to Guinda in 1904," said Molson. "He had 10 children and made sure the girls went to college. My mother graduated from Berkeley."
More than a hundred Capay Valley babies were delivered by Mary Francis Gaither, an African American pioneer who helped establish Woodland's Second Baptist Church in 1894, Perrin said. "It's still operating today."
The Capay Valley became so famous among African Americans that San Francisco businesswoman Mary Ellen Pleasant, a runaway slave who helped dozens of slaves find freedom, arranged marriages in Guinda, Perrin said.
In the 1940s, African Americans opened the Rancho Wena Resort in Brooks, a place of refuge "where they could relax and entertain and socialize," Perrin said.
The co-organizer of Saturday's event, Bill Petty, 83, moved to Guinda in 1942. "My dad, a civil rights activist, won the first voting rights case in the state of North Carolina in 1936," Petty said. "They burned our house down so we moved to Guinda. There was a little bit of everybody up there, and they got along good."
Petty said African Americans were so prosperous in Guinda that the summit was labeled on the county map as a form of heaven using a racist term. "I filed a discrimination suit here in Woodland and they removed it," he said.
Petty told Saturday's gathering: "There's no such thing as Black History Month – it's really American history that's left out of the books."
Petty's message resonated with three siblings from Woodland who are among the 4,300 African Americans in Yolo County – 2 percent of the population, but more than the 418 in 1950, according to the state Department of Finance.
Allaina Robertson, 16, and her sister Elise, 13, said they enjoyed the event's multicultural flavor and the history imparted by the speakers.
"It's really good we're getting to celebrate this day," added their brother Lee, 12, "But it should be told a lot more than every February."