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Subject: do you know who Washington Oglesby is?
Author: donna gatts
Date: Thursday, July 9, 2009
Classification: Query
Surnames:

First African American admitted to California Bar Association was Oakland resident

Information sought about Oglesby’s surviving relatives

By Michael Colbruno

History is repeating itself at Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, where a notable African American, forgotten to history, is buried.

Five years ago local historian and cemetery docent Dennis Evanosky discovered that Obediah Summers, a veteran of the Union Army in the Civil War, was buried under a pile of weeds in the unendowed section of the cemetery. Summers was a prominent citizen in Oakland, building Old Bethel Church on 15th Street, where he also preached and built three homes. Summers also became the first black chaplain of the California State Assembly.

Evanosky located Summers’ great-granddaughter Myrna Adams and he petitioned the government to have him disinterred and buried with the other Civil War veterans. On Oct. 1, 2005, Summers was moved to the Grand Army of the Republic plot at Mountain View with the other soldiers who fought in the Civil War. He received a prominent place on the corner of the plot next to a cannon from the war and his descendants were present for the ceremony.

In an eerily similar story, I discovered that Washington Oglesby, the first African American admitted to the California Bar Association, is also buried under a pile of weeds in the unendowed section of the cemetery. I discovered Oglesby’s obituary by accident while combing through some old issues of the San Francisco Chronicle. I would like to see Oglesby get the same respect as Summers.

Like Evanosky, I searched for hours for Oglesby’s grave and couldn’t locate it, despite having the plot and lot number. I told myself “I’m going back out this week with a weed whacker and I’m finding his grave. My goal is to find his relatives and afford the man the honor and respect that he deserves.”

In old newspaper accounts, I found claims that in 1896 Oglesby was the first black man to be admitted to the California Bar Association. According to his obituary, Oglesby was born and raised in Virginia. According to the California Bar Journal, the first African American woman to be admitted to the California Bar was Annie Coker in 1929. Ironically, she was also from Virginia.

Oglesby came to California around 1890 from Arkansas, where he worked as a schoolteacher. Upon arriving in Oakland, he began selling real estate. His home was on a block where Eighth and Linden in Oakland would be.

Oglesby was involved with the Populist Party (also known as the People’s Party), whose national platform was getting rid of the gold standard. However, many Southern Populists, including their presidential candidate Thomas E. Watson, spoke about whites and blacks getting past their racial differences and focusing on issues where they had economic self-interest. Oglesby was clearly ahead of his time, as many Democrats are now trying to get poor Southern whites and African Americans to unite around issues like health care.

Oglesby ran for justice of the peace on the Populist ticket but lost. It seems likely that Oglesby was the first African American to run for office in Alameda County. No African American served on the Alameda County bench until Lionel Wilson was appointed to the municipal court in 1960.

After passing the California Bar, one of Oglesby’s first divorce cases he handled was for a white woman named Elise Burkert. Her husband in the East had abandoned the woman and her two children. Oglesby not only won the case but also won Burkert as his bride and raised the children as his own.

Oglesby died of a “weak heart” at the early age of 43. His wife said that she heard him call out her name at 3 a.m., flipped on the light and saw him breathe his last breath.

According to the California Association of Black Lawyers, there are over 2,600 black lawyers in the state today. Hopefully, the story of Washington Oglesby will become better known, as he helped pave the path for generations of black lawyers.

Anyone with information about Oglesbly’s surviving relatives is asked to email Michael.Colbruno@gmail.com.

Michael Colbruno is an Oakland planning commissioner, vice president at Clear Channel Outdoor in Northern California and amateur historian who publishes the blog “Lives of the Dead” at www.livesofthedead.com.