Black history cemetery tour: Abraham Holland and the Sweet Vengeance Mine


In 1849, a man named Abraham Holland packed up his things and left his life on the East Coast for California, in hopes that he’d strike it rich. The year before, gold had been discovered in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and people were coming from across the U.S. — and the world — to seek their fortune. It became known as the California Gold Rush. It marked a new set of opportunities for African American migration to California.

On Saturday, Feb. 23, Berkeley staffer Gia White, who volunteers as a docent at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, will give a tour about notable African Americans — including Holland, and Berkeley alumni Ida Louise Jackson and Walter Gordon — who are buried in the cemetery. 

“It’s a privilege to talk about their life stories, because when are they going to be heard?” says Gia. “I feel like, you’re just doing them a little honor by talking about them again.”

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Gia White

Gia White, an administrative director for the Institute of European Studies at UC Berkeley, volunteers as a docent at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. (UC Berkeley photo by Anne Brice)

Following is a written version of Fiat Vox episode #49: “Black history cemetery tour highlights Berkeley alumni, other memorable lives:”

In 1849, a man named Abraham Holland packed up his things and left his life on the East Coast for California, in hopes that he’d strike it rich.

[Music: “Cash Cow” by Blue Dot Sessions]

The year before, gold had been discovered near Coloma in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and people were coming from across the U.S. — and the world — to seek their fortune. It became known as the California Gold Rush. It marked a new set of opportunities for African American migration into California.

miners during the gold rush

The Gold Rush brought some 300,000 people — including Abraham Holland — to California in search of gold. It marked a new set of opportunities for African American migration to California. (Library of Congress photo)

“California, at that time, was all about possibility and hope.”

That’s Gia White. She’s an administrative director for the Institute of European Studies at UC Berkeley. And on the weekend, she’s a docent at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

On Feb. 23, she’s giving a tour for Black History Month, where she’ll talk about notable African Americans — including Holland — who are buried in the cemetery.

[This is Fiat Vox, a podcast that gives you an inside look into why people around the world are talking about UC Berkeley. I’m Anne Brice.]

Gia says that most of the 300,000 people who came to California during the gold rush didn’t find gold — many of them actually made their money by setting up shops and restaurants to serve the gold hunters. But Holland and his cohort were among the lucky ones. They did find gold. And soon they began operating a mine in Yuba County. They called it the Sweet Vengeance Mine.

Millionaire's Row at Mountain View Cemetery

A section at Mountain View, nicknamed “Millionaire’s Row,” is where many of the area’s wealthiest people were buried. (Photo by Hank Chapot via Wikimedia)

With the money they made from the mine, they were able to set up their lives in the Bay Area. And buy the freedom of some of their relatives who were enslaved in other states.

“And so, there’s just this touch of, ‘Hey, you know, we’re going to finally get our due,’” says Gia. “So, there is some sweet vengeance to that I guess.”

        [Natural sound: Gia and I walking and talking in the cemetery]

Walter Gordon in football gear

Walter Gordon, buried at Mountain View, was the first African American graduate of Berkeley’s law school, the first black All-American in college football on the West Coast and the first black police officer in Berkeley.

Mountain View Cemetery officially opened in 1865, six weeks after the Civil War ended. It stretches 226 acres on rolling hills, dotted with trees, and with pathways winding through burial sites. Some of the graves are marked with modest headstones and others with ostentatious mausoleums.

“You see that pyramid? Isn’t that something?,” asks Gia. “It’s an Egyptian revival mausoleum. It’s for Senator Gwin. He was one of the first senators in California, and he was also a rabid proponent of slavery. He wanted California to be a slave state. You can tell he thought a lot of himself.”

Some of the graves — for different reasons — have no marker at all. There’s even a plot under some redwood trees near the entrance called the Strangers’ Plot, where people were buried who didn’t have any family to claim their bodies.

[Music: “Titter Snowbird” by Blue Dot Sessions]

More than 180,000 people are buried at Mountain View. And each one of them has their own detailed file, going back to when the cemetery first opened.

Ida Louise Jackson

Ida Louise Jackson enrolled at UC Berkeley in 1920, when there were only 17 African American students on campus, and earned her master’s degree in 1924. She went on to be the first African American teacher in the Oakland public schools. (UC Berkeley photo courtesy of the Ida Louise Jackson estate)

“There is a hand entry — a hand-written entry — on where they’re buried, what plot. And they have a file, also, of all the things associated with it — communications, letters, fees. Yeah, so it’s amazing.”

Gia began volunteering as a docent in 2015 after she went on a tour and was fascinated by the history of the people buried in the cemetery.

Since then, she’s led the Black History Month tour every February with another docent, Sarah Calhoun. Together, they visit the headstones of some 20 different African Americans and talk about their lives.

On this year’s tour, they’ll visit the grave sites of several Berkeley alumni, including Ida Louise Jackson, who became the first African American teacher in the Oakland public schools, and Walter Gordon, a top athlete and the first African American to receive a doctorate of law from Berkeley. He went on to do a lot of things, including serve as a police officer and a federal district judge.

“It’s a privilege to talk about their life stories, because when are they going to be heard?,” says Gia. “I feel like, you’re just doing them a little honor by talking about them again, you know?”

As for Abraham Holland — with the money he made from the Sweet Vengeance Mine, he was able to eventually move his family to Oakland, where he and his son rented a room from a woman in town.

A Pullman porter hands a woman a glass of water

A Pullman porter hands a woman a glass of water in a railroad sleeping car. In 1925, porters formed a union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and went on to play a big role in the Civil Rights Movement. (Library of Congress photo by the George R. Lawrence Co., copyrighted 1905)

He went on to become a Pullman porter, serving passengers on the Transcontinental Railroad. Although Pullman porters worked long, hard hours, they made better wages than they could in most other jobs available to African American men at the time. And they got to travel across the U.S. — making important connections with people along the way.

“They really helped the civil rights movement come to life as they traveled across the country. They distributed information pamphlets about civil rights, so they had a role there. So, that was fascinating, too, to find out.”

And the Sweet Vengeance Mine is still on the map, listed as a cultural feature in Yuba County. It stands as a reminder of a man — and thousands of other African Americans — who set out to make a better life in California.  

The Black History Month tour at Mountain View Cemetery will take place on Saturday, Feb. 23, at 10 a.m. It’s open and free to anyone who’d like to join. Because the tour spans many miles, tour-goers will caravan in vans provided by the cemetery and private cars.

For a schedule of upcoming tours and events, visit the Mountain View Cemetery’s website.

A panorama shot of Mountain View Cemetery

A panorama of Mountain View Cemetery (Photo by DarkCryst via Wikimedia)