Valley Voice Newspaper
The Wysingers of Visalia
by George Pilling
District Librarian for Visalia Unified School District
In 1888 the population of Visalia was about 2800, which made it one of the larger towns in the valley. It was incorporated as a city of the 6th class, and since 1870 had been the county seat. Visalia was, and is, a city that supported the surrounding farmers, who by 1880 were growing 350,000 acres of dry land wheat in Tulare County.
The Visalia School, built in 1872, accepted white students aged 6 and up. This was a two story structure, with the older children taught on the upper floor, but it was never referred to as a high school, just education as long as you wanted or needed it. There was also another school in town. The Visalia Colored School had been informally established in the early 1870s at the home of Tom Hinds whose large family farmed about 3 miles NE of Visalia (on what is now Ben Maddox Way.) Other nearby Negro families came also to the school, which was really part of a grain shed on the Hindsâ€™ place.
By 1873, the need for a private school for the â€œcoloredâ€ children of Visalia was apparent, and the teacher of the school, an elderly black man named Mr. Scott, purchased a lot in Visalia to establish the school. It had grown to include some Indian, Mexican and Chinese children by that time, and in that same year it was made part of the Visalia City School system - Mr. Scott was paid by the City of Visalia for â€œteaching services.â€
An 1852 California law barred children of Negro descent from attending public schools. The law was ignored in some places, but enforced in many - when some white people in Grass Valley complained that 3 of the students at their school had a Black parent (their other parent was white), the state ordered them removed from the school. In 1860 this law was strengthened by giving the state superintendent the power to withhold state funds from a white school that admitted colored children. This harsh law was in effect until 1872, when the Ward vs. Flood case in San Francisco established the principle of separate but equal schools for â€œchildren of African descent and Indian children.â€ The law stated: â€œThe same laws, rules, and regulations which apply to schools for white children shall apply to schools for colored children.â€ This new separate-but-equal policy resulted in many of the schools for colored children in California being closed by 1875 and children of color were allowed to attend regular schools. This expedient was usually easier and cheaper than establishing separate schools. In Visalia, however, the â€œcoloredâ€ school continued as before.
Mr. Scott left Visalia in 1875. He was not happy with his pay nor with the fact that his students were treated very differently from white students in Visalia schools. Also in 1875, Edmond Wysinger, a Negro man, father of 5 boys and 1 girls, was determined that his children would get an education. He asked the Visalia School Board to establish a school for Negro children, as provided for in the new law. The city purchased a one-acre tract just outside the city limits, now the NE corner of Houston and Dinuba Blvd., and built a schoolhouse, a stable, and two outhouses. Miss Sara Sanderson was the first appointed teacher. For the next 15 years, â€œcoloredâ€ children in Visalia were educated there by a succession of teachers. Some nearby school districts sent their children of color to Visalia and paid the school district to educate them in this school. This school was separate but hardly equal to the two-story Visalia School, three-quarters of a mile away at the corner of Locust and Oak.
A little is known about Edmond Wysinger before he came to Visalia. He was born in 1816 on a plantation in South Carolina, offspring of a Cherokee man and an African American woman. His owner was a man of German descent named Wysinger. In 1849, he traveled with his master across the plains and through Donner Pass by ox cart to Grass Valley, California. There he joined a group of 100 or more African-American miners who surface mined in the area. They could not own land and set up large mining operations, but they could pan and dig by hand on public land when they werenâ€™t working for their masters. It took Edmond a year to earn $1000.00 to buy his freedom. He took the last name of his owner and in 1853, Edmond Wysinger met and married a newly arrived young woman, Pernesa Wilson, who had arrived that year by ox cart from Missouri. In 1862 the Wysinger family moved to Visalia. They had six children. Edmond was determined that at least some of them would get the education he was denied.
From 1875 to 1890, the â€œVisalia Colored Schoolâ€ was part of the Visalia School District. The buildings were not kept in good repair (they werenâ€™t much more than sheds to begin with.) Teachers were hard to find, so sometimes the school year did not start until late in the fall and ended early. Tulare County had a fairly large population of Negro, Mexican, Chinese, and Indian children, but there were no laws forcing parents to send their children to school. It seems that fewer than twenty children attended regularly during most of these years. In some parts of Tulare County children of color attended school along with the white children, but not in Visalia.
In 1880, the school segregation law had again been amended to leave out the word â€œwhiteâ€. It read: â€œEvery school, unless otherwise provided by law, must be open for the admission of all children between six and twenty-one years of age residing in the districtâ€¦â€ This change was ignored in many parts of the state.
In 1888 Edmond Wysinger petitioned for his son, Arthur, age 12, to be admitted to Visalia School. The Principal of Visalia School, Mr. S. A. Crookshank, refused to admit Arthur because he was colored. In court records, he stated, â€œI refused to admit his boy to the public school on Locust Street because he was colored, and because the public colored school was established by the board of education, who had instructed me to send the colored children to that colored school. These were my only reasons for refusing to admit him to the public school on Locust Street.â€
Wysinger sued and lost in local courts, but he was a determined man who pushed this case, Wysinger vs. Crookshank, to the supreme court of California. On January 29, 1890, the court determined that Arthur Wysinger, a Negro boy, could attend Visalia School. It is unknown whether or not he ever did. Wysinger family tradition has it that he graduated from high school, but Edmond Wysinger died at age 79 in 1891 (he is buried in the Visalia cemetery) and his wife moved the family to Oakland to be with her mother.
Pernesa Wysinger died in 1893 in Oakland. Nothing is recorded about Arthur. Some of the Wysinger children became farmers â€“ Arthurâ€™s older brother Reuben had a peach orchard in Fowler, which passed down through four generations. Most of the children wound up in the Bay Area - Jesse Wysinger was a writer for a newspaper in Oakland. Later generations of the family scattered after serving in WWII. There are also white families with the name Wysinger in California, but no record of whether or not they are related to Edmond or his owner.
The extraordinary determination and courage of Edmond and Arthur Wysinger should be honored today. Their case clarified and made binding the 1880 law that barred segregated schools, and changed education throughout California.
For more information about the Wysinger case in Visalia, go to www.homestead.com/wysinger/courtcase.html