Keep California White!!!
That was the campaign slogan used by U.S. Senator James D. Phelan in his unsuccessful bid for re-election in 1920. The slogan was aimed at Japanese farmers, who Phelan felt were invading the state of California. One of his campaign posters featured the hand of Uncle Sam grabbing the wrist of a Japanese-American reaching for map of California. The text on the poster read Re-elect James D. Phelan, U.S. Senator, and let him finish the work he now has under way to stop the silent invasion. Phelan said of the Japanese immigrants: "They are non-assimilable; they are a permanently foreign element; they do not bring up families; they do not support churches, schools, nor theatres; in time of trial they will not fight for Uncle Sam, but betray him to the enemy. California is white man's country, and the two races cannot live side by side in peace, and inasmuch as we discovered the country first and occupied it, we propose to hold it against either a peaceful or a warlike invasion. ."
Upon reading this, I began to form certain opinions about James Phelan. I looked further into the man and his life, and my opinions began to change. This is a true story of the many facets of a human personality.
James Phelan was born in 1861 in San Francisco to a wealthy family, his father having made a fortune in banking and real estate during the California Gold Rush frenzy. He attended college in San Francisco and studied law at Berkeley. He became mayor of San Francisco in 1897 and served until 1902. He was president of the Relief and Red Cross Funds after the San Francisco earthquake disaster in 1906. He took his seat in the United States Senate on December 6, 1915 and served there until 1921. He was a banker, politician, philanthropist, city leader and he loved his home town. He helped form committees to better the city, to promote San Francisco. He was instrumental in the rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906 (although he DID attempt to have Chinatown rebuilt at Hunters Point, far from the city center).
James Phelan gave more than his time and effort to his State. He left a trust fund behind designated to award prizes for excellence in the arts to artists born in California. The James D. Phelan Award for literature, film, sculpture, poetry and other types of art are among the most prestigious awards given today. The James D. Phelan California Authors Collection in the San Francisco Library numbers over 1,500 volumes. Books, manuscripts, typescripts, portraits and photographs of such writers as George Sterling, Ambrose Bierce, Gertrude Atherton, Frank Norris, Ina Coolbrith, and Edwin Markham are included, as well as first editions of the novels of Jack London. He donated at least four major sculptures that are currently in Golden Gate Park. Upon his death, his home, Villa Montalvo, a magnificent Italian Mediterranean style mansion in the Saratoga foothills was given to the San Francisco Art Association along with $250,000. The buildings and grounds were to be used as far as possible for the development of art, literature, music and architecture by promising students. He left a million dollars in his will to establish the James D. Phelan Foundation for charitable purposes for the poor. He set up scholarship funds, and donated countless dollars to grants aimed at developing and assisting the arts in and around San Francisco.
Phelan's most publicized battle may have been against John Muir and the Sierra Club over the damming of the Tuolumne River in the valley of Hetch Hetcy in Yosemite Park. For seventy years, the city of San Francisco had been forced to buy water from the Spring Valley Water company who had a virtual monopoly on the water supply. Phelan led a drive in 1901 to create a publicly owned reservoir in Hetch Hetcy. The fight was bitter. Muir and the Sierra Club raised enough of a protest to have Phelan's proposal turned down. Undaunted, Phelan tried again in 1903, again in 1905, again in 1907. To his way of thinking, a dam in Hetch Hetchy would provide drinking water and electricity, and, crucially, free San Francisco from the monopoly of the spring Valley Water Company. On December 6, 1913, after 12 years of fighting, the Hetch Hetchy question came to a final vote. The U.S. Senate passed the bill authorizing the dam with a 43-25 vote. "I'll be relieved when it's settled, for it's killing me," Muir has written. In fact, he did become sick not long after the bill's passage, and died of pneumonia in December 1914.
Since Phelan's death in 1930, many changes have occurred in California, some of them ironic. A beach near San Francisco Bay, formerly known as James D. Phelan Beach has been renamed China Beach, as it was also the site of a Chinese fishing camp. A large percentage of the recipients of the James D. Phelan art grants are now descendants of the Japanese immigrants Phelan once strove to eliminate. On the grounds of Villa Montalvo, a large bust of John Muir gazes out over the gardens. And somehow, I think James D. Phelan would approve.