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Group seeks to restore graves of black pioneers
His name still can be found on a 1920s map of the old Marysville Cemetery north of town.
But the Rev. Thomas Edward Randolph, a Baptist minister, church founder, gold miner, farmer, barber and ex-slave, was all but forgotten in Marysville until recently.
On Monday, Guy Washington, regional manager for the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, walked through the weeds and debris in the southwest corner of the cemetery until he came to the spot.
"This is it," he said, marveling at the small, numbered cement brick that marked Randolph's grave.
He checked it against a photocopied section of map.
"We found him," he said.
Washington and the two dozen amateur historians, church leaders and community members now familiar with his interest in Marysville hope to be able to raise the city's historical profile through the legacy of its black pioneers.
The first order of business, according to Washington, is to erect a proper gravestone at the site where Randolph was buried in 1901.
"He's just numbers on cement," he told the group gathered in the Bethel AME dining hall on Monday afternoon. "Reverend Randolph deserves better than that."
Washington's San Francisco office, which represents more than half a dozen Western U.S. states, is charged with locating sites relevant to the Underground Railroad.
Those sites will become candidates for special designation under National Park Service.
According to Washington, the Marysville area is rich with such potential sites.
"This was a nationally recognized important destination during the gold rush," he told the group on Monday.
Raising the community's awareness about its own history — including significant contributions by recently freed or escaped slaves — could generate academic interest from beyond the region, and eventually lead to tourism, he told a gathering in October.
And Randolph is a good place to start.
Local historian Lester Pogue, who has conducted some of his own research on Randolph's origins and contributions, agrees.
"He helped establish not only the (Mount Olivet) Baptist Church, but also the Methodist (Bethel AME) Church right here," he said. "He put fingerprints throughout the community — I mean, this guy was all over."
In understanding black history, "you have to know how important the church was to the black community," Pogue said. "If you wanted to learn to read or write, that's where you did it."
His own education, he said, began at Bethel before he was 5, when he learned to read "right here from my aunties."
According to an obituary for Randolph that ran in the Marysville Daily Appeal on April 25, 1901, he had been born to slaves in Virginia, escaped on the Underground Railroad and arrived in New Bedford, Mass., in 1849.
He traveled by sea around Cape Horn to California in 1851, and in 1856 was sent to Marysville "to take charge of a new Baptist Society."
Eventually, Washington said, he hopes interested community leaders in Marysville will restore other black pioneer grave sites — including several adjacent to Randolph's — and furnish them with appropriate markers.
He also would like to help re-establish an annual event to celebrate Marysville's pioneer history under the name of trailblazer and black pioneer Jim Beckwourth.
"We need to make something happen," said Pastor Carl Dorn of the Mount Olivet Church as Monday's discussion wound to a close. "Talk to some old people. Even if they don't go to church, they might know something."
The group that met Monday made initial committee appointments and plans to meet again with Washington at 1 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Sutter County Library, 750 Cooper Ave., Yuba City. The meeting is open to the public.
CONTACT reporter Nancy Pasternack at 749-4781.