By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer
From 1975 to 1981, Les Robinson managed the community swimming pool at Sacramento’s Southside Park — not knowing he had a personal relationship with the church across the street.
In July 2017, at a barbecue function, he learned through a family member that the historic St. Andrews African Methodist Episcopal’s (A.M.E.) founder and first officer was his great-great-great grandfather Daniel Blue.
On Nov. 13, Robinson and the congregation celebrated Blues’ legacy and the church’s 172 years of existence. St. Andrews’ 42nd pastor, Rev. Dr. Jason Thompson, was in attendance. The theme of the celebration was titled, “Celebrating and Serving…A Legacy Continued.”
“It was a wonderful service. It was modern but historic. It was a blending of times and people,” Blue said. “We talked about the past, we talked about the present and projected into the future. We should be passing that baton of legacy and faith because of people like Daniel Blue.”
Initially known as Bethel A.M.E., St. Andrews church is the oldest African American church on the West Coast,” according to the California Registered Historical Landmark plaque placed on the north side of the Sacramento County Courthouse’s parking lot at 7th and G streets.
John Fitzgerald was its first pastor. Robinson is related to Blue on his father’s side of the family.
Robinson is the Men’s Ministry pastor at the Sanctuary Church in Santa Clarita. A graduate of Sacramento High School, he attended San Francisco State University to play football, returning to Sacramento to coach the sport and track and field at John F. Kennedy High School.
Robinson worked as an actor in television and films when he relocated to the Los Angeles area in 1994. Now, he is on a journey to preserve the legacy of a man born into bondage who was also one of Sacramento’s prominent Black citizens.
Blue alongside ex-slaves Barney and George Fletcher helped establish St. Andrews A.M.E. in Blue’s home in downtown Sacramento. Robinson said that Blue had been enslaved in Kentucky and arrived in Sacramento in 1849 on a wagon train, forced to mine for gold but was later freed.
Three months before California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state, Blue held spiritual gatherings at his home between 4th and 5th streets on I Street. On June 10, 1850, it was organized as the church that would be known as St. Andrews A.M.E. Blue was 54 years old.
On Oct. 14, 1850, the church’s trustees purchased a lot on 7th Street between G and H streets for $250, where St. Andrews was built and stood for 100 years.
By 1954, Blue and the church’s parishioners housed the first public school for Black, Native American, Hispanic/Latino, and Asian American students from the Sacramento community. The school began in the home of Blue and his wife before it was moved to the church’s basement.
It is rarely spoken of, although well documented, that in 1864 —Blue liberated a 12-year-old Black girl named Edith who was sold illegally to Sacramento farmer Walter Gammon. Blue was able to file a court complaint and produced witnesses to refute Gammon’s claim that Edith was freely living with him.
It’s the last known case of slavery in California, despite being established as a free state in 1850, according to archivists from the Center of Sacramento History (CHS).
CHS exhibits its historic artifacts and documentary collections in various venues throughout the city and county of Sacramento.
In 1951, a newly built structure at 8th and V Streets was dedicated right across the street from Southside Park. Robinson said he managed the park and pool for six years, without knowledge of his ties to the religious institution.
The original church site on 7th Street between G and H streets was declared a State Historic Landmark on Jan. 27, 1995, by the California State Historic Landmarks Commission.
According to church records, St. Andrews hosted the “California Colored Citizens” State Convention in 1855, 1856, and 1865. Each convention was convened to address and propose legislative changes that unfavorably affected Black Californians.
“I found that [Blue] was one of the founders of the Colored Citizens State Conventions and what they did to get laws passed where Black and minorities could testify against Whites in courts,” Robinson said. “They also made it possible for us to vote. There was some serious stuff that happened in that church and where some of these laws originated.”
In the mid-1920s, historian and civil rights advocate W.E.B. DuBois insisted on having speaking engagements at St. Andrews when he visited Sacramento, according to the church records.
Robinson had intended to share his family’s history and church background with the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans in Los Angeles in September.
The nine-member panel is tasked with studying and developing reparation proposals for African Americans and recommending appropriate ways to educate Californians about the task force’s findings.
Robinson was unable to speak to the panel during the public comments portion of the meeting due to time constraints but still hopes to when the next meeting is held in southern California in February 2023.
The significance of the church and why the story should be shared with the task force, Robinson said, is that St. Andrews was started during the “[California] gold rush when, according to the census, there were only 191 African Americans in the county of Sacramento,” he said.
“The fact is that most churches in America last about 50 or 60 years or typically two or three generations,” Robinson said. “This church has lasted over six generations. That’s phenomenal and almost unheard of. Not that many old churches exist today, especially on the West Coast.”
At St. Andrew’s celebration, members of the City of Sacramento’s African American Experience Project (AAEP) were in attendance to hear Robinson’s presentation and gather additional information on Blue’s descendants.
The AAEP is currently seeking participation in its efforts to “research, identify, document, and educate the community about the Black experience in Sacramento,” said Kelly Rivas-Fong, the city of Sacramento’s Racial Equity Advisor.
“We have people out here in the community who are interested in the history of this church,” said Patricia Jones Penn, who serves on St. Andrews’ history and archive committee. “It’s been 172 years. We are grateful for this moment.”
Robinson – who has three brothers and three sisters – said that a party of 40 family members, friends, and former athletes he coached and counseled over the years were present at the celebration.
Daniel Blue died on Oct. 15, 1884 at the age of 88. He is buried in East Lawn Memorial Park.
“There is still so much to learn about my great grandfather Blue and this church’s legacy,” Robinson said. “This is the beginning of the journey to keep our legacy alive.”