Delta History: a March for LGBT Rights

People marching with a rainbow flag just outside of Locke, California.

Video screenshot of One Struggle One Fight marchers as they left Locke in March 2009

Gay activism in California is often associated with cities. But in March 2009, a group of activists took their cause on a march through the rural Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – not a region known for protest marches or gay activism.

The trek was a five-day walk from San Francisco to Sacramento to call for the repeal of Proposition 8, the gay marriage ban that California voters added to the state Constitution in 2008. Organized by One Struggle One Fight, the march went through Walnut Creek, Antioch, Isleton, Locke, and Elk Grove before finishing at the steps of the state Capitol.

Three of the Delta’s five main counties voted in favor of Prop 8, so it might not have looked like sympathetic territory. But march co-leader Seth Fowler said that was part of the point.

“One Struggle One Fight was about direct action and talking to people. There was a really big urban/rural divide, and the question was, ‘How do we make queer people real to people who are mostly just interacting with headlines about us?’”

One answer: by walking through their towns.

He said there were times on the march when he could sense discomfort among people they interacted with.

But there were also many warm welcomes. What the 30 or so marchers were doing “is such important work” the Rev. Christy Parks-Ramage told them when they gathered at the First Congregational Church of Antioch. “And it’s work that we as a congregation have struggled with.”

The church had recently become “open and affirming,” officially welcoming LGBT people in its ministry. The decision caused a split, and so many congregants had left that the church was selling its building to forge a new path.

The marchers also found welcome in the tiny town of Locke, with a population hovering around 70. Locke was built by Chinese immigrants in 1915, two years after the state passed a law forbidding land ownership or long-term leases by non-citizens, so they couldn’t own the land they built on. (So-called Alien Land Laws were invalidated by the California Supreme Court in 1952.)

In an email to fellow organizers, Fowler described his advance visit to Locke, where he met with the Locke Foundation and discussed the march going through the town. “They were receptive and excited at the prospects of becoming the Gayest Town in America, if only for an evening,” he wrote.

Woman standing behind an old wooden statue of a seated bodhisattva in her home.

The wooden statue of Guanyin, bodhisattva of compassion, now lives in the Locke home of Deborah Mendel and Russell Ooms (not pictured).

When marchers spent the night in Locke, they stayed in a former Baptist church. “There was a really large wooden statue there of Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion,” Fowler recalled. “It felt like a very lovely synchronicity to have this being of compassion watch over us as we slept there.”

He reveres Guanyin to this day.

Russell Ooms, who owned the church building at the time, said the group was delightful. “Locke is a quiet town, and suddenly it was filled with energy,” he said. “It was exciting. They were exciting.”

The marchers left behind a gift for the town: a donation to the Locke Foundation, commemorated in a tile that now lives at the Locke Memorial Park. And at least one of the townspeople – Stuart Walthall – joined them at the march’s finale: a rally at the Capitol.

The marchers ultimately got their wish about Proposition 8: It was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. And public opinion in California about gay marriage changed even faster, going from majority opposition in early 2009 to majority support in early 2010.

This year, on Nov. 5, California voters will decide whether to remove Prop 8 language from the state Constitution.

Videos from the march:

Commemorative tiles on a wall

The marchers made a donation to the Locke Foundation during their stay, commemorated with this tile. (Photo ©Deborah Mendel, used with permission)

Clarksburg: an Exception to School Segregation

A 1921 school photo featuring students both white and Asian - likely Japanese American - mixed together.

Photo courtesy of Clarksburg Library Collection and Friends of the 1883 Clarksburg Schoolhouse

Class photos have an eternal charm, with their mix of children who are happy, grumpy, candid, posed, awkward, or indifferent (and inevitably at least one with wildly unkempt hair). This 1921 photo from Merritt School – now known as the 1883 Clarksburg Schoolhouse – is no different.

But there’s something about this photo that is not eternal, and actually surprising for its time: diversity. White and Asian children – probably mostly Japanese-American – are interspersed randomly, as you would expect to see in a school photo taken today, over 100 years later.

Ethnic diversity has been a hallmark of the Delta since the fertile farmland here was “reclaimed” from swamps, drawing settlers from China, Holland, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines, and Portugal.

Racial harmony, however, was not a given. After arriving in the late 1800s, Japanese immigrants quickly met with success in farming[i], and then backlash. By 1913, the state had passed the Alien Land Law prohibiting Japanese and other Asian immigrants from owning land or leasing land for more than three years[ii]. And in 1921, state-sponsored segregation began, though schools in nearby communities were already segregated.[iii]

Not Clarksburg, though. “It was always integrated,” said Steve Hiromoto, a resident historian for Clarksburg’s Japanese community whose great, great grandfather arrived in Clarksburg from Japan in 1898.

There actually was a Japanese school in Clarksburg: Holland Union Gakuen. Built in 1925, Hiromoto said, it was not an alternative school for Japanese-American children, but rather an additional school that would help the children retain Japanese language and culture.

What was it about Clarksburg that fostered integration even as there was segregation in nearby communities? Hiromoto speculates that it may be the nature of the community, with all members focused on farming.

“My family assimilated with the community because it was a farm-based community, and they were involved in a lot of activities the other farm families were involved in,” he said. “They felt welcome and able to contribute where they could.”

In other communities, there were distinct Japantown districts where immigrants might be more likely to live and socialize mostly with fellow Japanese immigrants. “Clarksburg didn’t have a situation like that,” Hiromoto said.

Clarksburg public schools remained integrated for two more decades after this photo was taken, and it was not a community decision that ended it – it was the President of the United States.  The U.S. had entered World War II, and fear and distrust of the Japanese was running high, so on February 19, 1942, the president issued Executive Order 9066, ordering 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry into relocation camps. All of Clarksburg’s Japanese-American families had to leave.

Many didn’t return, but the Japanese presence in the Delta remains. Of 100 Japanese-American families that left the Clarksburg region, about 25 came back, and 10 of those remain in this small farming community to this day. Walnut Grove has an operating Buddhist temple. And Isleton’s and Walnut Grove’s Japantowns are on the National Register of Historic Places. All are living facets of history in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area.

The school pictured in the photo above is being restored by a community group called the Friends of the 1883 Clarksburg Schoolhouse, with support from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy (grants for restoration and property acquisition), the Delta Protection Commission (feasibility study and interpretive guidance) and many individual donors in the community. Learn more at www.1883clarksburgschoolhouse.org.


[i] Jennifer Helzer, California State University, Stanislaus, “Building Communities – Economics & Ethnicity”

[ii] Philip Garone, California State University, Stanislaus, “Managing the Gardin: Agriculture, Reclamation, and Restoration in the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta”

[iii] Jennifer Helzer, California State University, Stanislaus, “Building Communities – Economics & Ethnicity”

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