Who was Haight?

 

This is the second part of a two-part series on the life and times of Henry H. Haight, namesake of Haight Elementary School and Haight Avenue. Part one appeared in last Thursday’s edition.
Rasheed Shabazz

On Dec. 5, 1867, newly elected Governor Henry Huntley Haight took to a stage in Sacramento to give his inaugural address. Haight spent the majority of his speech condemning Congress’ Reconstruction policy. He claimed Reconstruction was extreme and destroyed White Southerners’ liberties. 

“Reconstruction,” Haight proclaimed that cold morning, “... takes from White people of 10 states their constitutional rights, and leaves them subject to military rule; and disenfranchises enough White men to give political control to a mass of Negroes just emancipated and just as ignorant of political duties as beasts of the field.”

As Governor, Haight then used the powers of his office to prevent citizenship and voting rights from being extended to non-White California residents. Shortly after taking office, Haight wrote privately to President Andrew Johnson to thank him for his stance against Congress. “... in the judgment of history your fidelity and forbearance will entitle you to a high place among the benefactors of our country and our race.” 

Haight has received credit for signing legislation to create the University of California (UC) and ending subsidies to railroads. However, the 14th Amendment had been waiting on Gov. Haight’s desk when he took office. Haight never transmitted to the state legislature the Constitutional Amendment to extend citizenship to all.

In March 1868, Haight signed the “Organic Act,” creating UC, although he had not been involved in its formation. According to Mark Warren Ferrier’s Origins and Development of the University of California, Haight appointed the first regents of UC, primarily as patronage. The majority were Democrats and none of the regents had been involved with the university’s predecessor in Oakland. 

The U.S. Congress sent the 15th Amendment to states for ratification in late 1869, the January 1870 debates renewed opposition to non-White suffrage. Transmitting the amendment to California’s legislature, Haight warned, “If this amendment is adopted, the most degraded Digger Indian within our borders becomes at once an elector, and so far, a ruler. His vote would count for as much as that of the most intelligent White man in the State.”

The Democratic majority followed Haight’s lead and rejected the 15th Amendment in January 1870, although other states soon ratified it. It took California almost a century to ratify the 15th Amendment, finally doing so in 1962. In 1871, Haight lost his bid for reelection. He returned to his Alameda estate, apparently acquired during his term as governor and rejoined his wife and children.

Haight returned to his law practice, but still engaged in civic activities. He served on the City of Alameda’s Board of Trustees, the predecessor to today’s City Council, as its first president. He also served on the UC Board of Regents. He was selected for a state Constitutional Convention, but died on Sept. 2, 1878, in San Francisco. At the time of his death, his Alameda estate was valued at $200,000.

Haight has been honored in a few ways. Haight School was named after him in 1875, and in 1892 Ordinance No. 189 for the Town and City of Alameda named Haight Avenue after him. During World War II, Housing Commissioners almost named a housing project after him as well. His portrait hangs in both the State Capitol and the Alameda Museum. His heirs donated a bust of his likeness to the UC Regents in 1901. 

His widow Anna (Bissell) remembered Haight as a man who always came home, donated legal work for widows and an asylum, and attended church services religiously. “Truly him was a tree that bore good fruit,” she said.

 

Rasheed Shabazz is a writer. He created a historical website about Henry H. Haight at http://renamehaight.wordpress.com.