Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Month: August, 2017

The Ancient Brothers of Hibernia Respond to the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900

A telegraph from meBro. J.M.Kirwin, who lived in Galveston, Texas, to the Ancient Order of Hibernians County Board of Directors, in San Francisco

On September 8, 1900, the city of Galveston, Texas, was hit with a category 4 hurricane. The city, which is located on an augmented and engineered barrier island, was demolished. Barrier islands are great for protecting coastlines and absorbing wave energy and not so great at maintaining geomorphic integrity. (the Newport peninsula, which forms a significant portion of my hometown, comes very close to being a barrier island.) Anyway. The highest points in Galveston 117 years ago weren’t much more than nine feet above sea level. The wind gusted at 145 miles per hour and the storm surge crested at 15 feet. The hurricane destroyed everything in its path. Homes were leveled and swept away. Thirty thousand people were left homeless.

“Thousands of Dead Strew The Ruins of Galveston,” read the headline of the San Francisco Call on September 10, two days after the storm hit. The meeting minutes book of the County Board of Directors of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic mutual aid organization, shows that J.J.  Donohue, P.J. Kelleher, and several other officials held a special meeting at Hibernia Hall, their headquarters at 120 9th street, when news of the catastrophe became known.

O’Donohue, who was the President of the County Board, opened the meeting by stating the obvious. The AOH needed to decide if they could send money to the citizens of Galveston. “The object of this special meeting was to consider whether the AOH of San Francisco would deem it advisable to take steps towards relieving the distress which prevailed among our members in Galveston, owing to the unfortunate condition of affairs with which they are confronted,” wrote the recording secretary P.J. Kelleher in his chunky, inelegant handwriting.

This was not a small matter. The AOH, along with other mutual aid organizations in San Francisco, had hundreds of members living and working in a city with no safety codes, no OSHA, no social services, nothing. If you lost your job, or broke your ribs in a motor accident, or got kicked in the skull by an irritated horse, you were on your own, unless you were a member of an mutual aid or “benevolent” organization like the AOH. If so, you received monetary benefits in lieu of compensation for lost wages, or sick pay.  If your luck really ran out and you died from illness or in an accident, the AOH paid for your funeral expenses. In any case, they had you covered.

The meeting was called after the Board of Directors received a telegram from an Ancient Brother in Galveston, one J. G. Ganty. He asked the San Francisco Bros*  to meet and discuss the matter. “Call special meeting of Hibernians,” wrote Ganty, adding simply, “Awful loss of life and money.”

“Heartrending Appeals For Aid From Many County Districts Of The Devastated Coast” The San Francisco Call, Sept. 16, 1900

This was correct. At least 6,000 people —and maybe as many as 8,000 or even 12,000—died. That’s a lot of people. About 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina.  The Great Earthquake of San Francisco officially killed 3,000 people, although many believe librarian Gladys Hansen’s calculation, which puts the death toll closer to 6,000.

Ganty’s plea for help did not go unheard. The AOH had a membership that spanned many trades, and many income levels.  After hearing suggestions from  Brothers Mcfadden, Ryan, Conklin, O’Gara, Dignan, and Mahoney, and the order’s priest, Reverend D. Crowley, eleven branches from across the city pledged $150.00 for relief.

In addition to this sum, the County Treasurer of the AOH added $50.00 to be telegraphed to the County President of the AOH in Galveston. The San Francisco Call reported later that the AOH sent 500.00, (almost 15,000.00 adjusted for inflation) to Galveston, Texas.

It was all needed. The newspapers accounts from Galveston grew worse and worse as more bodies were uncovered, often “naked and mutilated beyond recognition”. Frantic attempts were made to find housing for those who had lost their homes and fears of water-borne pestilence were spreading.

It wasn’t just Hibernians helping Hibernians. All of San Francisco responded. The September 16th issue of the San Francisco Call lists hundreds of business and individuals who gave what they had—shoes, crockery, and, of course, money. Ms. Mable O’Connor, a “talented schoolgirl” who lived at 3443 19th street, raised 70.25 for Galveston. By January, the situation had improved enough for Galveston to report what had been spent to rebuild the city: 2,258,600.

Ancient Order of Hibernians Gathered in Convention, San Francisco Call, August 18, 1910

It’s unclear (to me in my hasty research into Galveston’s disastrous past) how much of that money came in the form of relief, sent by individuals and organizations and how much came from the administration of President William McKinley, who, during the worst of the hurricane’s impacts, lay dying from the gunshot he received at the hands of assassin Leon Czolgosz. The Army Corps of engineers did help build a seawall, intended to protect Galveston from future hurricanes, something it couldn’t do three days ago on Friday, August 25th, when Hurricane Harvey made landfall.

It’s truly a bummer that once again, as Texas faces a fearsome storm, America has a useless President. (Happily, the process of directing emergency aid isn’t linked to media ratings.) How will America respond to Galveston, 117 years later? The pictures of Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and his deputies performing rescues is cause for hope. But neither they, nor the thousands of other emergency personnel rescuing entire cities can do much after people are pulled from inundated houses.

There’s been some misplaced schadenfreude over the fact that it’s Texas, California’s weird shadow nemesis with its climate deniers, its theocrats, its racists, its wall-loving Trump supporters that’s getting its ass kicked by Mother Nature.  Are they reaping what they’ve sown? Nah. Hurricanes don’t crash into cities to teach people hard lessons. (and really: miserable people stay miserable, unless they are helped.) Hurricanes are forces of nature and go where they can go.

What happens after that is entirely up to humanity.

A copy of the money order sent from the San Francisco Ancient Order of Hibernians to their Bros in Galveston, Texas.

Here’s a fund to help people displaced by Hurricane Harvey: it’s called the Harvey Community Relief Fund, and it was established by the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund, the Workers Defense Project, SEIU Texas, Faith in Texas, CWA, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service
* (They refer to each other as “Bros” throughout the meeting minutes book. It’s very endearing.)
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Getting people.

This weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists went on a rampage, beating a man named Deandre Harris, murdering a woman named Heather Heyer, and attempting to terrorize everyone. They failed. The good citizens of Charlottesville refused to be cowed by the confederate-nazi’s infantile displays of historic insecurity, and threw down, creating a bright line between goodness and evil. Within hours, hundreds of rallies were held across this great nation to respond to their terrorist attacks. I went looking for a rally that I’d heard was happening in the Mission somewhere.

People were drifting down 24th street in the way they do now, clutching a cup or cone of Humphrey Slocums in their hands, possessing little purpose, looking clueless and undisturbed. So not a big rally I thought. These people are still lollygagging. It’s not a rally until bystanders start whipping out their iPhones, ostensibly to film things, but mostly to throw up some imaginary barrier between themselves and the action. I’m not a part of this, the gesture says. I wouldn’t put it past them to do this even if they got charged by some psychotic supremacist.

I found the rally, which fit neatly onto the southwest corner of 24th and Mission (or 24th and BART, as I call it). I saw Frank Chu. He was carrying a new sign: the front was the usual meaningless 24 galaxies-1,000,000,000 population babble and on the back was an ad for Expensify. “Expense reports that don’t suck!” it said. I glared at him. Frank, I wanted to say, now is not the time.

A scruffy older man was speaking laboriously into a battered megaphone, which had clearly been through many rallies. It was barely functioning. (Don’t we have better technology by now, people?) He was hairy, pot-bellied and avuncular, your classic elder-hippy who gets stoned and talks about Allan Watts and Phish. Why the fuck is this guy talking, I wondered. The rally was off to a desultory, mansplaining start, which was a bad contrast to the frenetic displays of irrationality I’d been watching all weekend.

NBC was interviewing a tall African American man wearing a tee shirt printed with the words “Black Swag”. I sidled over to listen, which was hard to do with Mr. Natural droning on about the summer of love, of all things, in the background. Shut up, I wanted to shriek. I’m trying to listen!

“I grew up in Atlanta,” the tall man said to the NBC reporter.  “None of this is a surprise. I didn’t see a lot of them (he meant white supremacists) but I knew they were around. I definitely saw a lot of confederate flags as a kid. People are waking up,” he continued,  “and that’s a good thing. But they need to remember that this is nothing new. And Trump isn’t the point. They need to focus on more than just him. These people didn’t just wake up yesterday and decide to be racists. This has been going on for a long time.”  The NBC reporter was nodding his head vigorously. “Trump stirred the pot to unify his base. That’s what he did,” said the tall man.  “You can see that in his refusal to respond to the racists directly. David Duke? I don’t know who he is! That kind of thing.”

In the meantime, the megaphone was handed to another woman, who was inaudible. No one could hear her. “Speak up!” the crowd demanded. I felt my eyes roll around in my head. Why are the first ones to grab the megaphone always people with no rhetorical skills? I caught the words “speak out” and realized anyone could take the megaphone, which is a great thing or a very bad thing, depending.

I looked to my right and saw Heather Heyer’s smiling self-assured face, floating above the crowd, framed against a piece of bright yellow construction paper. Her last selfie, I thought. You could see the tiny golden crucifix nestled into the base of her throat.

A scrawny guy with a ponytail took the floor and got megaphone fever immediately. This is what I call that state of elation when you realize that you finally have the megaphone and that everyone can hear you, whether they want to or not. He started off slow, but the feverish elation grew in him until his skinny body shook. “We must take our country BACK NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW!” he screamed into the battered megaphone. Take the country back to what? I wondered. Isn’t it the past that’s getting us in trouble?

An African American woman walked over and took the megaphone with assurance. She started speaking. “Heather Heyer,” she said and her throat constricted and caught. She started again. “It takes people,”  she said, “it takes people to face down and defeat racism. That means you have to come to meetings, you have to make phone calls. That means,” she said “that you have to struggle. With People. That is the only way that things will stop. Not impeachment. Not special councils. People are the only thing that can stop other people from doing harm.”

She had a ten year old son, she said. “I worry everyday about his future. I drove here today and I saw a white man in a truck with an American flag and I thought who are you? Do I need to be afraid of you?” She paused. “I have to tell you. I’m afraid of white men. I know there are brothers and sisters here who do the work, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid of white people. Don’t let them represent you! Don’t let them do that to you! Turn out! Get out on the streets! You have to do this. Because understand: they want you to stay home, feel fear! Are you gonna get your head cracked? Are they going to hurt you? That’s what they want. They want you to shut up, to back down. They want you to be afraid! Don’t give them that! Take the streets! Hold the streets! Don’t back down!” The crowd—it had grown and was now twice as big—roared.

An older woman wearing tweed cap and a purple Trans March hoodie spoke.  “I’m a sixty-year old Jewish Lesbian! And I will not allow anti-semitism happen again! Not like it did in WWII. Do you know why it happened in WWII? Because people let it happen! They decided to be Good Germans! Well, I’m not gonna be a Good Fucking German! And you can’t be either!”

The last speaker was the tall man wearing the Black Swag shirt. His name was Allen. “People ask me why black people aren’t angry,” he said. The crowd groaned in dismay.  “Why aren’t black people angry?” Allen repeated. “And I say this. I have a job I have to go to. I have shopping I have to do. I have to live my life. What am I supposed to do? Show up at the office and when someone says good morning, Allen, ask them what’s so good about it? That’ll kill the water cooler talk. Catch you later, my co-worker might say. I can just see them saying, oh not that way. Not like slavery! I go shopping, they ask me paper or plastic? and I say I brought my own damn bag!” He meant to be humorous, and he was. He reminded me of Dick Gregory.

“But,” he went on. “Listen. I can’t be angry all the time! ” He laughed briefly and then said “White people. You gotta stand up. You have to.”

The rally organizer took the megaphone, mentioned a conference on November 4th—“NOVEMBER 4th,” he repeated admonishingly, and then segued into a denunciation of Trump and his attacks on reproductive rights. Ye shall know that you are at a RCP-sponsored rally by the mention of a conference and legal abortion in the same breath, I thought sourly.

Back in 2003, after the San Francisco Archdiocese organized the largest anti-choice march in the West, a few of us tried to start a grassroots abortion-rights organization, the small fish chasing the big fish. Real basic stuff. We quickly found ourselves embroiled in a turf war between various socialist factions. People bailed; the organization faltered, and consequently there was no meaningful grassroots response to the theocrats at the Archdiocese.

This was a thing, I quickly found out, after talking to more experienced organizers. Groups like the RCP disrupt and infiltrate grassroots groups to grow their membership which, as far as I can tell, means paying “dues” and selling more newspapers. I felt pissy listening to this guy list the ways in which Roe v Wade has been damaged. You’re only saying these things to get people to your conference, I thought and remembered a day back in 2004, when a reproductive rights rally failed to materialize—at the last minute— because of the ISO and its cultish bullshit. But that’s a story for another time.

I left the rally and walked home down 23rd street. Scattered across the sidewalk were the stamens from a bottlebrush tree growing nearby. The sidewalk was covered in bright red.

I remembered a Halloween night in 1994. I was at my grandmother’s award-winning small house in Columbus, Ohio. The door bell rang. She opened the door. A small boy stood there with a superman cape draped around his shoulders. He had the joyful smile that only a small boy wearing a superman cape could have. He was African American. His eyes were big in his small face, and his hair was closely cropped. You could see his shapely little head, balanced on his thin, delicate neck.

My grandmother made the requisite fuss over him, ooo-ing and ahh-ing and agreeing with him that he was superman and that his cape was magnificent. She shut the door. I could see she was crying. I was startled. Neither of my grandmothers were easily moved to tears.

“Carmen,” I said “why are you crying? What’s wrong?”
“That little boy,” she relied. She was distraught. “What’s going to happen to him? What’s going to happen to that beautiful little black boy?”*

Dedicated to with love to Deandre Harris, Heather Heyer, Corey Long and everyone in Charlottesville who stood against hate. Please know: I’ll get my people.
 
*I prefer to believe that that beautiful little boy grew up to tear down confederate statues.