Emperor Norton And The 1860s Black Activism Movement

Updated: Sep 13, 2023 11:09
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Images: (Left) H.W. Bradley or William Rulofson via Wikimedia Commons; (Right) Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Source: African American Lives.

It’s the 161-year anniversary of Emperor Norton declaring himself “Emperor of these United States” in the pages of the 1859 San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin. While this bizarre move catapulted Emperor Joshua Norton I to status as a beloved local cult figure for centuries, our frequent celebrations and homages to him often leave out the Emperor’s well-documented use of his popularity and platform to insist on equality, civil rights and expanded legal protections for Black people in post-Civil War America. 

That side of his legacy will be discussed at length on Thursday, Sept. 17 — the actual anniversary of the first proclamation — in a free Zoom conference called Emperor Norton in Black San Francisco, part of the Emperor Norton Trust’s “Empire Day” celebrations and hosted by the Mechanics’ Institute. (The Trust will also be doing the online event Be Nortonian all day on social media.) That presentation is Thursday, September 17, 2020, from 12 pm to 1 pm PT. It’s free, but registration is required

“This is a guy who is worth honoring in this way,” Emperor Norton Trust founder John Lumea tells “September 17, 1859 was when the Emperor walks into the offices of the Daily Evening Bulletin and hands them a piece of paper with a proclamation declaring himself Emperor of the United States. That really is the beginning of his public reign.”


The first concrete evidence we have of Emperor Norton’s Black rights activism comes about 10 years into his proclamation-writing celebrity status, in March of 1868, when he attended a meeting of the Order of Freedom’s Defenders. That was a pro-civil rights group that supported giving the right to vote to Black men which would eventually happen two years later with the 15th Amendment. We know that Norton was present that evening, thanks astonishingly racist clip from the San Francisco Examiner (which was a pro-slavery publication at the time!) that details in one of its less-despicable sentences that “In the body of the audience were Emperor Norton, several negroes, etc.”

Lumea notes that “A lot of those papers from the 1860s, the early years of the Examiner on the issue of race, it’s not a pretty picture.”

The next year, as the right for Blacks to vote was picking up momentum, California was one of the last holdout states — not because we didn’t want Blacks to vote, but because we didn’t want Chinese people to vote. The Black man who edited the Pacific Appeal newspaper gave a lecture promoting the 15th Amendment, and according to this far less racist Examiner clip from November 1869, “The attendance was very small, but among those present was his Imperial Highness Norton I, an attentive listener. He occupied a front seat.”  

This coincided with the Emperor publishing his proclamations primarily in Black-owned newspapers. “By the mid-1860s or so, some of those papers like the Bulletin had been running these proclamations, some of them just got tired of the joke,” L:umea says. “They didn’t want to run them anymore.”


Those that did run the Emperor’s proclamations often ran fake ones written by other people, so the Emperor started publishing them pretty exclusively in the Black-owned Appeal. “The Emperor really cast about for a paper who, as he put it, would ‘hold true to his colors,’ in other words to print only what he said,” Lumea tells us. “So he started this relationship with the Pacfic Appeal in 1870.”

The Pacific Appeal was a Black-owned, Abolitionist paper in which the Emperor published his proclamations demanding that Black people be allowed the right to attend public schools and ride the San Francisco streetcars.

“They published at least 250 of his proclamations between late 1870 and mid-1875,” Lumea says. “In that period between 1870 and 1875, all these proclamations he’s writing, that’s where he’s talking about Black children should be able to attend public schools, Blacks should be able to ride streetcars. Native Americans shouldn’t be having their lands stolen.

“He was building out what we would say now is a very progressive vision.” 

Thursday’s presentation will cover the Emperor’s important proclamations, but he had some ridiculous ones too. “Most of the proclamations do have a public purpose. He’s dealing with some issue of equality or civil rights or some locally topical political issue. Those, for me, ring true,” Lumea tells us. “But here are other ones during that period where he’s talking about personal issues. ‘You need to buy a new uniform,’ ‘You’re absconding with my funds,’ ‘You need to give me my money back.’ Clearly there were issues he had that clouded thoughts a little bit.” 

But that’s all part of the whimsical fun of Emperor Norton, too. The Emperor Norton Trust will honor these parts of his legacy on Thursday with the all-day social media hashtag event BE NORTONIAN: A Call for Empire Day Photos & Videos. “People who march to the Emperor’s drum are encouraged to dress up, recite a poem, sing a song, do an act of kindness, whatever ‘Being Nortonian’ means to them,” Lumea says. “Take a picture of it, take a video of it, post it on Facebook, tag us. We’ll do a gallery.”

Emperor Norton in Black San Francisco is Thursday, September 17, 2020, from 12 pm to 1 pm PT on Zoom. It’s free, but registration is required

Editor’s Note: There’s another Empire Day event later on Thursday and it’s an Emperor Norton Ice Cream Social on Zoom. Here’s the info:
Meeting ID: 833 2528 4036
Passcode: SUNDAE
Virtually (via Zoom) celebrate the 162nd year of the Nortonian Reign as we celebrate Empire Day, the date Joshua Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States!

Special Ice Cream Social on ZOOM.  Let’s devour our Emperor Norton Sundaes together – who needs Ghirardelli???

Line a goblet glass (any glass will do) with sliced bananas and cherries, add two generous scoops of vanilla ice cream, top with hot fudge, whipped cream, and a sprinkling of chopped peanuts.

After we eat our incredible sundaes, we will feature ASK THE EMPEROR and WHAT THE EMPEROR MEANS TO ME – an interactive Zoomy dialogue and then we can have seconds.

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