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BY Mildred Europa Taylor, 3:00pm June 21, 2022,

Harriet Russell and her remarkable story from slavery to real estate entrepreneur in 19th-century California

Harriet Russell. Photo credit: COURTHOUSE MUSEUM COLLECTION

More than 12 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to work as slaves between 1515 and the mid-19th Century. Some two million of the enslaved men, women and children died on their way to the Americas. For those who survived, it was the start of several hours of work on large plantations with little to eat and with never having to forget their status as property.

But the slaves did not simply accept their fate without protest. Slave rebellions were at the time known. Some enslaved Africans were also able to escape bondage to live remarkable lives acquiring wealth and status. They had to overcome several challenges and a system that was not in their favor to make it. And they did make it. In fact, data shows that immediately following Emancipation, there were 4,047 millionaires in the United States, and six of them were African American. 

In Merced County, California, was Harriet Russell, who went from a former slave in Louisiana to a single mom land speculator in California, with part of Snelling in Merced County even named after her.

According to history by the Merced County Courthouse Museum, Merced County was carved out of Mariposa County in 1855. At the time, its settlers in the Snelling area were mostly from the Southern states who usually brought enslaved men and women with them. This was despite the fact that California was a free state.

Black settlers would also come to Merced County as free men and women. Former slave Russell came to California as a free woman with her daughter and settled in Snelling in 1857. She worked as a washer but at the same time, she was very much engaged in land speculation, as pointed out by the Merced County Courthouse Museum.

Russell made 17 property transactions and worked with both White and Black landowners between 1869 and 1871. The former slave turned real estate entrepreneur passed away in 1897 at the age of 90. The Merced County Courthouse Museum said she was remembered by the Merced Express as “one of the oldest settlers in Merced County and laid off [sic] the first addition to Snelling which was called ‘Aunt Harriet’s Addition’.”

“Aunt Harriet’s Addition to Snelling” is the area north of Emma Street between 4th and Montgomery Streets, the Courthouse Museum said.

Russell remains one of the Black American pioneers of Merced County who contributed a lot to the county. One other well-known pioneering Black settler was William J. Creque, a waiter and handyman born in the West Indies who became a poet. He is famous for his 1908 book dedicated to his town, “The Fountain City,” a nickname for Merced.

The works of these pioneering Black settlers like Russell and Creque are hardly found in the history books. They are also not inscribed in monuments, but the good news is they can be found in other mediums including literary works, movies, and maps, said the Merced County Courthouse Museum. It said Russell’s legacy is memorialized on maps while Creque’s skills as a poet are highlighted in a book entitled “Poems: A Flash From Afar Ut Pignus Amicitiae.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 22, 2022


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