For forty years, William Robison was the Express Messenger who carried Wells, Fargo & Co.’s Express between Stockton, Calif. and the Sierra Nevada gold mines. He was active in community affairs and worked forcefully to protect the civil rights of African Americans in California. What distinguishes Robison’s accomplishments is the fact that he was active in an era when African Americans faced the hardest attitudes against them: the era of slavery and Jim Crow, 1850-1899.
Born into slavery in Virginia, Robison gained his freedom in 1836 after serving with the U.S. Army in the “Seminole War.” Robison came to California during the Mexican War and settled in Stockton in 1850. Following a stint at mining (like just about everyone in those years!), he worked for Page, Bacon & Co., California’s largest bank. Robison then hired on with Adams & Co.’s express business. His route was from Stockton to the mines, carrying mail and newspapers to be first with the news. Adams & Co. crashed in the financial panic of 1855 and Wells Fargo happily hired Robison. He worked for Wells Fargo for another forty years.
Robison actively fought for civil rights. He was a delegate to the State Convention of Colored Citizens in 1856, which circulated petitions to allow non-Whites to testify in court cases. In the early 1870s, Robison worked to integrate Stockton’s schools.
In pre-Civil War years, California was a Free State and Robison was not quiet about reminding people of that fact. Robison took action as well: According to Stockton historian Virginia L. Struhsaker, Robison was one of an armed band that liberated slaves held illegally in San Joaquin County. An African American man took a huge risk by participating in such an act because negative attitudes were everywhere, even in Free States.
In 1861, for instance, a business agent along Robison’s Messenger route protested the employment of a black wagon driver. George Tighlman, Wells Fargo’s cashier in the Stockton office, sarcastically replied, “we are obliged to you for your advice…We get along very well with ours; have never had any trouble.”
Robison was a respected man in his community. Even the pro-slavery San Joaquin Republican praised him as “a worthy and noticeable man,” noted for “his remarkable kindnesses.” Robison was a member of the Stockton Pioneer Society, one of many such organizations formed in that era by “Forty-niners” and other early-comers to the Golden State. At his death in 1899, other Pioneers wrote of Robison’s trustworthiness and the positions of responsibility he held.
In sum: Robison had a military career and claimed his freedom, stayed in one job for decades, was active in civic affairs, joined community organizations, risked his life for justice — and leaves a primary legend as being a great guy. Robison is THE model of citizenship. It’s an honor to work with him.