Beyond the visitors bureau

Robbin Ware

“Evils and enormous abuses have occurred in our region’s history and have penetrated to the very roots of our culture.” So warns the introduction to Robbin Ware’s Sacramento Regional Landmarks and Heritage Guide. At first glance, the pocket-sized map book might be another glossy tourist guide to the sites and shops of Sacramento—the kind you’d find in an Old Sacramento T-shirt shop. But what’s inside is much more challenging than the conventional visitors-bureau fare. Ware presents a sort of people’s history of Sacramento, from the role African-Americans (free and enslaved) played in building the capital region to the populist struggles against the “big four” and the railroad monopolies. But, more than a chronicle of the “evils” and “abuses” in Sacramento’s history, Ware’s book also provides a walking tour about those who fought back. The guide is produced under the auspices of the California Cultural Assembly, which Ware founded 27 years ago. You can find the guide in bookstores, museums and public libraries this summer.

This is really kind of subversive for a guidebook.

Yes, brother. I like the way you put that. It’s like a sneak attack! The information in there is volatile. It’s powerful, meaningful, potent information. Every child and every adult needs to read it.

I guess what is different is this thread of social justice that runs through it.

Anybody who stands up for justice is my kind of person. You know, sometimes I think, “Your time, Robbin Ware, has come and gone.” These days, people will take damn near anything and not lift a finger for justice.

I always thought the squatters’ riots of 1851 were interesting.

Ooowee! The strength of the violence in the people. The hunger for some land, someplace to sleep, someplace to call home. The city assessor was killed. The mayor was killed. Sheriff Joe McKinney wasn’t killed right there, but when he went out to arrest some of them, he got a stomach full of lead.

And guess who would have been killed if he hadn’t been in jail? Mr. James McClatchy. He was basically the leader of the squatters. He started that shit, started talking big, and so they put him in jail. He was a good man.

Well, how did you put this guide together?

This book is a direct result of hundreds of human beings who have helped me in a hundred myriad ways. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t digging and sifting. But really, I put it together through the grace of God—and the graphic artists.

What happened was I saw the Andrew Stevens monument in Cesar Chavez [Plaza], and it said, “Think, look up and lift up all,” or something like that. And I thought, “Boy, those are powerful words.” And I just kept going down there to look it at. My light bulbs turned on. My light bulbs turn on for stuff like that.

Then, I was walking around McKinley Park one day, and I saw this [memorial for] Mrs. Guidera. It was a bench, and it said that she did so much for all her life and she asked for nothing in return. It brought tears to my eyes, to think that people give a shit about other human beings.

So, I started thinking, “Who are these people? I wonder if there’s some more of this stuff around here.” So, I went down there, and I looked at Theodore Judah and some others, as God would allow me—that’s how I’m operating.

And I thought, “I wonder if anybody’s done any stories behind all these monuments and memorials.” I wondered why this hadn’t been done before. This is rich territory. And, all of a sudden, this project took over. That’s how I got into this, through the divine will. It had its own story to tell, and it told me.

How did that conversation go?

Well, when I saw that Andrew Stevens, I’d stand there and watch people go past him. All day long. I noticed they looked at it and walked right by it. And I wondered if they really looked at it, whether it could change their life. I wonder if they would have tears in their eyes, if it might light their fire. But ain’t nobody looking at nothing. They’re just statues, just sitting there.

So, who was Andrew Stevens?

He was a master mechanic, an engineer. And the people loved him in Sacramento. He was a genius. He could devise things when the railroad broke down, or parts were needed, to get the engines going. He would just create them out of metal.

But he loved the people. The bosses wanted him to work his people like dogs, work them Sunday and things like that. He said, "No. Uh-uh." He said, "You’re going to pay them a just wage. You’re not going to work them like Georgia mules." He just had good sense, and he loved people. Of course, the hierarchy didn’t want to be bothered. It was the people that put his statue up there.