looking back

Looking Back – Starr King

By Kinen Carvala

When America faced healthcare challenges during the Civil War, Starr King rallied Californians to pitch in.

In 1862, King made fundraising speeches and raised more than $1 million on behalf of the United States Sanitary Commission canvassing California and the whole Northwestern coast up to Vancouver Island, according to an article by Richard H. Peterson in the journal “California History.” The commission not only recruited healthcare workers and delivered supplies, but inspectors also gave instructions on how to improve sanitary conditions in the Civil War army camps by taking into account drainage when deciding where latrines or trash areas should be placed. The effectiveness of the many female nurses in the commission helped reverse the military’s reluctance to have women be nurses.

Thomas Starr King was born on Dec. 17, 1824. The son of a minister, King developed his own reputation in Boston as a kind-hearted minister with broad rhetorical appeal not limited to his denomination. King was at first hesitant to speak out against slavery. 

Starr King square good lighter

The statue of Starr King in Golden Gate Park was crafted by Daniel Chester French, the same artist who sculpted the likeness of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Photo by Jonathan Song.

“I have not preached on Nebraska yet from fear of apoplexy,” King wrote to Randolph Ryer, a Black merchant whom King named his son after. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed residents of a newly admitted state to decide whether or not to allow slavery. Conflicts between pro- and anti-slavery settlers led to a preview of the Civil War in “Bleeding Kansas” (also known as “Bloody Kansas” or the “Border War”) which lasted seven years. 

In 1855, King did manage to condemn the Kansas-Nebraska Act from the pulpit, according to the book “The Antiracism of Thomas Starr King.”  He would criticize that former slaves in the North were being sent back to the South as slaves, going so far as to compare the trial of fugitive slave Anthony Burns to Jesus’ ordeal.

By 1859, King’s reputation was so strong that he received multiple invitations to minister in Chicago, Cincinnati, Brooklyn, and San Francisco, according to the Harvard Square Library. He arrived in San Francisco on April 28, 1860. He only spent four years in San Francisco, but those years made a huge impression. King ministered to Universalist and Unitarian Christians (their modern-day successor, the Unitarian Universalists, are not exclusively Christians).

On Aug. 1, 1860, Starr King was a featured speaker for a celebration where free black people commemorated emancipation. Before there was Juneteenth, black communities in the Northern U.S. celebrated the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833. King said that the church’s divine mission was to “proclaim equality of the races.”

In 1861, during the Civil War, King’s oratory in California in support of the Union rather than the Confederacy was the reason he represented California in Congress’s National Statuary Hall from 1931 until his statue was replaced by Ronald Reagan in 2006. It was then moved to California’s Capitol Park.

“I pledged California to a Northern Republic and to a flag that should have no treacherous threads of cotton in its warp, and the audience came down in thunder,” King remembered of his 1861 speech.

One of his speeches in San Francisco was delivered on Sept. 14, 1862, where 3,000 people packed into Platt’s Music Hall at Bush and Montgomery streets, according to 2013 SFGate article by Gary Kamiya. King “reminded his audience that California had prospered through the Civil War and had not endured fighting on its soil. If California had not been asked to give men, it could give money,” wrote Kamiya. King did not have to be a soldier to support the war effort. He confessed to the founder of the commission that he felt ashamed that he was not “at the East engaged demonstratively in the war.” Peterson said, “It is conceivable that, in King’s mind, to work for the commission at great personal sacrifice was, indeed, to further the kingdom of God on earth.”

King delivered speeches supporting the Union accepting African-American troops as well as schools for black children in San Francisco.

King died on March 4, 1864 at the age of 39 from pneumonia due to exhaustion from his relentless lecture circuit.

He is buried in a San Francisco Unitarian Universalist church garden by Starr King Way, where Geary Boulevard connects to O’Farrell Street between and Franklin and Gough streets. He is one of the few people still buried in San Francisco. Starr King Elementary School on Potrero Hill is named after him.

Starr King’s monument was unveiled by his grandchildren on Oct. 26, 1892 in front of a crowd of 2,000 people, including former San Francisco mayors E. B. Pond and William Alvord. Alvord was also a former Park Commissioner attending alongside the then-current Park Commissioner, W. W. Stow.

A monument honoring King has been in Golden Gate Park for nearly 130 years. The inscription on the front of the monument’s granite base reads: “In him eloquence strength and virtue were devoted with fearless courage to truth, country and his fellow men.”

Public contributions funded the creation of the monument. There were newspaper ads as far south as Santa Barbara praising King and asking readers to send money to the Starr King Monument Association. The overall dimensions of the monument are 236 x 222 x 149 inches, according to the San Francisco Arts Commission. The granite base is 12 feet tall, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

On Oct. 27, 1892, the San Francisco Call newspaper gave this description of King’s bronze statue unveiled at Golden Gate Park:

“… the head poised as with the act of eloquent speech and the left hand rests upon the folds of the flag as they fall over Roman fasces (a bundle of wooden rods to symbolize power and authority). The eminent divine [clergyman] is represented as standing with his head uncovered. …he is holding the manuscript of his sermon…. At his feet is the Bible.”

The King monument’s sculptor was Daniel Chester French, the artist who later created the iconic statue of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The front of Lincoln’s armrests (and front steps) have fasces on them: The ones on the front steps have 13 rods bound together, representing the unity of the original 13 colonies. Fasces were also used by Mussolini as a symbol of fascism during WWII, according to the National Park Service website.

The resolution to move the King statue from the U.S. Capitol to Sacramento in 2006 was written by California State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta. Hollingsworth told the San Francisco Chronicle that he was surprised to learn that King had been representing his state. King was not a native Californian. He only lived in the state for four years and could not compete historically with Reagan or with Franciscan priest Junipero Serra, the other Californian to have a statue in the national hall. (Though Reagan and Serra were not native Californians, they moved to California as adults.)

Starr King statues in Golden Gate Park, the California Capitol and the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco are not copies of each other and were created by different sculptors.

The monument can be found among the trees at the southeast corner of the intersection of JFK and Music Concourse drives.

1 reply »

  1. Thank you for sharing this important history with the contemporary San Francisco residents and citizens. It is inspiring and grounding to know those on whose shoulders we stand in our efforts to promote an inclusive moral imagination.


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