Edmond Wysinger – a little-known south Valley resident – just wanted to enroll his son in the best school he could find. After being turned down, he fought a fight that would change education across the Valley and beyond.
It’s a pursuit of history and culture that has kept research historian Michael Smith gathering knowledge about his community for years.
“My wife is German-Italian – my daughters are mixed. So it was important to me to show them the culture of Tulare County.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a walk through a cemetery can be a wealth of information.
What appeared to be one of the most insignificant, barely legible stones may very well have been the biggest gem of them all.
Eventually he saved $1,000 and bought his freedom.
In 1849, Edmond Wysinger was a slave part of a group traveling from South Carolina to the town of Grass Valley.
So what brought him west? It was the California Gold Rush.
Edmond, along with his German slave owner and others worked at the surface mines.
Eventually he saved $1,000 and bought his freedom. Once free, he traveled south – stopping in Merced where he would meet his future wife Pernessa. The couple married in 1862, and they settled in Visalia.
The Civil War would end in 1865, but another battle was in its infancy – and Wysinger was about to be an unwitting soldier.
Wysinger, a laborer and part time preacher, had eight children – six boys and two girls. He always stressed the value of education.
“Visalia Colored School”
His children’s first formal education came at what was known as the Visalia Colored School. Writings housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. were by Mervyn Shipley. They describe the first place where African-American children were being educated – it was in a barn of a black farmer.
Within a year, the teacher – Mr. Scott – would purchase an acre of property and open a private school in town. A few years later, it would be annexed into the Visalia School District.
Meanwhile, construction was underway across town for the Visalia School. This campus was only for white children of the town’s roughly 2,800 residents.
A historical marker sits just behind the town library.
In the years that followed, state laws evolved and required school facilities for whites and non-whites to be equal. A quick glance at both and the contrast couldn’t be more apparent. The policy was a dream deferred.
“I can give you a shack and call it a school and build a mansion and call it a school, too – they’re not equal,” Smith said.
The inequality prompted Wysinger to attempt to enroll his son Arthur into the Visalia School in 1888.
He was turned down by the district – then lost his case in the Tulare County Court.
Eyewitness News obtained a copy of the original court transcripts. In it, the school district laid out their argument explaining why they wouldn’t let Arthur enroll. The district would prevail initially – Wysinger’s attempt to appeal was also blocked.
“Visalia Colored School”
Undeterred, he took his case to the California Supreme Court.
On Jan. 29, 1890, there would be better news for the Wysingers. The court ruled that schools statewide could no longer have separate-but-equal schools for African-American children.
That March, The California Supreme Court also overturned the Tulare County lower court’s ruling. Now Arthur would have to be admitted to the Visalia School.
Edmond would die a year later.
“He never seen his son enter that school,” Smith said.
His victory would reverberate across the country
His victory would reverberate across the country. Not only would Wysinger’s verdict ensure that California’s children would no longer be forced into separate schools, but Eyewitness News discovered that Wysinger’s case would be used as legal precedent in the appellate briefs filed with the United States Supreme Court in the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education.
The Brown decision would force school integration nationwide.
Billy Ripley is a descendant of Edmond Wysinger.
“We have doctors, lawyers – there was a Wysinger girl that I just seen on Facebook – I don’t know her, but she’s a cousin, and they were swearing her in to be a judge,” Ripley said.
Success – he said – came from a focus on education.
“My sister went to Fresno State – I went to Reedley College and Fresno City [College],” Ripley said.
Ripley, whose grandfather was one of Edmond’s sons, would go on to a 20-year career with the Department of Agriculture.
He recalled how seeing stadiums full of students in recent days put the family legacy into perspective.
“Did my grandfather actually do this?”
“Did my grandfather actually do this?” Ripley said.
Ripley’s son Merlin said family members used stories of the family legacy to motivate him when he was younger.
“There are people in our family that went out and fought so that you could go to school,” Merlin said. It’s an approach the Bay Area surgical aide plans to use one day on his own children.
Principal Adolfo Reyes (Visalia Unified School District) discusses the state of education in Visalia and the importance of diversity, inclusivity, and representation.
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