A giant of California history returns to Sacramento

Thomas Starr King was not a big man, standing just 5 feet 2 and weighing about 120 pounds. But his admirers say the 19th-century Unitarian minister and California transplant left an outsize legacy in his adopted state.

King, whose eloquent oratory is often credited with having helped keep California in the Union during the Civil War, was later honored in bronze as one of the state’s two representatives in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. The state’s other representative there is Father Junipero Serra, the founder of California’s missions.

But in June, King lost his place in the hall when his statue was removed, replaced by a likeness of a better-known Californian, President Reagan.

The move was the result of a 2006 vote by California lawmakers that upset many of King’s admirers and descendants.

Glenna Matthews, an author and historian working on a book called “The Golden State in the Civil War” that will prominently feature King, said she felt the move would diminish King’s legacy.

“To my way of thinking, they weren’t taking history seriously,” Matthews said. “Should it have been Cesar Chavez? Should it have been John Muir? There are a lot of great Californians, and even if you were going to replace him there should have been some [public] discussion, and there wasn’t. That really worried me.”

This month, King’s statue was rededicated and installed in a grove outside the state Capitol in Sacramento after it was shipped from Washington.

For his followers, the change proved bittersweet.

“Those of us who know about him think he should be more well-known. He was a hero,” said the Rev. Rebecca Parker, president of the Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist seminary that is part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. “He was a strong advocate for ending slavery. At that time, a lot of people in California’s sympathies were with the South. He was a unifier.”

Parker said that King, who was already renowned for his oratory, arrived in San Francisco from Boston in April 1860, a year before the Civil War erupted and as the state was in turmoil over the slavery issue.

There was strong support for the Confederacy, especially in Southern California, and the state toyed with the notion of seceding or splitting in two.

King traveled throughout California, speaking in churches, town squares and mining camps, exhorting people to help preserve the Union and spreading the messages of the faith he deeply believed.

“He was a strong advocate for equality and justice. Unitarians believe all human beings are loved and embraced,” Parker said.

King became ill with diphtheria and died in 1864, without seeing the victory for which he had labored.

The state Legislature adjourned for three days of mourning, and thousands visited his San Francisco church to pay their respects.

For King, like many Unitarians, there was also an emphasis on respecting and preserving nature, said the Rev. Lindi Ramsden, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry California.

“It’s about living in such a manner as to be respectful and sustaining our Earth. Valuing people, valuing the Earth,” Ramsden said. “When I stop and think about it, many of the virtues that he exemplified are the ones we’re trying to live up to.”

Ramsden said King’s work shaped the identity of the state that Californians have come to know.

King “was an early voice for valuing the multicultural richness of California and its landscape,” Ramsden said. “He was very committed to California being a place where anyone could get access to a quality education.”

Along with the ministry school in Berkeley, there are schools throughout California that are named after him, including Starr King Middle School in Silver Lake and others in San Francisco and Carmichael, near Sacramento.

Patricia Page, a writer who is King’s great-great-great-granddaughter, said that although she was initially surprised at the decision to move his statue, the new location in Sacramento is much easier for visitors to find.

In the statuary hall in Washington, King’s statue was not in the most prominent spot, she said.

Page, of Menlo Park, said that when she was growing up, her family passed down a few stories of King, mainly about his speaking ability. She said that as an adult, she gained a new appreciation for him.

“I was thinking the other day, the Unitarian Universalists are as much his family as any biological family, as far as embracing what he stood for,” Page said. “He was never a politician. He was never elected for an office. It’s kind of ironic that Reagan stands in his spot now.”