Sigismund Danielewicz, seen here ca. 1884, was a Jewish union organizer representing seamen and barbers. (Photo/Courtesy UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library)
Sigismund Danielewicz, seen here ca. 1884, was a Jewish union organizer representing seamen and barbers. (Photo/Courtesy UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

The S.F. Jewish labor organizer who stood up to AAPI hate in 1885 — and got booed

A Polish Jew with a beard as long as his face and piercing eyes stepped onto a stage in San Francisco in May 1885. His name was a mouthful: Sigismund Danielewicz.

He stood before a group of mostly Irish union workers who were about to vote on a resolution that demanded all Chinese immigrants leave for good. He began to read from a prepared statement.

It was a moment that would change the course of his life — for the worse.

Danielewicz was attending a union convention organized by the Federated Trades Council, which would later become the California Labor Federation. A union organizer for seaman and barbers, Danielewicz stood among state labor groups who were vehemently anti-Chinese. The same was true of most Jews at the time.

But when Danielewicz got up on that stage 136 years ago, he didn’t toe the party line of his fellow laborers or Jews. Instead, he gave a resounding defense of the Chinese, calling into question the persecution that Jews, the Irish and Germans had faced themselves, and wondering how they could justify the racism toward their Chinese counterparts.

According to a newspaper report, Danielewicz “said that he belonged to a race which had been persecuted for hundreds of years and was still persecuted — the Jews; and he called upon all of his people to consider whether ‘the persecution of the Chinese’ was more justifiable than theirs had been.”

He wasn’t able to finish his speech. The crowd booed him off the stage and kicked him out of the convention.

It would prove to be a career-ending moment, marking him as too radical for the labor movement.

Danielewicz’s story is a forgotten page in California Jewish history simply because he chose to show defiance against the mainstream view, and was therefore written off as a fringe character of the era. But his story carries new relevance today as the Bay Area reckons with violence against the Asian American community, an issue that the local Jewish community has added to its ongoing fight against bias and antisemitism.

“Danielewicz’s legacy is a call to us Jews to be allies for racial justice,” Amourence Lee, a San Mateo city council member of Chinese, Hawaiian and Jewish heritage, wrote to J. after learning of the Polish Jew’s story.

“Let us memorialize him with our courageous dedication and our sacrifices in service to our higher purpose of tikkun olam,” wrote Lee, whose home was vandalized in June 2020 when a rock was thrown through her window.

San Mateo City Council member Amourence Lee. (Photo/Facebook)
San Mateo City Council member Amourence Lee. (Photo/Facebook)

Little is known about Danielewicz’s upbringing. He was born in 1847 and came to San Francisco in the late 1870s. He appears to have had multiple occupations and spoke a number of languages, including English, Italian and Yiddish. A city directory from 1879 says he was a barber located near Chinatown. A year later, he moved his business to the Tenderloin, another directory shows.

When Danielewicz arrived in California, a large number of Chinese laborers were already in the city, drawn by the Gold Rush and jobs in railroad construction.

They faced tremendous racism and violence. Union groups — and Jews — viewed them as subhuman, while union members feared that Chinese participation in the labor force would drive down wages.

The country as a whole was thick with anti-Chinese sentiment. In 1882, just a few years after Danielewicz arrived, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It barred all Chinese laborers from entering the country and was supported by one of the most prominent Jews in San Francisco, Julius Kahn III, who helped push for an extension of the legislation in 1902 as a congressman. Jewish mayor Adolph Sutro, elected in 1895, bragged that he would never hire “a chinaman.”

Fred Rosenbaum, whose 2009 book “Cosmopolitans” briefly mentions Danielewicz, said he was “courageous” and an “exception” in the San Francisco Jewish community.

“I could not find another Jewish voice that stood up to the terrible persecution that the Chinese suffered in the late 19th and early 20th century,” said Rosenbaum. “Every leading rabbi in San Francisco took the position that the Chinese were the scourge of California.”

headshot of Fred Rosenbaum
Fred Rosenbaum

In fact, Rosenbaum said the region’s Jewish community was so anti-Chinese that newspaper editorials show that even Jews on the East Coast were taken aback.

“They couldn’t believe that S.F. Jews could act this way,” he said. “So that gives me a sense that this kind of behavior stood out. I’d say thank God we had Danielewicz, otherwise we’d have nobody. At least he made a point. A century and a half [ago], he showed what ought to be done.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment in the city had gotten so bad by 1885, union members were ready to vote on the resolution calling for Chinese people on the West Coast, especially those in San Francisco, to leave within 60 days.

The resolution passed 60-47, with Danielewicz abstaining, according to the 1971 book “The Indispensable Enemy” by Alexander Saxton.(Saxton did not indicate why Danielewicz abstained.) While there were those at the convention whose votes indicated they disagreed with the anti-Chinese resolution, Saxton writes, Danielewicz was the only one to stand up and say something.

“Danielewicz, seemingly, was in defiance of the line of his own organization,” wrote Sexton, who was one of the first to tell the story of the Polish Jew. Saxton, a professor of history at UCLA and a former seaman himself, found it so compelling that he calls Danielewicz the “hero” of his 304-page book.

Danielewicz, Saxton writes in the acknowledgements, “reminds us there was (and perhaps still is) a tradition of humane and humanist radicalism in America. No star is lost.”

J. David Sackman, an L.A.-based attorney and expert on state labor issues, said Danielewicz was so steadfast in what he believed that he was “willing to stand up against everything.”

“Would I stand up to an angry mob?” asked Sackman, who wrote a short blog post about Danielewicz last year. “And tell them they’re wrong?”

J. David Sackman, who with his wife has been investigating Danielewicz’s background, is shown in Santa Cruz with a statue of Tom Scribner, one of his favorite union organizers.
J. David Sackman, who with his wife has been investigating Danielewicz’s background, is shown in Santa Cruz with a statue of Tom Scribner, one of his favorite union organizers.

Danielewicz’s speech, which produced boos, howls and laughter, effectively killed his career in labor organizing, said Sackman, whose own Jewish upbringing includes an anarchist grandfather who was sent to Siberia in 1905 by the czar. His grandmother was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Sackman’s wife, Jerolyn Crute Sackman, inspired by her own family’s Chinese heritage and with a knack for ancestral sleuthing, has investigated what happened to Danielewicz after the infamous speech. The couple have worked to put the pieces together.

Between the mid-1880s and 1910, Danielewicz traveled to San Diego, Chicago and later back to San Francisco. During that time, he took over and helped write for multiple anarchist papers, including the Beacon and Lucifer the Light Bearer. Also during this time, Danielewicz met a woman named Viroqua Daniels, who was either his friend or romantic partner.

“We know he was in all these places,” Sackman said. “When is hard to tell.”

The couple also found a 1909 patent from Danielewicz for a “filtrative inhaler,” a device to protect the lungs and bronchial tubes from impurities in the air, especially smoke. It appears the invention did not pay off. According to Saxton’s book, records show that in the winter of 1910 Danielewicz was “out of work” and heading to the East Coast.

Nine years later,  Danielewicz and his partner’s anarchist activities caught the attention of the federal government. In a 1919 report from the Department of Justice, his subscription to an anarchist paper is recorded along with a piece in a Boston newspaper written by Daniels, in which she makes the case for women’s suffrage.

Two years later, Danielewicz was listed in a Los Angeles city directory as a “grinder,” meaning he might have been working as a metal or glass polisher. While no date of death has been found, Danielewicz was buried on Oct. 23, 1927, at East L.A.’s Mt. Zion Cemetery, known as a “poor people’s Jewish graveyard,” Sackman said.

“He was literally written out of the history of the time,” Sackman said about the lack of biographical information on Danielewicz. “He was canceled for being anti-racist.”

Daniels, who later took the last name Daverkosen, died in San Francisco in November 1942, according to a state death index record.

Kenyon Zimmer, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington, told J. that the source of Danielewicz’s attitude toward the Chinese may have come from early organizing work he did in Hawaii in the 1870s. He probably worked with Asian laborers there. But Zimmer said that the most likely reason for Danielewicz’s defiance was his anarchist politics.

University of Texas associate professor Kenyon Zimmer details parts of Danielewicz’s story in his book. 
University of Texas associate professor Kenyon Zimmer details parts of Danielewicz’s story in his book.

“In the U.S., the anarchists had the best and most consistent — not 100 percent consistent — but the most consistent record opposing anti-Asian, anti-Black and anti-Mexican racism,” said Zimmer, whose 2015 book “Immigrants Against the State” details parts of Danielewicz’s story.

“He’s certainly one of the first that we know of to take a public stand in the way that he did,” said Zimmer.

Crute Sackman, who makes and sells high-quality pinwheel art, thinks that Danielewicz’s views could have also come from his years in Poland, which was at the time partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria and was hostile to Jews.

“He was probably escaping pogroms [and] he probably saw more than just Jews being attacked,” she said. “So he might have recognized fairly early on, would be my guess, that if you’re going to fight for justice, everybody needs to have it. I suspect that he was just one of those people who always marched to the rhythm of his conscience.”

Sackman thinks that Danielewicz’s story speaks to the larger importance of rejecting racism in all forms, no matter who it is directed toward.

“It’s that idea of solidarity,” he said. “Recognizing the common interest and that persecution of one is persecution of all.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.