Black journalist Philip Alexander Bell was born in 1808 in New York City, New York and cut his political teeth in early abolitionist politics in the Northeast. Bell attended Colored Citizens Conventions as early as 1830 and established his first newspaper, the Weekly Advocate, in 1837 after working for William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator. After migrating to San Francisco, California in 1860, Bell maintained his connections with important abolition leaders such as Garrison and Frederick Douglass by reporting on black political and economic opportunities in the West.
In 1862, Bell joined forces with Peter Anderson to edit the Pacific Appeal, one of the first major black newspapers in California, but he and Anderson soon clashed. By 1865, Bell established his own weekly newspaper, the Elevator, under the slogan, “Equality Before the Law.” The Elevator demanded California legislators approve the proposed Reconstruction-era constitutional amendments acknowledging black citizenship and suffrage rights. Bell also regularly editorialized on behalf of expanding black children’s educational opportunities. California state legislators repeatedly rejected efforts to grant African Americans greater civil rights, but the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments allowed black male Californians voting rights in 1870.
Initially a strong supporter of the Republican Party, Bell organized the independent Equal Rights League in 1876 to lobby politicians across party lines to support African American opportunities. Although Peter Anderson charged Bell with seeking patronage perks, and most blacks continued to support the Republican Party, Bell remained a powerful figure within black California until his death in 1889.