Of all the unusual names for cherries, few have raised as many questions as the Black Republican.
Photo by Seth Van Matre/KCRW

The Blacker the Cherry: The abolitionist history of the Black Republican Cherry

Written and reported by Tyler Boudreaux | Produced by Anyel Zuberi Fields and Myke Dodge Weiskopf

The local farmers market
Santa Monica, California

It’s late Spring in Santa Monica, and that means it’s cherry season at the farmers’ market. Whether you like a dark red Brooks or the bright pop of an Early Glen, they’re all here.

Cherry lover Mitchell Kraus has been coming to the Santa Monica Farmers Market for “at least a couple of decades.”

“I harass all the farmers every year: ‘Where are my cherries, where are my cherries, where are my cherries?’ all year long,” he says. 

Kraus and I met while waiting in line for the first great week of the season. He’s what you might call a cherry aficionado, taste-testing varietals and buying mixed cases in pursuit of sampling a little bit of every different cherry he can. He says there’s one particular cherry that towers above them all.

“The day I found the Black Republicans, I said, ‘OK, this is what a cherry is, perfected.’ I just love how deep their flavor is; they have a great crunch; my hands are sort of blood-purple afterwards,” he says. “[As] somebody who eats a couple pounds of cherries a day this time of year, those are by far my favorite.”

Of all the unusual names for cherries, few have raised as many questions as the Black Republican. But the story behind it is as rich and complex as the flavor itself, beginning with one family in Iowa and swelling to include the Underground Railroad, the Oregon Trail, and the birth of the Pacific fruit industry.

A moment of serendipity

My own journey with Black Republican cherries began in a moment of serendipity stemming from a case of the munchies. My father-in-law Peter Kagan runs a gourmet shop in Topanga Canyon. One night at his house, my fiance Michael, his brother Benji, and I raided the kitchen fridge. The first thing we saw were several gallon-size bags of fresh cherries.

We poured each variety into individual bowls and indulged in them like we were tasting wine. Each one had a fascinating ratio of tart-to-sweet. The Rainiers tasted like candy; the Bings had that classic sweet composition. But the standout of the bunch was the deeply rich and intensely complex flavor of the Black Republican.

Of course, being a Black woman, that name instantly piqued my interest. I knew there had to be more to the name than its dark flesh. So I jumped down the rabbit hole to chase the cherries.

Black Republican cherries are usually harvested and sold mid-to-late June. Black Republican cherries are usually harvested and sold mid-to-late June, but vary from year to year. With climate change increasing the temperatures in the Santa Clara Valley, the timing of the Black Republican cherry has become more unpredictable.

The abolitionist fruit nursery 
Salem, Iowa

The story of the Black Republican cherry begins with Henderson Lewelling, the eldest son of a Quaker family who ran a successful nursery in Iowa in the late 1830s. Their stock included 35 varieties of small fruits like apples, pears, peaches, plums, and cherries.

Today, his house in Salem is preserved as the Lewelling Quaker Museum. It’s also a federally recognized landmark, though not for its fruit trees — the Lewelling house was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Following the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which deemed Maine is a free state and Missouri a slave state, the Missouri-Iowa border became a locus of increasing tension, beginning in the 1830s through the Civil War. Located just 20 miles from the Missouri border, Salem was a Quaker settlement where runaway slaves were welcomed. And Henderson Lewelling was a big part of that. 

“The whole Lewelling family were activists,” says David Helman, President of the Lewelling Quaker Museum. “The family was quite remarkable in their adventurism, their creativity, their business acumen, their fascination with grafting trees, and their intense abolitionist bit. They were fire-breathers here, when it comes to the issue of abolition, when not everyone was.”

The Lewellings descended from Welsh immigrants who gradually made their way west. In the mid 1600s, about 5,000 Welsh families came to the United States, most into southeastern Pennsylvania, where William Penn Quaker owned land. With them came the process of growing and grafting fruit trees. Tell of rich soil in North Carolina drew them to settle in the state, where they grew their trees before expanding further west towards more rich soil in Indiana’s Cumberland Gap.  

“Young Henderson was only about 15 when he came. He married at age 21, a young, 15-year-old girl, Elizabeth,” Helman says. “And they farmed, they had four children. And then they heard about more rich soil. And that was Iowa. And Henderson and one brother came here, settled the town of Salem, and prospered with the grafting of the trees.” 

Lewelling and his brother were hardly the only abolitionists in Iowa. But Lewelling took his convictions one step further than most: he built them into the literal fabric of his house.

The Lewelling house in Salem, Iowa was atypically built from stone to include hiding places for freedom seekers escaping bondage. Photo courtesy of the Lewelling Quaker Museum. 

“If you look at the early maps of the farms in Iowa, every one of them had an orchard. So this was their business. But how does Lewelling build his home, fairly substantial for the time? Most homes were log with dirt floors,” Helman says. “He built one made of stone, cut from a quarry. And he built in that home at least two hiding places that were used in the process of assisting those freedom seekers escaping bondage in Missouri as they made their way north.

The trip was rough. 

“When one or two or three of the slaves were found in the woods and brought to Salem, it could be a husband, a wife, or a mother and a child or a man and a child. Older people never made this trip. It was just too harsh. They stayed on the plantation,” Helman says. “But the women inside them would … prepare clothing, they would try to package food so they could be put in backpacks and make the way work north. They knew sometimes there were sick children and they would care for the children. And so it was a little cottage industry of caring for people who were coming to them in pretty bad shape. They had a strong will, but they would have been tired, exhausted, and afraid.”. 

These views were common of the Quaker faith. 

“They were pacifists, they weren't going to take up arms,” he says. “But they were able to help. The Underground Railroad afforded an opportunity for them to do something important.

When the cherries came West 
Milwaukie, Oregon

In the late 1840s, the Lewellings left Salem and followed the Oregon Trail out west after a string of particularly harsh Iowa winters had taken a toll on the orchards. In the winter of 1847, Lewelling and his neighbors — about 20 people and family — built a large wagon pulled by six oxen. They packed it with 700 seedlings, about six to 18 inches tall, and made their way westward. By then, Henderson and Elizabeth had eight children, and Elizabeth was pregnant with a ninth. 

“The story told by some of the children is quite remarkable,” Helman says. “There are accounts written by one daughter in a journal that says the Native American chiefs came into camp, had a meal with Elizabeth preparing the meal. They were fascinated by the wagonload of trees going across the prairie. They'd never seen such a thing. And to them a tree in a forest is a sacred object in a sacred place. So this man was doing the right thing. He was caring for trees, he must be a good man. To many in the Native American culture, the Great Spirit lives in the forest. So this guy must be a friend of the Great Spirit. So they made it safely.” 

The USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection is one of the most unique collections in the Rare and Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library. Here is the Republican Cherry.

Elizabeth Lewelling walked to Oregon, expecting a child. 

“She would later say that when you're pregnant, it's easier to walk to Oregon to ride a horse,” Helman recounts. “She would give birth to the ninth child. His name was Oregon Columbia Lewelling. He went by OC his whole life. … My wife says the Underground Railroad and western migration would not have worked if it weren't for the women. The men were adventurers, but the women did the work.”

The Lewelling wagon train traveled close to 2,000 miles with 700 fruit trees, eventually settling in Milwaukie, Oregon, south of Portland. About half of the trees survived, living to produce many of the fruit varieties we enjoy today on the West Coast. Today, Henderson Lewelling is often called the Father of the Pacific Fruit Industry. In 1852, he could sell a box of apples for as much as $75. Four bushels shipped to the California gold mines brought $500.

In 1853, Lewelling left the nursery in the care of his younger brother Seth and headed south to a new community they called Fruitvale, better known today as Oakland.

Things got really interesting for Lewelling in the Golden State. In 1859, he experienced a spiritual awakening and sold his Fruitvale property. He abandoned his wife and shipped off to Honduras to establish a Utopian community he called the Harmonial Brotherhood, who spoke about free love a hundred years before the rest of California. But by the time they arrived in Central America, most of them were starving. As they ventured further into the tropics of Honduras, many fell prey to tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever.

Eventually, Lewelling’s followers abandoned him. After realizing the fantasy of the Harmonial Brotherhood would never come to fruition, he sailed back to Northern California and his fruit trees.

Henderson Lewelling died in 1878, doing what he loved best: He suffered a heart attack while planting a new orchard.

Bing cherries take their name from Ah Bing, a Chinese employee of Seth Lewelling. Photo by Seth Van Matre. 

From cherry nurseries to a cherry empire 

Back in Milwaukie, Oregon, Henderson’s younger brother Seth, considered a master grafter, propagated three famous cherry cultivars: the Royal Anne, our heroine the Black Republican, and the combination child of the two cherries – the Bing. Today, the Bing is the most produced variety of sweet cherry in the United States.

He named that cherry after his Chinese worker, a man who had worked with him in his orchards for several years named Ah Bing. So that's how you got your Bing cherry,” Helman says. “Ah Bing would later return to China, to his family with goals of coming back here. But by then the nation had the Chinese Exclusion Act so Ah Bing there never returned to California.”  

Like his older brothers, Seth was a staunch abolitionist and an admirer of Abraham Lincoln. He stood against the enslavement of African peoples and the pro-slavery majority in the Democratic Party.

“The Republican Party, of course, was the party of Abraham Lincoln and became the the abolitionist or anti slavery party, as most folks know. And it was actually the Southern Democrats who were the pro-slavery, political bent. And they resented the Republicans, that they would care for these Black people when they're merely property,” Helman explains. “And they actually used the term in an aggressive, intimidating way, a degrading term — ‘Well, you're just another Black Republican,’ calling the Republicans Black just like the Negroes are black. … We think that Seth may have taken that as a badge of honor. He may have said, ‘Okay, I'm a Black Republican. I'm gonna name a cherry after the Black Republicans.’”

That's only a theory. 

“We can't find anything where he wrote that down,” Helman says. We don't know for sure. But it certainly seems like something he would do as a subtle act of rebellion against the Southerners who were, of course, by that time, and after that time, reacting by opposing abolition."

“The name that stuck was Black Republican.”

Andy Mariani is the farmer behind Andy’s Orchard in the Santa Clara Valley. 

“[Lewelling] wanted to make his fellow farmers or neighbors just drool over this new cherry that was so good. And they had to name it and call it ‘Black Republicans.’ And the story I had heard was that they even tried to change the name to Lewelling, so that it was named after the originator of the variety. But it didn’t stick. And I think they even tried another alternative, which was Black Oregon. The name that did stick was Black Republican,” Mariani says. 

Andy’s Orchard are sole distributors of Black Republican cherries in Southern California.

“A lot of farmers, agricultural people, orchardists … are conservative,” he says. “And it’s just because they’re kind of old-fashioned. When they grow something, they want to keep everything the same. It’s a credit to the Lewellings. They had a great perspective. The Lewellings were at the forefront of liberalizing things.” 

Seth Lewelling’s name is painted in the Senate chamber of the Oregon State Capitol. 

His legacy lives on in the Milwaukie neighborhood of Lewelling and at Seth Lewelling Elementary School.

Back home to California 
Napa Valley

In the late 1860s, the Lewellings’ brother John, who suffered from severe asthma, moved to Napa Valley with his two sons for the better air. Their first crop of grapes and almonds didn’t work out, but they had much better luck with olives, apples, citrus fruits, and, of course, cherries.

In the 1970s, John’s descendents replanted his grape vines and founded Lewelling Vineyards, a winery specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

“Black Republicans acquire an even more intense flavor: a raisiny, dark-chocolatey flavor. They’re also used for ice cream. Because they’re so dark, they make a fantastic ice cream,” says David Karp of Andy’s Orchards. 

Flavor, impact, legacy

Back at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, farmhands unload crate after crate of fresh-picked cherries. Pouring over them is pomologist, writer, and self-proclaimed “fruit detective” David Karp, also of Andy’s Orchard. He says the Black Republican’s longevity and demand all comes down to a concept known as “high flavor.” 

What do you need for high flavor? High sugar, high acidity, and richness or complexity of flavor. The Black Republican has that in spades,” Karp says. “People demand them when they’re almost at the raisin state, because at that point Black Republicans acquire an even more intense flavor: a raisiny, dark-chocolatey flavor. They’re also used for ice cream. Because they’re so dark, they make a fantastic ice cream, and I know some of our buyers at the Santa Monica market do that.” 

The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity recognizes the Black Republican in its Ark of Taste, a global seed bank of endangered foods that share an extraordinary heritage.

“To lose the Black Republican cherry would be a tragedy,” the Foundation states. “Both from a historical perspective and a gastronomical one. It is a connoisseur’s cherry that has a rich, concentrated flavor, despite its small size.”

Andy Mariani has watched the Black Republican’s reputation change in real time.

The problem that [used to] condemn the Black Republican for widespread commercial success is the fact that it’s relatively small in size,” he says. “Sometimes we couldn’t sell it, because we didn’t have the market we have now. Now it’s a variety that’s been put on the Ark of Taste. And now we sell every one that we can grow."

In Milwaukie, Seth Lewelling propagated three famous cherry cultivars: the Royal Anne, the Black Republican (pictured), and the combination child of the two cherries – the Bing. Photo by David Karp. 

Mariani believes that the modern retail system is fundamentally out of step with the demand for a fruit like the Black Republican.

“Commercial growers are going in a completely opposite direction to the point where, when you go to the grocery store, say you’re looking at plums. They don’t have names for the plums; they just have yellow plum, red plum, black plum. And they don’t care about the stories behind how they were developed. They don’t really care much about the flavor. They care about shelf life and appearance and maybe size,” Mariani explains. “So they’re using different criteria to judge commercial cultivars, as opposed to some of these old heirlooms and some of the things that are so interesting. Yet there’s a commercial motive there that lacks that kind of perspective.” 

But the work of people like Karp and Mariani carries on the Lewellings’ legacy by growing, studying, and preserving specialty fruit.

We like the fruit, and we like the story behind it. And I think David and I have dedicated our efforts towards emphasizing that,” Mariani says. “We even developed some of our own varieties, and we’ve got names behind it and little stories behind it. Because they have personalities. And certainly the Black Republican has a personality. And it also has the quality to back it up.” 

Normally, this month would mark primetime for sampling Black Republicans at the farmers market. Unfortunately, for farmers like Mariani and others, they’re no longer available this season due to climate change. But while you’re waiting for the next crop, or savoring one of its sweet Bing descendants, think about the Lewellings – their abolitionism, their horticulture, their cherries – and their shared belief that an open mind can bear sweet fruit.



Mitchell Kraus
David Helman
Andy Mariani
David Karp