Juanita McKamey, the 20-year-old modern Joan of Arc, who had visions of leading a conquering host of the Industrialists into their proposed new republic, was brought before Judge W.R. Guy of the Juvenile Court today. The bright-eyed maid was undaunted by the surroundings of the law and told the court she did not hear him tell her at her last visit to break connections with the I.W.W.’s.
— The Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1912
The year was 1912 and revolution was in the air. The right to free speech and the question of where one could exercise it was a burning issue in America. The California Free Speech League, a newly formed coalition of socialists, left-leaning labor groups, including the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.), single-taxers and church organizations was ready for action.
The group planned a mass parade for the evening of February 8th to test a recently passed city ordinance banning public speech in a seven-square block area of the city that was regarded as “congested” by city leaders, including an area known as “Soapbox Row.” Juanita McKamey, a local manicurist, was one of the parade’s organizers.
At 7:30 p.m. Juanita took up her position, along with several other leaders, at the front of the parade. Standing four abreast the marchers slowly moved forward. As they picked up speed they sang, waved banners and encouraged the three to five thousand onlookers to join them. The group was escorted by a contingent of more than 100 San Diego police officers and a police blockade waited for them at Sixth and E Streets. No one would be arrested as long as the parade kept moving.
When the marchers reached the blockade they moved through it towards Soapbox Row. Wood Hubbard, one of the leaders, tried to mount a soapbox that was hastily set up for the speakers. He was immediately pulled down and roughly arrested. Another female marcher tried next and she too was pulled down and arrested. Juanita was the third person to try to mount the box to speak and she too was forcibly taken into police custody.
The crowd responded to the rough treatment of the speakers by surging forward chanting “Free speech, show that you are Americans.” The police had to expend much of their energy on crowd control, but no one got to speak. The thirty-eight men and three women, including Juanita, who tried to mount the box were arrested and charged with criminal conspiracy.
Three days later Juanita, who’d been bailed out of jail, was arrested again after she spoke at another rally. This time she was charged with being “incorrigible.” In the photo on her police identification card she looks serious and eager to return to the fight. The officer who prepared the card wrote on it that she “was speaking on the corner of 5th and E sts whick is against the law.”
She was put on probation and ordered to drop her association with the I.W.W. She was sentenced to the local Detention Home (for juveniles). This was an odd choice since authorities were aware that, at age 20, she was not a juvenile.
Juanita didn’t intend to follow the court’s orders. Instead she planned to continue what she defined as her “calling” to work for freedom of speech. She organized an escape from a window of the detention facility using a rope she’d fashioned from blankets. The plan was uncovered before she had a chance to put it into action and she was transferred to the city jail to await trial with the others.
The city and county jails overflowed with people arrested for violating the ordinance. Conditions at the jail were unsanitary and some of the inmates got sick. There was mounting opposition to the free speech movement among many locals. When a group of inmates was transferred to a jail in another county, some local vigilantes intercepted the trucks the prisoners were riding in and beat them up.
By late February Juanita was out on bail and agitating for free speech on the streets again. In March she was part of a group of more than 300 protestors hosed by police in front of the City Jail with four hundred pound-pressure fire hoses while jail inmates serenaded the demonstrators by singing “The Marseillaise.”
In the wake of public protest meetings and vigilante violence the city came up with a new ordinance, referred to as the “move-on law.” The new law expanded the area where public speech was prohibited and sanctioned the arrest of anyone who “shall seem likely to obstruct and impede” passage along a city street. The new law proved to be a diaster because if someone even looked like they might make a speech they could be arrested.
The I.W.W. demanded a state investigation of the protest and the police response to it. The investigation discovered no mistreatment of the prisoners. Even the hosing of protesters by police was deemed not to have resulted in any serious consequences. The investigation also found no acts of violence among the protesters.
Juanita attended the state investigation hearings in late April 1912. This was the last time her name came up in protest-related news. By the end of May the I.W.W announced their departure from the San Diego campaign. In mid-June, after a smallpox epidemic broke out in the jail, the last 15 free speech prisoners pleaded guilty, paid fines and were released. The revolution was over.
Who was the young woman the newspapers described as a “modern Joan of Arc?”
Despite her Hispanic first name, Juanita was the Caucasian daughter of Andrew McKamey of Ohio and Sofronia Catherine Clarkford of Virginia. The McKamey’s started their married life in Ohio, and then moved to San Diego, where Juanita was born in 1891. In an atypical move, the family went back east in the late 1890s. Andrew made a living farming in Georgia. They returned to San Diego by 1905 and Andrew found work as a carpenter.
California State Archives
After the free speech fight in San Diego ended Juanita continued to live an unconventional life. She had a son, born in 1914, and a daughter, born in 1918. It appears that she was unmarried when her children were born. However she did eventually marry a Pennsylvania man named Harry H. Kizer.
She may have met Harry during the free speech protests when he was also arrested. However he wasn’t the father of her children, because in 1913 Harry did a 3.5 year stint in Folsom State Prison for grand larceny. By 1930, though they still lived under one roof, Juanita and Harry were divorced.
Juanita worked in real estate and was the owner of a “Tia Juana” beer garden. She was a member of the socialist party until at least 1928. She lived for 60 years in Chula Vista, a city south of San Diego, near the border with Mexico. In 1975 she died in Chula Vista and her ashes were scattered at sea.
Further reading: There’s a lot more to know about the San Diego Free Speech Fight of 1912. Click here for an in-depth, eight part article.
Thanks to Sherwood Donahue of Sherwood’s Treasures for connecting me with Juanita McKamey’s police I.D. card. If you’re looking for an interesting mugshot, Sherwood’s your man.
Featured photo: Juanita McKamey, San Diego Police photo dated February 11, 1912. Collection of the author.