Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California

It’s been almost two decades since I first published Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vol. 1, 1500-1900. (ASPIRE San Francisco)
There were two prompts: one, the discovery while researching the Rodney King beating that there were four black governors of California under Mexican rule. Two, the tip from Ray Taliaferro that a mural of the black queen who gave the state its name was in the luxurious Mark Hopkins Hotel.
Serendipitously, I had just completed the Stanford Professional Publishing Course, learning the editorial and business strategies for book publishing.
So the 10,000 buyers of that first volume launched our imprint, ASPIRE San Francisco, and we’re up to 30 titles now.
Yet the centrality of African-Americans to California history, from the 300 black conquistadors who accompanied Cortes through William Leidesdorff and Andres Pico’s dealings with John C. Fremont to the technological breakthroughs of Roy Clay Sr. and Frank Greene are still not commonly known or taught in our schools.
We’ve added three more volumes, Volume 2, covering the period from 1900 to 1950; Volume 3, from 1950 to 2000 and The Black Queen: How African-Americans Put California on the Map, Vol. 4. The latter is designed as a lesson planning and bibliographical support to educators. There is also a 56-minutes public television documentary, Our Roots Run Deep, which we filmed in 1993 and the latest support for teachers, Black Heritage as Gap Closer, an analysis of our study of social science teacher’s capacity to provide culturally responsive teaching in California history.
That first year, Dr. Bruce Gaines, then president of the Los Angeles Alliance of Black School Educators, took a copy of Our Roots into his high school and community college classes. He found that the black students had a two grade point average increase within 60 days.
Not only did the history engage them, but the skills developed in analysis and research carried over to other disciplines.
I had to run a copy of the book over to another early adopter, Carol Fields of Rosa Parks Elementary in San Francisco, who’s used the book for her fourth-grade classes, sparking children to write plays and other creative outlets through their renewed interest.
Another benefit is that the direct, local interest engages parents in a more substantial way. In The Black Queen: How African-Americans Put California on the Map, we demonstrate how to send students out as scholars, conducting their own research into the many untold accounts of African-American heritage.
Even after the 1,400 pages of the four volumes, I still learn more details about blacks in California and the topic is as fresh as it was in 1989.

While researching my multimedia slide show on Abraham Lincoln and San Francisco this past Sunday in the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Main Library, I learned a number of new details about the connection between abolitionists in San Francisco and other issues such as the transcontinental railroad.¬† It turns out that John C. Fremont was hosted by William Alexander Leidesdorff on his first visit to San Francisco and Monterey and that Fremont’s wife stayed in Leidesdorff’s home when she first moved here.

I invite you to share the magic of exploring California’s many untold stories, and particularly to share it with the youth of the state.


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