I guess my way of responding to the questions over the need for black history month and by extension, black history, was to start March by presenting to three classes in Africana studies at San Francisco State University.
Forty years ago, students went on strike to create the first Black Studies program at any university and unfortunately, its College of Ethnic Studies remains the only one in the nation.
You couldn’t tell it by the large, diverse classes. The first class at 8 a.m. had 26 students and the third class at 11 a.m. in California black history had 49 students.
For the first two classes, I shared my presentation on Lincoln and San Francisco, given last month at the opening of the Lincoln: A Man of His Times, A Man for All Times exhibition in the San Francisco Main Library. It was my way of showing the centrality of black history to the overall narrative of American and world heritage. In it, we show how San Franciscans such as Edward Baker, John Fremont, William Tecumseh Sherman and Henry Halleck impacted the Lincoln administration. We also point out their close links with African-Americans such as Jacob Dodson, William Alexander Leidesdorff, Mifflin Gibbs, Mary Ellen Pleasant, George Washington Dennis and the three African-American churches begun in 1852, Bethel A.M.E., Third Baptist and First A.M.E. Zion. We also demonstrated how abolitionists like Leland Stanford, Edward Crocker, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins benefited from those ties to become railroad magnates.
It was also an opportunity to show the students the relevance of historic preservation to their own lives. We pointed out that State Historic Landmark 19, the site of the Broderick-Terry duel, was just across the street at Lake Merced. And we showed them the San Francisco artist Jules Guerin, who painted the murals in the Lincoln Memorial. In an historic city like San Francisco, they learned that many buildings rise in value based on their designation as historic, but that statewide fewer than one percent of historic landmarks relate to diverse cultures, putting those communities at a disadvantage.
In the third class, we explored the origins of jazz by reviewing my exhibition JazzGenesis: San Francisco and the Birth of Jazz. The lesson here was the role of primary sources in ferreting out real history from mythology and conjecture. Once again, we reviewed the data in the context of larger societal trends. They learned that many of the buildings associated with the black entrepreneurs and musicians featured still exist.
So black studies not only is needed, but it has a significant backlog of preservation, analysis and publishing yet undone.