Preserving California Black Heritage

Testimony to California Historical Resources Commission Friday, July 31, 2009, Sacramento

Good afternoon.

I’d like to bring to your attention the following events — the third annual Preserving California Black Heritage conference in San Francisco Sept. 30-Oct. 2 and the 40th anniversary of the creation of Black Studies at San Francisco State University Oct. 7-9.

Preserving California Black Heritage will occur in several venues along Third Street in the Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood, which is the flashpoint for some of the most important issues involving historic preservation, development, gentrification and neighborhood revitalization.   As I mentioned in my testimony during the April meeting in Palm Springs, 95 percent of foreclosures in San Francisco are occurring in the southeast sector of the city.   Because this area houses some of the oldest structures in the city, dating back to the 1880s, and is one of the last concentrations of African-American middle class homeowners in the city, the implications for preservation are immense.

Activities will include a bus tour of the historic buildings and locations in the area.  One of our themes will be the impact of African-American architects on California.   In our experience, we have often heard a presumption that all the architects were white, so when buildings are considered for historic designation, one would only review the work of white architects and builders.  At best, African-Americans might reside or do business in a structure designed by someone else.   In fact, just three black architects from the 1920s in Los Angeles accounted for more than 4,000 buildings in the state and published several books on their work.  There is a substantial amount of work by black architects in the Bayview/Hunters Point area.

The neighborhood also houses more than two dozen African-American houses of worship in buildings which predate the 1930s.  We have discovered that three major African-American denominations between 1890 and 1915 named supervising architects to supervise the construction of all of their church buildings and parsonages nationwide.    That means there are distinct themes to the religious architecture of black congregations which are rooted in the earliest religious traditions of African-Americans.   We will discuss those themes through the buildings we review during the conference as well.

If the information is not shared, it loses its effectiveness.  During our prior Preserving California Black Heritage conferences, we’ve devoted time for professional development of teachers in the infusion of African-American heritage into daily classroom experiences.  We continue that tradition in the third conference.  We found in a study, Black Heritage as Gap Closer, that fewer than 10 percent of California social studies teachers were familiar with the techniques of culturally responsive teaching of African-American heritage.

And we will discuss how other states are employing cultural heritage tourism as an economic development tool for economically depressed neighborhoods.

The following week, Dr. Johnetta Richards and I will present a paper on Black Studies and Historic Preservation during the three day of observance of the 40th anniversary of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University.  Dr. Richards, professor of Africana studies at S.F. State, works with architect Miles Stevens and I on the Invisible Pioneers context statement on African-American heritage in San Francisco.

One of the by-products of that research has been an alliance between Allen Community Development Corp., contractor for the study, and the College of Ethnic Studies to infuse historic preservation research into the class assignments of the Department of Africana Studies.  In March, the faculty of the department unanimously agreed to let the heritage of African-Americans in San Francisco be infused in all the department’s classes through assignments, papers and classes.  As part of that developing partnership, I spoke to five different classes last semester.

This is important because of the scale of work involved in the documentation of this immense legacy, but also to enlighten young people about the opportunities for careers in the field. There are only eight African-American history faculty in the entire California State University system and Dr.  Richards is the only one in the Bay Area.  If we don’t train professionals to do the preservation work who have the cultural sensitivity, the work is likely not to get done.

As you’ve prioritized in the Statewide Consolidated Historic Preservation Plan, increasing the one percent of historic sites devoted to diverse history is one of the top goals.  When localities with certified local government status merely pass through applications to help developers get tax credits or based on the political interest of well-connected neighborhoods, science suffers.

That’s why I applaud the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles for its recent set of applications which led to landmarks.  Most of those sites are no longer predominately black areas, so there was no pressure to landmark them, just the fierce urgency of well-researched information.  I was at the Central Avenue Jazz Festival last weekend where I met the CRA project officer for Central Avenue.  She mentioned that they’re still reviewing another 250 sites.

Our context statement is reviewing 400 sites in San Francisco.

Obviously, there is a vast story waiting to be told.   Seventeen of the current state landmarks in San Francisco have an aspect of their interpretation relating to African-Americans which is not included.    We need only look at the Jackson Square National Historic District where the study notes that 550 Pacific was the first building rebuilt after the 1906 quake, but neglected to mention that it housed Purcell’s, the home of the first jazz club in history, one of  a number of buildings in that district operated by African-American entrepreneurs dating back to the 1850s.    My favorite is landmark 587, the site of the first public school in California.  It doesn’t mention that William Alexander Leidesdorff was chairman of the committee that built and dedicated and operated the school.

So it raises questions not only about the paucity of African-American landmarks, but also about the overall integrity of the data being submitted.  When pertinent details are excluded because of race, everyone suffers.    The time is long past due to create an African-American heritage trail throughout California, as more than two dozen states have done.  In Florida, one can go to the state tourism web site and pull down by county every African-American historic landmark in the state.

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