The black millionaire who started California public education

Leidesdorff plaque at Leidesdorff and Sacramento Sts.
Saturday, April 3 will be the 162d anniversity of California’s first public school. The site, in Portsmouth Square, is a state registered historic landmark, but it has a glaring omission.
The chairman of the school committee and the school construction subcommittee was William Alexander Leidesdorff.
Like many other aspects of San Francisco history, the fact that he’s black means he’s left off the landmark and out of most history books. I’m proud that an exception is Chapter 7 of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vol. 1.
California is not unique with the formative role of blacks in public education. Jonathan Gibbs, brother of Mifflin W. Gibbs, was superintendent of public instruction in Florida in the 1870s.
Throughout the South, freedmen formed more than 55,000 schools during Reconstruction.
This history is not only important for classroom instruction, but for the overall paradigm of education in this country.
The deficit presumption that outsiders must “show” African-Americans how to educate their children is rooted in the exclusion of the historic record of our many contributions to education.
My studies show even unlettered men and women making exemplary efforts to educate themselves whether they had help or not.
The attitude among black youth that education is not “cool” then becomes a reflection of those external attitudes and not the authentic traditions of their own heritage.
There is something to be gained from showing how an 18 year old left home and became the richest man in San Francisco ten years later, all the while creating a legacy for his community, state and nation.
That’s an education in and of itself.

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