Cakewalk, an historical novel about the unsung creators of jazz music, is also the first book to thoroughly explore the African-American experience during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
As we discussed Cakewalk for six hours at Marcus Books, the 50-year-old oldest black book store in the nation, yesterday, one of the facets that captured the most attention was the recognition that there were African-Americans in San Francisco in 1906.
The book is set around 520 Pacific Street, the first building rebuilt after the quake. It was a black-owned night club called Purcell’s So Diff’rent, regarded as the most important “black and tan” in the nation.
In opening chapters, we tell how the property was rebuilt, in part thanks to the extensive connections of the owner, Lew Purcell, and his fellow night club owner, Sam King. Between them, they controlled six nightclubs in the 400 and 500 blocks of Pacific Street.
The book describes the period between 1906 and 1921, when the 1,400 residents of the Barbary Coast were forcibly removed in an effort to break up the district. Among the plot lines are the rebuilding of three African-American churches, which were already more than 50 years old in 1906.
Third Baptist Church had been located in Union Square at the current site of I. Magnin before the quake. The building it rebuilt at 1255 Hyde Street still stands and is the oldest black church building in California.
Bethel A.M.E. rebuilt at the same location at Powell and John Streets, a block from Broadway, where it remained until the late 1940s.
First A.M.E. Zion rebuilt from its prior location at Sacramento and Stockton Streets at Geary and Webster Streets, where it hosted the general conference in 1915.
One can see from the church locations that the city’s black community was thoroughly embedded in the downtown commercial district.
For all the attention given to the earthquake, it is an element of history which has been hidden for 104 years. To fully appreciate the period, we also encourage visiting our exhibition JazzGenesis: San Francisco and the Birth of Jazz in the inner windows of the Visitor Information Center of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A non-fiction version of the period can also be found in Volume 2 of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, 1900-1950.