Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Heritage in San Francisco

When I first published Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vols. 1-4,</em> I was stunned by the wealth of primary source information on blacks in California.
After Ray Taliaferro directed me to the Room of the Dons in the Mark Hopkins Hotel, I next visited the Bancroft Collection at the University of California-Berkeley. When I typed in “Afro-Americans, California” to the reference search engine, I got 1,400 categories of material.
That meant Volume One of Our Roots Run Deep, covering the years from 1500 to 1900 was composed almost completely of juried articles and primary sources.
The anthology format continued for Volume Two, 1900 to 1950, and Volume Three, 1950-2000.
Increasingly, for exhibitions such as Queen Calafia: California Black Heritage Confirmed Through Public Art; Gold Rush Abolitionists: the California Movement towards Emancipation ; Jazz Genesis: Benjamin Franklin “Reb” Spikes and the Central Avenue Jazz Scene, 1919 to 1945; Jazz Genesis: San Francisco and the Birth of Jazz; Carlton B. Goodlett, Physician, Psychologist, Politician, Publisher; California: A State of Natural Diversity, I found myself doing original research to fill the gaps which remained despite 1,400 pages in the four volumes of Our Roots Run Deep.
The biggest such research projects have been the 62 Heroes and Heroines of the Western Addition, an oral history project for the San Francisco African-American Historical and Cultural Society which interviewed 300 persons; and for the past four years, the Invisible Pioneers context statement study.
In the course of those projects, I’ve had occasion to read page by page every black newspaper published in the city from 1857, go through such resources as the Works Progress Administration archive on Music in San Francisco and found such treasures as the 1929 membership list of the San Francisco Branch of the NAACP, which I stumbled upon at my alma mater, Howard University, in Washington, D.C.
We first published Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in California ten years ago as a guide for tourists, oriented towards current information such as finding restaurants, barber shops and churches. Our exhibition SF Soul: Taste the Excitement surprised many by documenting more than 60 current black eateries in the city in 2005.
It has become increasingly clear that understanding today’s black community in San Francisco is impossible without a complete context of the full history of the black population in the city.
Each edition of Come to the Water has grown, just like the thousands of pages of primary sources I’ve collected while researching 400 buildings for nomination to historic landmark status.
As I have viewed the declining status of black students in the city’s schools, it was an awakening this summer when one of my students in Potrero Progress piped up while we toured North Beach and said, “I would actually come to school for this. This is interesting. Why haven’t we had this in our classes.”
There are many answers to the question, but I realized that the only significant answer was because I hadn’t written the definitive history of blacks in San Francisco.
In conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California during the fourth annual Preserving California Black Heritage conference on Friday, Nov. 12 at the legendary Marcus Books, 1712 Fillmore St., we will unveil the 450-page tenth anniversary edition of Come to the Water.
When I debuted Cakewalk, my historical novel about the creation of jazz, at Marcus Books in April, videographer Lance Burton immediately went into a frenzy looking up photos and artifacts that I had referenced just in the first chapter.
It reminded me of the power of this history to motivate, inspire and drive achievement.
There have been days, weeks, months and even years, when I grew weary of the archival research or walking down streets to trace someone’s genealogy.
But when I see the fruits of that labor seduce young minds just as it has mine, we must take every step to make the proud history more accessible.