Still listening after 20 years

Mrs. Leola King had a twinkle in her eye as Mrs. Deborah Campbell Ford wheeled her into Marcus Book Store.
She was there an hour before our Preserving California Black Heritage conference began, watching the Our Roots Run Deep documentary raptly from her wheelchair.
When Ford mentioned that Mrs. King had been the owner of Goldies and Blue Mirror nightclubs on Fillmore St., we were able to look up the addresses in our data base of historic buildings.
Once the audience filled the store, others brought their histories to share. Clarence Williams described how the widow of Emmitt Kennedy convinced him to take on the restoration of Club Long Island on Third Street and how Bertha Fleming’s Haight Street Mortgage financed his real estate purchases.
Retired principal James Taylor remembered how he had looked forward to growing old enough to go to Club Long Island because of the style and grace of its patrons. One had to be extremely well dressed to enter the club, a standard that older community members would inculcate among the younger seet.
Past Grand Master William Calhoun was there to discuss the significance of Hannibal Lodge No. 1 and Victoria Lodge No. 3, two of the three lodges which began the Grand Lodge of California, Prince Hall Affiliation in 1855.
Calhoun came right on cue. I had been querying the audience on the identity of the five black organizations founded in 1852, which had reached 158 years of age this year. With the coaching of Al Williams, president of the S.F. African-American Historical and Cultural Society, they had figured out Third Baptist Church, Bethel A.M.E.. and First A.M.E. Zion.
The other two were stumping them.
We began by giving a context by watching the first half of Our Roots Run Deep documentary, originally aired on KMTP-32 in February 1993.
The segments brought them from the naming of California, in recognition of the allegorical saga of Queen Calafia; to the role of Mifflin Gibbs, Peter Lester and Mary Ellen Pleasant in the Underground Railroad.
My objective was to give them a context of how significant it was that black churches were being created a decade before the Civil War began.
As we saw how those churches took an active role in catalyzing John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, it meant that the national theme for Black History Month had a critical local connection.
I also noted that Civil War generals Henry Halleck and William Tecumseh Sherman had ties with those black churches while abolition supporters as San Francisco businessmen during the 1850s.
Even for a scholar like Dr. Laura Head of San Francisco State, this was new information. She was full of ideas on how to engage the Black Studies Department at State in conducting the research on people like Mrs. Leola King.
Taylor noted that one of the ways he had succeeded at Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School was to have all students conduct oral history research with their relatives.
I found this interchange very exciting 20 years after the publication of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vols. 1-4.
As we complete the context statement of African-American history in San Francisco, the overlooked testimony of the people who have been a big part of the history is very revealing.
One of the objectives of our research is to give each of them a context for understanding their own place in the continuum.
We have come to the conclusion that the defining theme of San Francisco black heritage is continuity. Essentially, the Underground Railroad never ended here. The five organizations which were founded as outposts in 1852 by migrants from New England or the Caribbean are still functioning and carrying on the same ideals.
Because education was as big an issue in the 1850s as now, all agreed to redouble the effort to make sure that the city’s students learn about the significant black heritage.
In addition to Our Roots, we also shared a brand new book, the 10th edition of Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in San Francisco.
We are grateful for the generous sponsorship of ParkSFO led by Bob Simms, first manager of the Neighborhood Coop in Bayview in the 1960s; Cafe Golo, founded by John Akins; Sam Jordan’s Bar, cornerstone of the black business historic district we’re applying for; Club Long Island, where Clarence Williams is fighting to restore the building’s grandeur; and our host, Marcus Books, which is celebrating its 50th year as the nation’s oldest black owned bookstore.
As we were finishing, Tom Bennett of Miyako Ice Cream came in to buy some greeting cards. I followed him out the door to get one of my favorite sandwiches, his signature hot pastrami. Sometimes, history is there for the tasting.
The focus on San Francisco black history continues Saturday at noon at the Latino/Hispanic Reading Room in the San Francisco Main Library, 1000 Larkin as I read from Cakewalk, an historical novel about the unsung creators of jazz music.
Tuesday at six p.m.., I discuss the Cakewalk research further at the Mechanics Institute lounge on the 4th floor at 57 Post St.

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