Running nine blocks for San Francisco black history

Our unprecedented lecture series on the history of African-Americans in San Francisco got out of the starting blocks like a rocket as the eager participants grabbed all the seats, including mine.
I was happy to stand as each told how they had come to the Latino/Hispanic Reading Room of the San Francisco Main Library for Come to the Water: Teaching San Francisco Black History.
One lady proudly related how she had run nine blocks to get there on time.
And we were blessed and highly favored to have the presence of esteemed historian Dr. Douglas Daniels, professor of history at UC-Santa Barbara, author of Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Political History of Black San Francisco, who happened to be in the building and came downstairs.
His research had been one of the spurs to my own book Cakewalk.
The response was a testament to the vision of African-American Center librarian Stewart Shaw, who shared my concern that an incremental approach to black history was not achieving the broad understanding necessary for a healthy community.
I began by telling the origin of the African-American Center, the result of a $500,000 fundraising campaign by the late Dr. Arthur Coleman and his wife Renee as part of the Main Library campaign in the mid-1990s, one of the largest philanthropic campaigns to that point among black neighborhoods. Yet most of the audience had not visited the center, which is on the third floor of the library.
That sense of agency was a theme which dated back to the very beginnings of San Francisco.
Restoring that collective can-do attitude is one of the objectives of the seven-week series. The psychiatrist Mindy Ross Fullilove wrote in her study Root Shock that San Francisco’s black population had been traumatized not unlike a plant pulled from its roots. That post-traumatic stress can be seen in a number of negative health statistics.
I suggested that if today’s population actually knew the history of blacks in the city that everyone would stand up straighter, smile much more and reach much more of its potential–a Lake Woebegon on the Bay.
After ascertaining how little the participants knew about the city’s history, I asked them to forget what they thought they knew about it, and about black history in general.
Typically, black history is taught through a narrow box of slavery, through the English language.
That means there’s no place for the Spanish-speaking free mulattos who were among the original pobladores of the San Francisco mission, or Ignacio Miramontes, the commander of the Presidio from 1838 to 1844 or Pio Pico, the jefe politico of Alta California who secularized the area from what is now Hunters Point to Ingleside in 1845.
We compared the geographic size of the Spanish-held possessions in what is now the United States, quickly realizing that the southwest region dwarfed the 13 colonies.
Professor Sylvia Wynter also notes that black history typically relies on changing the timeline of history. We rarely hear about the successful slave revolt of Yanga in the 1500s, which essentially led to the freeing of Mexican slaves and their integration in the society of New Spain, because we’ve been tied to the Jamestown paradigm.
Yet more than 90 percent of the captives in the Middle Passage went to Latin America or the Caribbean, even those who eventually wound up in the United States.
Another example of the selective timeline is the designation of the Renaissance era, but the relative exclusion of the 780-year period from 710 to 1490 when Moors ruled Spain. An objective analysis of the two periods would find more enduring impact from the latter.
Those thoughts gave us a platform to begin reviewing the first chapter of Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in San Francisco, a compendium of primary source materials on more than 200 years of the city’s history.
I noted that they would find the book essential for their own safety, because when they repeated most of what they learn, that people would think they had lost their mind.
But they will be able to turn to page nine and display the actual appraisal of the $1.4 million estate of William Alexander Leidesdorff after his death in 1848.
We closed by discussing the role of Leidesdorff and James Douglas to literally put the San Francisco Bay on the map, on behalf of their respective powers, the United States and Great Britain.
Once again, there’s no room in the dominant paradigm of black history for black men exercising diplomatic, military and economic power in the 19th century.
However, they were to set a tone which continues to run through the city’s history.
Our next session begins at Saturday, Jan. 29 at 1 p.m. in the Aquatic Warming House at the National Maritime Museum, adjacent to Ghiradelli Square and the Hyde Street Pier, hosted by the Golden Gate National Recreational Area of the National Parks Service. We’ll be joined by Guy Washington, western regional coordinator of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

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