Until lions write their history…

As I began telling the saga of how Dr. Nathaniel Burbridge, a pharmacology professor at UC-San Francisco and president of the San Francisco NAACP, led the largest civil rights demonstrations outside the South, Bill Gray interrupted me.
I had known that telling the history of African-Americans in San Francisco from 1951 to 1971 would be difficult during the fifth session of Come to the Water: Teaching San Francisco Black History. There are more than 100,000 people, most still alive, who have their own rendition of it.
“Do you know about Joe Williams?” said the certified public accountant. “Do you know about Lemore Bookstore. That was one of the hubs of the movement. I started that bookstore.”
Next time I got a word in, I rejoiced at Gray coming forth to add to the history. Our book Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in San Francisco is the first comprehensive history of the city’s black population from 1770 to the present. But after having written 1,400 pages and four volumes of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, I already knew Come to the Water was just a beginning.
As Gray glanced through the pages, the primary sources reminded him of many memories. He expanded on the day that Ollie Matson scored several long touchdowns against Fordham for University of San Francisco in 1951. Gray had the advantage of having spoken to players from Fordham and to Matson himself.
I shared a quote I’d heard Thursday at the Night of Legacy during the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles — “Until lions write their history, the story of the hunt will be told by hunters.”
Our setting was the oldest black restaurant in San Francisco, Sam Jordan’s House of Ribs, started in 1959 by former lightweight boxing champion and candidate for mayor of San Francisco, Sam Jordan.
I’ve sat in the bar at 4004 Third St. many a night and heard folks talk about the past, but I mentioned to Gray and the other attendees the importance of preserving those memories in writing and with artifacts.
He was a great example of the training we’ve done for oral history interviewers, where we show how to do advance background research and take actual primary source materials to informants so that their memories can be recharged.
It is a great way to build a bond with a subject when they know you respect them enough to find the materials which support their story.
The average African-American is used to being ignored, having to justify why they should be part of the narrative of history.
One of the objectives of this seven-week series is to build a dynamic consensus of why this local history is so important that it should be taught to young people, and also collected by them.
During Black History Month and beyond, an excellent way to engage the entire family of a student is to make an assignment to interview the oldest member of the family. We suggest three simple questions as icebreakers: “Who was president when they were in grade school? What type of clothes did they wear? and what kind of music did they listen to?”
Allen Jordan, son of Sam Jordan, gave us an example of the unexpected gems one can find. He brought out for each of the seminar attendees a copy of the platform of Jordan’s 1963 campaign.
The policy recommendations on the green brochure are still valid today.
He had an education plank that insisted on equal facilities, staffing and materials for every school in the city and the inclusion of the contributions of minority groups in all classrooms and subjects.
It is these artifacts, often hidden in family Bibles, attics and in crowded file cabinets, which allow an evolving discussion of history.
Join us next Saturday at 1 p.m. in the southeast campus of City College of San Francisco, 1800 Oakdale as we discuss the period from 1971 to 1991 and the last session on Saturday, March 5, Black American Day, when we discuss the past twenty years, at the offices of the San Francisco African-American Chamber of Commerce, 1020 Webster, at 1 p.m.

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