Moving blacks back into San Francisco

Even after seven weeks, the dedicated students of history in Come to the Water: Teaching San Francisco Black History did not want to end, so our discussion of the past 20 years went on for more than five hours at the S.F. African-American Chamber of Commerce.
In 1990, more than ten percent of San Francisco’s population was African-American, more than 79,000. A study called the Unfinished Agenda pointed out that blacks were not involved in the city’s major economic endeavors.
During Come to the Water, we learned that a critical distinction of San Francisco’s black history has been the unique placement of black entrepreneurship in the city’s major economic drivers.
When Mary Ellen Pleasant and George Washington Dennis intercepted Archy Lee in the San Francisco Bay to prevent his return to slavery in Mississippi in 1857, they didn’t have to request a grant to charter the ship or to hire Abraham Lincoln’s former law partner to defend Lee. They did it from their own considerable means. So it was very appropriate that we would end the series at the chamber offices, thanks to the generosity of the president Frederick E. Jordan, P.E. and Dr. Caesar Churchwell, who stopped on the way to the 31st Black Cuisine Festival to open the door.
Whether the mission system, the transition to American rule, the Gold Rush, the musical theatre and jazz era or the general strike of 1934, blacks were right in the middle of it, decades before similar access existed elsewhere.
The first black bank in American history was opened in San Francisco in 1857, a few hundred feet from the residence of the first black millionaire in American history, who had died in 1848. The site is still the hub of the Financial District.
Yet during a period when San Francisco had a black mayor for eight years and its first black police and fire chiefs, district attorney and school superintendent and black leadership over the dreaded redevelopment agency for the past 20 years, the African-American population declined to 3.8 percent in 2010.
To put it in context, 40,000 African-Americans moved to San Francisco from 1940 to 1945. The city lost that entire in-migration of blacks between 1990 and 2010, the fastest rate of African-American out-migration of any city in the country.
Going around the room, I asked each participant what stood out for them. To a person, they replied that they had been surprised by the depth and significance of black participation in early San Francisco.
During most of the sessions, the majority of the participants were native San Franciscans who had spent their entire lives in the city.
In just six weeks, I could see how heavily they had scoured through their copies of Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in San Francisco.
I shared the comments of a visitor who had attended the Game Developers Conference. When I met her last Monday, she bluntly asked, “Where are the black people?”
Within a couple of hours of touring and dining at Farmer Brown’s, she and the rest of the party were amazed at the extent of the city’s black heritage.
Greg Johnson of Marcus Books noted that the trend of recent years had been for blacks to return to the South. How could San Francisco counteract that phenomenon?
I suggested that my experience at the conference pointed to the answer.
Even with family ties and lower cost of living, many of the reasons that led blacks to leave the South still exist, as we are learning during the 150th anniversary reflections on the Civil War.
The essential appeal of San Francisco is that it remains the best place for African-Americans to affect the entire American society and often, the entire world.
George Colbert, a retired judge, noted that his fellow classmates at San Francisco State in the 1960s brought Black Studies, a discipline which spread across higher education.
He suggested that a similar focus on students is needed today, observing that the Western Addition was filled with college students now, just not African-Americans.
Last year, I launched an initiative called ScholarHouse to provide students whose studies focused on black community development and heritage a place in the city to live where they could form a community of scholars to come up with big ideas. For reduced rent, they agreed to provide 12 hours per month of community service. Their assignment was to work in the archives of the San Francisco African-American Historical and Cultural Society.
In the absence of such mechanisms, we’re finding that the initiative in our communities has been taken over by activist college students from other communities.
Johnson said that the “ghost of black history” is being marketed in the Fillmore area as a lure for others to come to the area, a phenomenon he feared is happening in Third Street.
Both Johnson and Colbert said that the purpose of Black Studies as a discipline should be community involvement and immersion.
The example of the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom School which grew to 300 students in the 1970s demonstrates the agency which characterized black activism for most of the city’s history. When the schools did not serve black students, black families boycotted them in 1979.
Where we’ve fallen short is failing to share with young blacks the local legacy that they inherit. One of the favorite activities during the Potrero Progress biotechnology pilot last summer were the walking tours of black historic sites in the Financial District.
When the evaluator interviewed the high school students, they described the classes as “a dream come true.”
I saw this week successful experienced African-American game developers come close to tears when meeting Gerald A. Lawson, the inventor of the first video game console with a removable cartridge in the early 1970s.
How much more powerful would the depth and extent of black heritage be for primary students –when the California history/social science framework insists that family, local and state history be taught.
As we marked Black American Day, the anniversary of Crispus Attucks’ death in the Boston Massacre, with this intense discussion of local black history, I reminded participants that we are beginning a month-long focus statewide with the Attucks-Leidesdorff Institute, which will describe how to carry out that very instruction with the kinds of learning challenges that gamers have popularized.

Our Roots Run Deep co-editors Agin Shaheed, M.A. and John William Templeton flank actress Ursaline Bryant, portraying Queen Calafia during a book signing at Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza in 2005.
From Saturday, March 5 to April 3, those who purchase the four-volume set of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California will receive the daily newsletter Californiablackhistory, with examples of how to engage young and old minds using the compelling episodes of black distinction in the Golden State.
We already have a template for success and growth and longevity. There are five black organizations founded in 1852 as part of the National Underground Railroad that still exist in San Francisco.
Students as young as 18 organized and implemented the Auto Row sit-ins in 1963 which are still the foundation of the current success of blacks in the area.
The city is still home to the country’s oldest black bookstore, one of whose founders helped launch Black Studies at San Francisco State.
The original chair of Black Studies still practices his research and publishing from the same office Dr. Nathan and Julia Hare have occupied since the 1960s.
I dropped by Marcus Books after the session. Tamiko Johnson told me something I didn’t know — that her late grandfather’s middle name had been Julian Crispus Richardson.
The continuity of conscience which has propelled San Francisco black history is too awe-inspiring to fade away. We certainly haven’t come this far to turn back now.