A history too precious to ignore

Continuity of Conscience address at Hotel Whitcomb
One need only see how emotional people become when discussing history to understand its importance. I’m meeting with Rob Walker and Ocie Tinsley in Los Gatos Saturday to discuss their plans for the African-American Heritage House in San Jose.
They’ve poured their heart and soul into creating a monument for African-American history in a place where the vast majority of people would think it is a waste of time.
However, readers of Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vol. 1 know that the majority of the original pobladores, or settlers in San Jose, California’s first civil settlement, in 1775 were black, according to Spanish census records reviewed by Dr. Jack Forbes, author of Chapter 4, Afro-Americans in the West.
Explaining the depth of black heritage in the Golden State
The fact that students can grow up in Santa Clara County without knowing that is why Walker and Tinsley and other volunteers are building this legacy.
It is not unlike the point we made in San Francisco during Celebrating Black American History at the Hotel Whitcomb. I remarked that California’s most unrecognized holiday is Black American Day on March 5, marking the day when Crispus Attucks was killed in the Boston Massacre as the first American to die for this country. (that means we started the Tea Party, too)
And I shared the information from our new book Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in San Francisco that several conquistadors among the Portola expedition in 1770 were black and among the first non-indigenous visitors to what is now San Francisco.
Those origins, not unlike Jean Baptiste duSable in Chicago, the slaves who built the U.S. Capitol or the African Burial Grounds in lower Manhattan, speak to the seminal place of Africans in American history.
Asking the audience to say "I belong"
Yet, still we fight for a sense of belonging. In fact, I commissioned the entire audience at Hotel Whitcomb to raise their hands and say “I belong.”
When there are five African-American organizations celebrating their 159th anniversaries after being started in 1852, the pastor of Third Baptist Church should not have to go to San Francisco’s school board to request that the name of a Confederate sympathizer be taken off a child development center in the Bayview/Hunters Point district.
Instead, students should be made aware of the four African-American jefe politicos, or governors who ruled Alta California during Mexican rule, such as Pio Pico, who secularized the Bayview/Hunters Point area to private ownership in the 1840s.
On April 3, we complete the Attucks-Leidesdorff Institute, a professional development opportunity for teachers, by taking a walking tour to the site of California’s first public school for the tenth consecutive year.
It is an equally obscure fact that William Alexander Leidesdorff, an African-American ship captain, enterpreneur and the first black American diplomat, dedicated that school on April 3, 1848.
Rather than have forty percent of black students drop out of California high schools, we might alternatively imbue them with the sense of belonging that would come from knowing that someone who looked like them spoke six languages and was a mathematics whiz almost two centuries ago.
Join us Sunday at 10 a.m. for the tour at Sacramento and Leidesdorff Streets. We’ll proceed past the site of the first black bank in American history, founded by Henry Collins in 1857; the first shipping warehouse for the Port of San Francisco, created by Leidesdorff; the site of Leidesdorff’s home, where Commodore Stockton and John C. Fremont first stayed upon their arrival; and on to State Registered Historic Landmark 587 in Portsmouth Square, the first public school in California.
All these sites are in the middle of the Financial District, just like the site of the first jazz club in history at 550 Pacific, subject of Cakewalk: an historical novel about the unsung creators of jazz.
Like downtown San Jose, these locales are among the last places one might think to look for black history.
When one is not seen as part of the history, there is a tendency to be marginalized in the present.
Los Gatos is part of my personal history as the first place I lived when I moved to California. For years, I would run the Lexington Reservoir trail every morning.
I don’t get down there often, but my good friend Jan Hutchins is having an anniversary for his Yoga Center of Los Gatos. He not only belongs but he’s the former mayor of the town.
That’s the gift that pioneers like Attucks and Leidesdorff give us–the sense of belonging in any environment. So don’t give history short shrift, because you’ll need it in the future.

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