SAN FRANCISCO — More than 300 African-Americans shipped off to sea on the Alaskan canning runs in 1920, aboard ships like the Balcutha, a National Historic Landmark in the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.
Ranger David Belfrey said they and other minorities were trapped in a contract labor system that gave them $175 for a six month voyage, but charged them $75 for clothes before they left the port of San Francisco. Plus they had to bribe the contract agent just to be considered. If they spoke out, they were barred from working again.
Belfrey related the history to a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about “a just law administered unjustly” in 1963 during a bell ringing ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. The bell aboard the Balcutha was rung at noon, like bells across the country during the Let Freedom Ring observance.
I noted that unsung workers like those sailors are part of the undiscovered African-American maritime heritage in the San Francisco Bay during following remarks. I referred to the prospect of military action in Syria and asked how likely it would be that billionaires like Larry Ellison or Bill Gates would offer to pay for the military campaign. After everyone shook their heads, I pointed out that Capt. William Alexander Leidesdorff actually went into $50,000 debt to finance provisions for the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps during the Mexican War.
Leidesdorff began sailing from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to San Francisco in 1837, building the first shipping warehouse on the waterfront and sailing the first steamship into the harbor.
But far into the 20th century, black maritime workers in the port were fighting for equal treatment. A. Philip Randolph, initiator of the 1963 March on Washington, gave one of his first major speeches at the Hotel Whitcomb in San Francisco in 1935, advocating integration of labor unions and gaining the recognition of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. It would take almost 40 years for his ideas to reach the Lincoln Memorial.
Ranger Denise McEvoy also discussed the role of Capt. Michael Healy,commander of the Revenue Cutter Bear, which sailed out of Oakland home port and was the law in Alaska. She noted that Healy forced covenants made with Alaskan natives to be enforced equally, one of the reasons that Alaskan natives did not face the extermination of other Native Americans.
As many speakers on the National Mall observed, the struggle for freedom is ongoing and can face reverses. But a knowledge of the battles already won can empower future generations to continue moving forward.