From the roof of the Masonic Auditorium, site of many civil rights fundraising events with the likes of Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte during the 1950s and 1960s, I was able to point to African-American Freedom Trail sites around Nob Hill on a sky-blue day in San Francisco.
A massive funeral was going on across the street at Grace Cathedral, built to replace the Crocker mansion. Edward Crocker was the lawyer that Mary Ellen Pleasant and George Washington Dennis hired to defend Archy Lee from the application of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1857.
On the other side of Grace Cathedral is Pleasant Street, the street named for Mrs. Pleasant, the Underground Railroad operative from New Bedford who passed for white for a decade while accumulating a fortune during the Gold Rush that she used to fund John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. The placement of the street also gives an indication of her stature in the community. Similarly, Leidesdorff Street down the hill shows how favorably he was viewed.
Nob Hill is known for the “Big Four”, the quartet which parlayed about $400,000 into ownership of the transcontinental railroad with millions in federal subsidies. Each had a mansion on the highest point in San Francisco’s downtown. In 1869, the city was far and away the largest on the West Coast and the hub of commerce for the Pacific Coast.
Long before then, they had taken a bet on whether America would stretch across the continent or split up into fractious sections. James deTarr Abajian, compiler of Blacks and Their Contributions to the American West: A Bibliography and Union List of Library Holdings, a compendium of every print reference on African-Americans from the 1500s to 1970, noted that they were subscribers to Frederick Douglass’ Paper in the 1850s.
It was risky because Southern sympathizers led by Peter Burnett dominated California’s state government from 1851 until the election of 1862. I hold that the battle for California and its gold was the most important battle of the Civil War. Newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln certainly felt that way, sending law partner Edward Baker, also a counsel for Archy Lee, to the Golden State as soon as he was elected to keep California in the Union.
The roof of the Masonic Auditorium is a good vantage point to see the physical imprint the Big Four continue to leave on Nob Hill. Next door is the Huntington Hotel, on the site of Collis P. Huntington’s mansion. The Huntington Library in San Marino contains many of the historic artifacts of the period, including the personal papers of Capt. William Alexander Leidesdorff.
In the next block is the Mark Hopkins Hotel, which took a starring role in my book Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vol. 1, 1500-1900 as the home of the Queen Califia murals in the Room of the Dons.
As California Street begins to slope downward, the Stanford Court Hotel acknowledges the site of Leland Stanford’s manse. Stanford was the first pro-Union governor elected in California in 1862 and in 1863 he signed the legislation ending the “right of testimony” law which prevented Asians, Native Americans and African-Americans from testifying in court.
During the “Big Four and the Underground Railroad” the seventh annual Preserving California Black Heritage conference Sept. 20-22, we’ll explore how this history impact the entire American narrative.
Find many more details in Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in San Francisco.