Treasures of urban archeology

Naomi Jelks of S.F. Public Library joins me with Dr. James L. Taylor of University of San Francisco to assess a massive photo collection.
Naomi Jelks of S.F. Public Library joins me with Dr. James L. Taylor of University of San Francisco to assess a massive photo collection.

“Is this a black bank,” asked Dr. James Taylor as he handed me a calendar.

I took note that Dr. Henry Lucas was chairman and remembered the name from helping to draft his obituary.  Other familiar names were on the bank board.   But I also noted the drawing on the cover of five houses on the 800 block of Steiner Street.

Dr. Taylor, chair of poltical science at the University of San Francisco, and Naomi Jelks, newly named African-American librarian at the San Francisco Main Library, had joined me in the basement of a Western Addition  house to go through a collection of 20,000 photos and artifacts.

It was an example of why we’ve presented the Preserving California Black Heritage conference for the past seven years, to show families and property owners the value of the legacy that they hold on to.      Every year, we’ve reached out to the community to turn up old photographs and other materials which oftentimes they didn’t not realize the value of.   We held a Community History Day at Sam Jordan’s Bar in 2010 and at George Washington Carver School in 2011. spokesman  We also presented a documentary The King Behind King, Bridges, Chavez and Mandela about the impact of LeRoy King and other members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

These materials can truly be priceless. The John Pittman Collection at New York University; the Stewart-Flippin Collection at the Moorland-Spingarn Collection at Howard University, the Abajian Collection at the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley, the Leidesdorff personal papers at the Huntington Library and the Dr. Daniel Collins papers at the John Hope Franklin Collection at Duke University are all collections from black San Franciscans which enrich scholarship.   

Jeremiah B. Sanderson’s papers, at the Bancroft, were narrowly saved when they were moved to the library just months before the house they had rested in for decades burned down.

As we complete the African-American Freedom Trail, we are seeking out such hidden collections which show a side of history which has been excluded and misinterpreted.

For example, the houses on the cover of the bank calendar have become known as the “Painted Ladies.”   Dr. Taylor and I rode by and as I predicted, hundreds of people were standing in Alamo Square Park, looking at those five houses.    None was aware that the entire neighborhood had been owned by black property owners well into the 1970s.

The houses became a tourist draw because of the show Full House in 1984, but this calendar was well before that.

We’ll talk about the importance of black owned banks in San Francisco since 1857 when we open Preserving California Black History Friday at 3:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20 at the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St. and we’ll show the film “Decision on the Streets” about the United San Francisco Freedom Movement.   Afterwards, we’ll go to the street on Nob Hill named for Mary Ellen Pleasant and take a look at the murals depicting the story which gave California its name.   Registration is at

Don’t miss the treasures of heritage.


One thought on “Treasures of urban archeology

  1. It was truly an honor to participate in initial steps in preserving the rich African American heritage of the SF Bay area.

    Naomi Jelks
    African American Center

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