Mining Gold in a Golden Legacy: the California African American Freedom Trail
By Rick Moss, M.A. Director/Chief Curator, African-American Library and Museum in Oakland and John William Templeton, editor, Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California, Vols. 1-4
Presented in California African American Freedom Trail: Economic, Educational and Preservation Strategies chaired by Susan Anderson at Pacific Coast Branch, American Historical Association, Aug. 5, 2017
Abstract: Although five million African American visitors come to the Golden State each year and two million live there, one million in the Los Angeles area alone, neither group is aware of the central role of blacks in California history. The California African American Freedom Trail is a sustained strategy using best practices from other states to reap the preservation, economic and educational benefits of that history. Panelists are a Commissioner on the State Historical Resources Commission and a member of its Cultural Diversity Committee. Although the state has a majority minority population, only one percent of registered landmarks are considered diverse.
The recognition of the black experience in California begins in 1510 in Spain when Garcia Ordonez Montalvo commits the word to writing for the first time as the island domain of the wealthy, beautiful “black as the ace of clubs” Queen Calafia ( Califia).
Two decades later, the first African to land in what is now the United States, Juan Garrido, would be second in command of Hernan Cortes’ expedition to find that island on the Pacific Coast in what we now call Baja California.
One hundred sixty five years agp, the first building built by blacks in San Francisco was the Athenian Literary Society and one hundred years ago, Delilah Beasley would write Negro Pioneers of California.
Fifty years ago, California would become the only state to recognize the death of Crispus Attucks as a state holiday–Black American Day on March 5.
Both authors have been active in historical research of the black experience for more than three decades, with the former having served as curator of both the California African American Museum in Exposition Park and founding chief curator of the African American Museum and Library in Oakland, and latter a leader in the Jackson Ward National Historic District in Richmond, VA before compiling the 1,400 page four volume anthology of the black experience in California between 1991 and 1998.
The National Park Service, steward of the nation’s history, has taken a much more aggressive role than state and local governments for the past 50 years to document and preserve California’s unique multi-lingual black heritage beginning with the Five Views project by Dr. Eleanor Mason Ramsey and the encyclopedic work of Ranger Guy Washington as regional coordinator of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. The current research on the Buffalo Soldiers in National Parks proposed Trail is the result of the dedication of Rangers Shelton Johnson in Yosemite and Frederick Penn at Presidio.
Prince Hall Grand Lodge of California, local historical societies in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and Fresno, the Friends of Col. Allensworth State Historical Park and authors William Loren Katz, Rudolph Lapp, W. Sherman Savage and James deT. Abajian laid a foundation of primary sources and Sue Bailey Thurman humanized the pioneers.
The Mayme Clayton and Casa de Rey Moro private museums have turned private collections into institutions. Bernard, Shirley and Kahlil Kinsey have demonstrated what individual collectors can do.
Despite all this documentation and limited placement of markers by volunteer groups, the scope of this history has been ignored in land use, education and tourism promotion by local leaders.
A highly fragmented random approach has 146 schools in the state named for African Americans but none named for the founder of California’s first public school, who was black.
With two million visitors having streamed into the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, ironically led by the former director of the California African American Museum, in its first nine months, there is demonstrated pent-up demand for what is arguably a much more interesting narrative on themes which already resonate globally but have been whitewashed.
Much of the history is part of the most appealing tourist destinations in the world already. Kevin Epps’ documentary Black Rock pinpointed the hundreds of black prisoners at Alcratraz, where two million visit each year.