Bay Area Black History
Black history is fundamentally entwined with the history of the Bay Area. Certainly, this holds true for the rest of California and the country as well, but the Bay Area holds unique stories and significance. Many historical sites are still standing, and are worth a visit. Other locations have cropped up over the years dedicated to preserving history, and elevating the voices of Black Americans.
If you read our October issue, you might have seen the article about Mary Ellen Pleasant, the “Mother of Civil Rights in California.” You can visit the plaque dedicated to her nestled among the trees she planted outside of what was once her mansion estate in San Francisco at the corner of Octavia and Bush. You can also visit her grave at Tulocay cemetery in Napa. While the details of her story are difficult to pin down, her impact on the lives of Black Americans at the time was considerable.
A visit to the Presidio of San Francisco can provide an opportunity to learn about the Buffalo Soldiers.
All four of the first regiments of Buffalo Soldiers were first garrisoned at the San Francisco Presidio in 1898 for the Spanish American war, and then the Philippines-American War. Four hundred and fifty Buffalo Soldiers are buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery at the Presidio. You can learn about the service of the Buffalo Soldiers, from wartime combat to patrolling our National Parks, from resources at the Presidio.
Head across the San Francisco and San Pablo Bays to Concord and find the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial. This historic site commemorates the tragic disaster that killed 320 sailors and civilians in 1944 – the largest domestic loss of life in World War II. Most deaths were Black servicemen working in a racially segregated military. Commanding officers’ neglect for sailors’ safety was to blame for the explosion and loss of life. A protest by remaining servicemen against unsafe procedures followed, leading to mutiny charges, and the deaths of the Port Chicago 50. This disaster and subsequent protest ultimately acted as a catalyst to desegregate the military.
Then, of course, there’s Oakland’s place in the Civil Rights Movement.
Birthplace of the Black Panther Party, there are many historical sites tied to that organization. The Women of the Black Panther Party Mural and Museum, highlights the legacy of the Black Panther Party, and pays tribute to the women behind the movement (note: this is a private home and visits must be scheduled in advance at westoaklandmuralproject.org). You can drive by the original Black Panther Headquarters at 1048 Peralta St., and visit Bobby Hutton Grove at DeFremery Park, a significant rallying point for the Party. St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church (now St. Andrew’s Missionary Baptist Church) was the location of the Black Panther Party’s first-ever free breakfast program; this vital program became the basis of school breakfast programs across the country, and still is in use today. It’s All Good Bakery, on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, sits in the building that was the original office of the Black Panther Party. Articles and photos of members of the group line the walls of the bakery. The list goes on.
Also in Oakland, you can find the California Hotel.
This structure is a familiar sight to any who commute along the I-580/80/CA-24 interchanges. Built in the early days of the Great Depression, it was the tallest building around in the 1930s. During World War II, it became known for the blues and jazz music played in its downstairs bars and ballrooms. Though Black patrons weren’t allowed to stay at the hotel due to discriminatory business practices, many still turned out to enjoy the downstairs area, and its great music, turning it into a cultural haven. In 1953, the hotel reopened under new ownership, which ended its discrimination policy. At the time, it was the only full-service hotel that welcomed Black people. Famous Black entertainers who stayed and performed there include Big Mama Thornton, BB King, Lou Rawls, James Brown, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Richard Pryor. In 1988, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The old hotel has since been turned into low-income housing.
If you’re interested in learning more about Black history in the Bay Area, check out the African American Museum and Library at Oakland, or the Oakland Museum of California. For a chance to appreciate Black art, plan a visit to the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) or the African American Art and Culture Complex. You can celebrate Black History Month by attending the Black Joy Parade in Oakland on February 26; details for attendance and involvement at blackjoyparade.org.
Aside from celebrating and self-educating, you can support Black entrepreneurs by shopping at local Black-owned retailers.
For a helpful list of such businesses in a given area, go to byblack.us. You can also seek out the Solano County Black Chamber of Commerce for a list of participating businesses. A quick search in your-search-engine-of-choice should yield some decent results as well.
This is by no means a complete list of all the wonderful ways you can celebrate and educate yourself about Black history, nor is it an exhaustive list of all the Black historical sites and figures in the Bay Area. But hopefully it gives you some ideas about how you can start to engage with this topic this month and piques your interest to learn more!