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Our Local Connections with African American History

Juneteenth is now a federal holiday and recognized as America’s second Independence Day.

It commemorates the day, June 19, 1865, that enslaved persons in Galveston, Texas first learned that they had been set free – nearly 2-1/2 years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

According to Angela Tate, Curator of African American Women's History at the African American National Museum of History and Culture, “Juneteenth is a time to reflect. What does it mean to really celebrate our freedom? What does it mean to be free in moments where freedom is conditional, and freedom is always a challenge? Juneteenth is a moment to think about freedom being conditional freedom and it is something that we must continuously strive and fight for.”

When California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state under the Compromise of 1850, the intent was it would exist as a free, non-slavery state. However, with the Gold Rush in full swing and as long as owners had no plans to move to California permanently, the enslaved could still be brought into the state without their owners suffering legal repercussions.

In fact, the transport of the enslaved to non-slave states had been strengthened under the bundle of acts included in the Compromise of 1850. The original Fugitive Slave Act was embedded in the United States Constitution in 1793. That law required the return of escaped persons to their owners, the latter who were granted the right to hire their own “slave catchers” to pursue, capture, and return the human beings they believed were rightfully their property.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, passed just 9 days after California statehood was approved, strengthened the original law and escalated the power of the Federal government to appoint commissioners who would issue warrants, hire marshals, and pay bounties for the tracking and apprehension of fugitive enslaved persons. The act also required local law enforcement in every state to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway, and denied runaways the rights to a jury trial or to testify on their own behalf. Anyone aiding the escape of an enslaved person could also be imprisoned or fined.

Perhaps the most well-known example of the Fugitive Slave Act in California is the case of Archy Lee, who was brought into the state from Mississippi by his owner, Charles Stovall, in 1857. When Stovall announced his intention to return to Mississippi, Lee escaped and was hidden by the Black community of Sacramento. Lee’s attorney, Edwin Crocker (the brother of railroad magnate Charles Crocker) accused Stovall of breaking the law by having taken residence in California and, therefore, could no longer claim Lee as his property. Stovall responded by ordering the State of California to obey the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and return Lee to his possession.

A local judge hearing the case in Sacramento made a decision in favor of Lee. But Stovall appealed the decision to the California State Supreme Court, at that time a pro-slavery bench that included Peter Burnett (who as the first governor of California in the American period had attempted to ban African Americans from the state) and David Terry (who in 1859 would murder abolitionist and United States Senator David Broderick in a duel near the shores of San Francisco’s Lake Merced). The court immediately overturned the decision and ordered Lee to be returned to Mississippi. When Stovall and Lee were about to board ship in San Francisco, a local judge ordered Stovall be arrested for kidnapping and both men were taken into custody. Soon after, a judge of the Federal courts overturned the California Supreme Court decision and granted Lee his freedom. He soon relocated with other African Americans to British Columbia.

The history of enslaved Black women in California is less well known. Bridget “Biddy” Mason was enslaved in Georgia by a Mormon family, Robert and Rebecca Smith. The Smiths followed the Western migration to Utah and brought Mason and her 3 children with them. Then, after resettling in San Bernadino County near Los Angeles, they decided to move to Texas in 1857. By then, Mason had made connections with free Black people in the Los Angeles area. They contacted the local sheriff about the Smiths’ imminent departure and Mason and her children were taken into protective custody. She would live the remainder of her life in the Los Angeles area as a free woman. Working as a midwife, she amassed a fortune as a successful entrepreneur.

While California had entered the Union as a “free state,” many times its actions were more conciliatory to slave owners. And though it was supposedly a "free state" for African Americans, concurrently California was passing laws making it legal to force Native people into indentured servitude (including the separation of children from their families and culture), and encouraging the commission of genocide of California First Peoples across the state (the website Golden Chains: The Hidden History of Slavery in California from the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California covers the history of all these areas). While the Emancipation Proclamation had ended slavery in only the Southern states, the 13th Amendment, ratified in December 1865, would end both slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the Union.

Our Local Connections with African American History

The revisionist, understated, or forgotten aspects of Black history makes research in this area particularly challenging. In research to date, the rediscovered histories of Glen Park and its neighboring districts in the American period have been predominantly linked with people of White European descent. Let us now begin to raise awareness about what we know so far about the events and people associated with Black history in Glen Park and surrounding districts, inclusive of both their allies and those who may have opposed equitable citizenship.

Founding of Fairmount

That Fairmount is now recognized as having been merged with Glen Park. This is likely due to a decision in the 1990s by the San Francisco Planning Department to establish 37 distinct neighborhoods. Approved by the Board of Supervisors, the order implemented neighborhood notification requirements to accommodate the city’s neighborhood organizations. Thirty years later, Fairmount is not widely known, even by some who live within its historic boundaries.

Yet, Fairmount is one of the oldest planned neighborhoods in San Francisco. It is likely the first with a plat laid out to follow the topography of the landscape rather than the traditional gridiron pattern. The foundation of its history rests in the transcontinental railway and men from Massachusetts who were staunch supporters of Abraham Lincoln - in fact, Richard Chenery led the California contingent in Lincoln's inaugural parade in 1861. Moreover, the name Fairmount appears to have been derived from a speculative development of the same name just south of Boston that is now Hyde Park. Boston's Fairmount was located immediately adjacent to Camp Meigs, the training site of San Francisco's California Hundred, volunteer cavalrymen from across Northern California who fought as Company A in the Second Massachusetts Cavalry during the Civil War, and also of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, later featured in the movie, Glory.

Read more about the significant history of Fairmount in San Francisco. Learn more about the president of the Pacific Railroad Homestead Association (later renamed as the Fairmount Homestead) and namesake of Chenery Street, Richard Chenery, at our partner website Tramps of San Francisco.

Mary Ellen Pleasant

The Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project (GPNHP) was the first to debunk the myth that Mary Ellen Pleasant once lived in the Poole-Bell Mansion near the corner of Laidley and Fairmount. She did, however, maintain a cottage on old San Jose Road near Geneva at the site of today’s Geneva Car Barn. However, while she never lived in Fairmount/Glen Park, we continue to honor her association with the district to further broadcast her legacy.

Pleasant was likely the first African American woman to become a millionaire through her investments with Thomas Bell (as the records documenting her wealth no longer exist, that honor has been attributed to Madame C. J. Walker). An abolitionist, Pleasant financially supported John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. She also aided the transport to San Francisco of formerly enslaved Black men and women and helped them find jobs and establish their own businesses. She purchased lots in neighboring Noe Valley near Church Street through realtor Joseph A. Comerford and either resold or leased them to African American women. Known as the mother of California civil rights, Pleasant assumed significant risk as she is said to have given shelter to Archy Lee during his legal fight against Charles Stovall. In her later years, as Jim Crow attitudes became more prominent in San Francisco, she was denigrated by the public and died destitute.

Glen Park and the Mission Zoo

Realtor Archibald S. Baldwin of the agency Baldwin & Howell founded the Glen Park Company in 1897 with the sole purpose of running a zoological garden. This action is what gave Glen Park its name (see the Summer 2016 issue of the Glen Park News, page 8). Baldwin’s plan was to establish a 145-acre pleasure ground extending from Castro Street west into Glen Canyon, and from Martha Hill north to the 30th Street line. First opening in the fall of 1898, Glen Park and the Mission Zoo would attract thousands of people every weekend to see exciting aeronautic events, wild animals, vaudeville shows, and traipse along promenades through the landscape. It also appears to have been Baldwin’s mode of enticement for attracting potential homebuyers to view lots in his remote Glen Park Terrace that he would place up for auction in 1899.

Aspects of Glen Park and the Mission Zoo introduces some complicated histories. Among the several types of entertainment at the resort were minstrelsy and “black face comedy.” Cakewalks were another form of entertainment – winners of cakewalking contests were awarded pieces of cake. Originally developed by enslaved African Americans to mimic the stiff, waltzing dance of their owners, White entertainers preempted cakewalking to mock African American dance.

By 1902, Baldwin had sold off all his interests in Glen Park and the Mission Zoo. As described by Richard Brandi in his book, Garden Neighborhoods of San Francisco: The Development of Residence Parks, 1905-1924, Baldwin's next project, Presidio Terrace, included a covenant in the deed that made Presidio Terrace and later, other residence parks West of Twin Peaks, exclusive for White residents only (the GPNHP is acknowledged in Brandi's book for providing information about Baldwin’s experiences with Glen Park).

Read more about Glen Park and the Mission Zoo at our partner website, Tramps of San Francisco (a 6-part series; navigate to the next section at the end of every post).

Abby and Alexander Fisher

Abby Fisher is recognized among culinary historians for authoring the first cookbook by a formerly enslaved African American. It was published in San Francisco by the Women’s Co-Operative Printing Office in 1881. GPNHP founder Evelyn Rose has been working to uncover the life histories of Mrs. Fisher and her husband, Alexander, both in Mobile, Alabama and in neighboring Noe Valley in San Francisco. Her ongoing research has revealed much more about the Fishers than previously known, including Alexander’s interactions with President Ulysses S. Grant and 2 mayors of San Francisco, and Mrs. Fisher’s interactions with some highly prominent patrons. The Fishers purchased their home in Noe Valley from the same realtor, Joseph A. Comerford, who had completed transactions with Mary Ellen Pleasant (see above).

The Color Line of Woman’s Suffrage

In the years following the 1906 earthquake when the population of Glen Park was booming, women of the Glen Park Outdoor Art League were working hard to confirm a woman’s right to vote. Read more about Glen Park resident Johanna Pinther, her community leadership, and how she became a co-leader of the first official suffrage march for woman’s suffrage in August 1908 under the banner of the California Equal Suffrage Association (CESA). Also, read more about the backstory of woman’s suffrage in Glen Park, and see the pdf viewer in the Glen Park Woman Hall of Fame, pages 3-6.

Yet a few years earlier in 1902, a color line intended to exclude women of color from the General Federation of Women's Clubs had been drawn across the United States. Mrs. Laura Lyon White, today regarded as the mother of California conservation and president of the California Club in San Francisco, was fiercely opposed to the inclusion of women of color. A prominent voice demanding inclusion was Mabel Craft Deering. A graduate of UC Berkeley, trained as an attorney, and known for being an “ardent feminist,” she also worked as the Sunday editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.

At the time of the first suffrage march, Deering had become a member of CESA. Founded in 1904 with Mrs. Mary Sperry as president and Mrs. Ellen Sargent as honorary president, CESA was composed of women who for many years had formerly been active with the California Club. While we may never know the position over the color line personally taken by Mrs. Pinther and other Glen Park women who were active in CESA, that CESA had welcomed Deering as a member and that Deering marched behind co-leader Pinther with other women of CESA and their male allies in the first official march for woman's suffrage implies that CESA members supported inclusion and erasure of the color line.

Yet, one year later Mrs. Pinther would invite Mrs. Lovell White to Glen Park School to plant trees on Arbor Day. The Glen Park Outdoor Art League that Pinther had founded in 1908 was based on the model developed by the Mill Valley Outdoor Art Club that Mrs. White had cofounded. Also, Mrs. Pinther’s relatives lived in Mill Valley and she may have already been an acquaintance of Mrs. White.

While Mrs. Pinther may have supported inclusion of all women regardless of skin color in the fight for the right to vote, her invitation to Mrs. White to join the Glen Park Outdoor Art League for Arbor Day becomes a complicated matter. Whether it was solely in recognition of White's work in conservation and for helping to establish California’s state park system while concurrently overlooking her stance about inclusion may never be known.

To learn more about the fight for the color line in California, see a presentation by Evelyn Rose posted by the San Francisco Public Library on Zoom: Color Line or Color Blind? San Francisco Suffrage and the Battle for Inclusivity.

Mrs. Mamie F. Davis, Suffragist and Evangelist

Mrs. Davis is an exciting recent discovery. According to the Crocker Langley City Directory of 1913, she was a resident of Surrey Street between Diamond and Castro Streets in Glen Park. After achieving the right to vote in California in 1910, women were becoming more involved in the formerly male-dominated domain. National suffrage was still to come, and civic affairs had become a major activity for women in San Francisco.

Mrs. Davis is the first African American woman in San Francisco associated with a woman’s club that we have been able to identify to date. It has been a challenge trying to identify the name of any African American woman’s suffrage organization in San Francisco. The draft of the African American Citywide Historic Context Statement from the San Francisco Planning Department so far makes no mention of activities related to woman’s suffrage in the early 1900s.

In the 1900 Federal census, Davis was a 24-year-old Black woman, born in California in June 1875. Working as a waitress, she was living with her widowed mother, Annie. A native of Louisiana born in 1846 (and likely formerly enslaved), Annie was running a boarding house on Minna Street and working as a seamstress.

In February 1912, hundreds of women gathered at the St. Francis Hotel to register for woman’s club membership. According to the San Francisco Call, "The only club which came en masse to enroll was the Colored Women's Nonpartisan League, formed last week for the study of politics, with Mrs. Kara Fountain as president." Nearly all 25 members attended the St. Francis event.

In October of that year, Mrs. Davis presented the topic of social education to the Colored Women’s Nonpartisan League. She spoke again later that month to the California League for the Protection of Motherhood. That organization was working to establish a motherhood pension system to help support women employed in shops, factories, and offices before and after childbirth. Davis shared how her experience as an evangelist had shown her how a pension system for mothers had done "a great deal of good in the development of children." Then in December 1912, a decade after the battle over the color line of woman’s suffrage (see above), she attended the San Francisco convention of the California Federation of Women’s Clubs as a representative of the Colored Women’s Nonpartisan League.

In March 1913, Davis was 1 of 2 speakers at a meeting of the Juvenile Protective Association. Described in the media as a "negro evangelist," she informed association members that she had established a neighborhood club for boys and girls in the Glen Park district and asked members for support in establishing a reading room. After this announcement, she seems to disappear from public records. Research about Mrs. Davis and the Colored Women’s Nonpartisan League is ongoing.

The Tyrrels of Laidley Street

In 2019, the GPNHP created a house history for the residents of the Poole-Bell mansion where Mary Ellen Pleasant was rumored to have resided (see Mary Ellen Pleasant, above). During that research, it was discovered that by 1918 a Black family, the Tyrrels, owned the residence. While we now know they were not the "first" Black residents of Glen Park as noted in the following link (see Mrs. Mamie Davis above), it is another example of the rediscovery of our local African American history. Read the full story of the Tyrrel Family at Sunnyside History.

Diamond Heights Redevelopment Project

Founded in 1948, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) was initially led by Joseph L. Alioto, who would later be elected mayor. Eugene Riordan had a short term as director and when George Christopher became mayor (1956 to 1964, and for whom Christopher Park in Diamond Heights is named), he selected M. Justin Herman as head of the agency. Herman would serve under a total of 3 mayors. According to a draft of the Diamond Heights Historic Context Statement for the San Francisco Planning Department, “Herman has a polarized legacy; proponents of redevelopment saw him as a champion of well-designed public projects and lauded his ability to get things done, whereas his opponents saw him as the embodiment of the racial and economic injustice suffered during ‘slum removal.’”

Mid-century redevelopment projects across the United States frequently displaced low-income communities and communities of color. It was no different in San Francisco. The SFRA made a determination of what spaces qualified for a designation of “blight,” and blamed those communities for allowing it to happen, rather than recognizing the influence and impact of what we now call systemic racism on those communities.

This is especially true of the first redevelopment project under the SFRA, the Fillmore district, which obliterated a rich, vibrant African American community and displaced large numbers of Black residents during a burgeoning civil rights movement. According to former Mayor Willie Brown, “Black Removal” was not necessarily intentional, but in his opinion the outcome was due more to commercial greed and taking control of a centrally located neighborhood of San Francisco. Yet, the Fillmore had also been previously redlined, a method for alerting bank lenders that because of the ethnicity and class of the residents of those neighborhoods, the areas were undeserving of mortgages and loans. This made the Fillmore an easy target for redevelopment.

As the second SFRA project (again from the draft Diamond Heights Historic Context Statement), “Diamond Heights stands out as an exceptional case. Despite early disputes over eminent domain, the project ultimately received positive critical reception as it accomplished targeted goals of housing production, as well as racial and economic integration. Discussions about integration of schools and the introduction of moderate-priced private housing in Diamond Heights highlight the tensions, changing attitudes, and public concerns of diverse San Francisco stakeholders during the 1960s and 70s.”

Demolition of buildings in the Fillmore began two years before George Christopher became mayor. Years later, Christopher shared his philosophy during an interview: “I recall when I was mayor, I had to combat some forces that were against my trying to give an equal break to the Black community. In those days, it was not too popular to do certain things on behalf of the Black community. And yet, I went to the Board of Supervisors one day personally when I was first elected mayor, and I proposed the first FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission] ordinance in the State of California, and it passed – it was approved… Later on, the State of California approved a similar statute, only because San Francisco had earlier adopted the FEPC ordinance. I appointed Thomas Mitchell, who was formerly Secretary of Labor in the Eisenhower administration, …the chief of our civil rights movement. Now that was not a popular situation with everybody in San Francisco either, but nevertheless I thought it was a humanitarian necessity, so we did it.” In addition, when 2 Black families in Hunters Point were going to be evicted by the housing authority because of a gang fight in 1961, Christopher reversed the decision: “We’re in the business of providing housing for people, not evicting them.”

Read more about the history of Diamond Heights. Also, more from architectural historian Hannah Simonson. And, read more about the Fillmore district, excerpted from a KQED documentary in 2001.


It is the hope of the GPNHP that the information provided thus far will help raise awareness that our local histories have not been solely White European in origin. It also reveals how some histories can be complicated by the philosophies or actions of the people involved. Telling the complete history of our region is long overdue and there is likely much more African American history to be found. As new histories are rediscovered, they will be added to this web page.


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