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Indybay FeatureRelated Categories: San Francisco | Education & Student Activism
Port of San Francisco ~ America's Cup 2013 ~ Legacy of African Ancestry
An exhibit, last century, of "Our Roots Run Deep" at the California State Capitol, first brought attention to significant contributions by people of African ancestry. Today's America's Cup maritime competition, once known as the 100 Guinea Cup, is an opportunity to examine the broader African contributions to international maritime trade and commerce. This 150th Anniversary of the Port of San Francisco may allow a renewed opportunity to explore the salient contributions of people of African ancestry to he broader California landscape and the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, enslavement of people of African ancestry, includes a unique chapter during the California Gold Rush era. derstanding today's challenges
Port should honor Leidesdorff
JOHN WILLIAM TEMPLETON
SF Chronicle ~ Thursday, September 4, 1997
SAN FRANCISCO -- THE PLAN to spend $500,000 for a sculpture of a giant foot is an example of idle money being wasted.
In contrast, the city arts and port commissions have ignored requests for several years to create a monument to the African American originator of the port of San Francisco, the school district and the hospitality industry - William Alexander Leidesdorff.
Who was he?
One can attend San Francisco public schools for 12 years without discovering the answer to that question, although April 1998 will be the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the first public school in California, built by Leidesdorff as chairman of the San Francisco school committee and school construction committee.
The port of San Francisco could be dated to the day in 1838 when Leidesdorff first set foot in what was known as Yerba Buena as captain of the Julia Ann.
His voyage is more exciting than most television mini-series, with more twists and turns than a mystery novel.
Leidesdorff was born to a Dane and a Creole in the Virgin Islands in 1812. Legally recognized by his Danish father, Leidesdorff came under the wing of a British planter who taught him business skills. The planter sent him to New Orleans to work with a cotton broker with business ties to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).
Although neither the planter nor the broker was a blood relation, both died in the late 1830s and left their fortunes to Leidesdorff.
Leidesdorff's future as a wealthy Louisiana merchant seemed settled as he became became engaged to be married. His mentors had told him to never mention his race, but he felt compelled to confide in his white bride-to-be.
She called off the wedding, saying her father would never accept it.
Leidesdorff bought his ship and prepared to sail away his dismay. The evening before he set off, a funeral cortege passed with his fiance's family in the lead coach. When he asked, Leidesdorff was told the young woman had died of a broken heart.
For three years, Leidesdorff sailed back and forth between the Sandwich Islands and Yerba Buena, carrying sugar from Hawaii and hides from California.
By then, he captained the J.D. Jones. When the ship was sold, Leidesdorff opted to settle in Yerba Buena in 1841, building the first shipping warehouse at the site of the current Leidesdorff and California streets, the first hotel and general store at Kearny and Clay streets, the first lumberyard and shipyard, and, later, the first public school.
He sailed the first steamship into San Francisco Bay.
Fluent in six languages, Leidesdorff became a Mexican citizen to receive a land grant from the provincial governor, Michel Micheltorena. That grant is now known as the city of Folsom. Leidesdorff then acquired 47 lots in what is now San Francisco's Financial District.
Those acquisitions placed him on the other side of an internal revolution from Pio and Andres Pico, the largest ranchers in Southern California, who overthrew Micheltorena with the help of a mercenary, black trapper James Beckwourth.
Leidesdorff then began to advocate an American takeover of California, becoming the U.S. vice consul. In that role, he not only relayed the word of the Bear Flag Rebellion, but borrowed against his property to pay for supplies for American sailors and soldiers during the Mexican War. He later served on the first municipal council under U.S. rule. He died in 1848, only 38, just before the Gold Rush.
Once the war was over, Leidesdorff translated and posted the proclamation declaring California part of the United States. The welcoming reception for Commodore Stockton and his troops was held at Leidesdorff's home at the corner of California and Montgomery streets.
As evidenced by the naming of the first street laid out on landfill after Leidesdorff, no one placed a larger footprint on the origins of San Francisco than William Alexander Leidesdorff.
Honoring him also would pay tribute to the thousands of African Americans who sweated and sometimes died to make the port a commercial and military asset for the entire nation in the 20th century.
The funds for art at the port should be used to create a fitting monument.
John William Templeton is editor of the four-part anthologies "Our Roots Run Deep: the Black Experience in California."