“The most important thing we can do is to document our history.”
After 2020’s worldwide movement asserting Black Lives Matter, yet another Black History Month has arrived with familiar albeit renewed urgency: If there is to be collective progress, reckoning with racial injustices past and present is absolutely necessary. On the Bay Area’s Peninsula, for example, the all-too-forgotten history of redlining tends to be obscured despite profound implications still visible today.
Local author and historian Jan Batiste Adkins has committed her work to understanding Black history over the last few centuries in Northern California in recent decades. Adkins is currently an adjunct faculty member and lecturer at San Jose City College and has written three books about African-American life in this region, covering San Francisco, Monterey County and, most recently, Santa Clara County. Her research covers not just familiar themes like what happens to Black communities, but rather self-determination and pioneering American history through Black historical figures not commonly mentioned during Black History Month.
Adkins’ blend of never-before-seen photos and untold stories of African-American pioneers will comprise an hour-plus long free event on Zoom that explores the history and legacy of African-Americans in Santa Clara County, from the late 1700’s to present day.
The Six Fifty caught up with Adkins for a preview of her upcoming talk on the realities and contributions of Black people in Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area and the West Coast at large.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What’s the best point of entry to begin discussing African-American history in Santa Clara County?
In the 1770’s with the first families that came to establish the pueblo…
In the pueblo, six lots were worked primarily and maintained by families who were of African and Spanish heritage … The Spaniards were careful in how they classified people. They made sure to count for one’s ethnicity. I had a chance to see the data and that was my entryway into finding people of African heritage [in Santa Clara County].
I found out that Pío Pico [the last governor of Alta California] was of African heritage … Well, in my research about Santa Clara County, I found out that Antonio Maria Pico, who was the cousin of Pío Pico, he was at that time considered the very first judge. He was called the alcade, a municipal magistrate or judge. That was in the 1830’s. That gave me a perspective for how long people of African heritage have been in this valley.
What would you say is one of the least known aspects of African-American history in Santa Clara County?
Primarily the type of work that people did at that time was all agricultural. Farming and raising families and having family homes. I, along with a lot of people, you hear that California is a free state. California didn’t have slaves. I was working on my master’s degree and I remember my thesis professor said to me, “California was a free state, so there were no slaves in California.”
I said, “This is strange because I keep seeing these emancipation papers, these manumission papers.”
What’s a manumission paper? Isn’t that a paper that states freedom? … I had a chance to preview a couple of manumission papers by two slaves that were brought here and the Santa Clara County courthouse freed them. They were able to find their freedom in a court case in Santa Clara County. That was because of the abolitionist movements, and many people did not want slavery established in California — not just Black people, white people, people all over did not want slavery brought here.
As Silicon Valley enjoys a reputation for innovation and futurism today, what do we need to know about Black involvement in constructing that legacy in years past?
Let me just say, it has not been documented, which is what I found deplorable. I’m an educator, and that’s what prompted me to begin writing these books. Our history, not just African history, but history of all people is not documented and recorded. So what we have in our history books, what we teach our children, is someone else’s version of history, of the local history. We’re not teaching our children about the actual groups of people that helped to form the cities and the counties and the state.
The contributions of Black people in this valley and in this state, I really think the first thing we have to do is document our history, document our contributions and make it known. With technology, there are films that are being made, there’s a sense to maintain the record for early Black contributors to technology. There’s an effort to try to document our history and that has to happen.
Many of these companies have Black associations, through these Black associations many of the original founders or employees who made games in their companies, that’s being documented now. That’s the most important thing we can do is to document our history.
Who would you cite as African-American figures that deserve to be better known for their roles in Santa Clara County history?
You have to divide it between technology and pre-technology. I think there are people in technology that have not been recognized. The person that I’ve identified in my book is [computer scientist and inventor] Roy Clay. His story [as a founding member of Hewlett-Packard’s computer division] is fascinating but we don’t have enough information about his story. There are so many that contributed in a big way to their company and that needs to be known.
The one I believe symbolizes the tenacity of the Black man is Sam McDonald. He was 17 years old in the 1890’s when his father decided to travel from Gilroy to Oregon and Washington. When he was halfway on the trip, according to his autobiography, he decided he didn’t want to go to Oregon. It was too cold…he decided to go back to Gilroy.
Instead of stopping in Gilroy, he came to San Jose and from San Jose up to Palo Alto. He did this all by himself. With that intestinal fortitude, he settled in 1903 in Mayfield (South Palo Alto) and he began working at Stanford University in the stock farms. He also served as a deputy constable for the Palo Alto township.
He continued working for Stanford where his pet project was a convalescent home for underprivileged children, where he gardened, he barbecued, he did all kinds of things for that particular home.
Here this guy was poor, he was a farmer’s son, and as a little boy he worked on the farm. Eventually, he acquired 400-plus acres of land. He was a rich guy. He was truly a philanthropist.
He turned the land over to Stanford with the request the land be used as a park. Stanford was then able to sell the land at a very nominal price to San Mateo County, who acquired the land and dedicated it for public use in the 1970’s. The Sam McDonald park exists today.
What role did Stanford play in life for Black Americans in this region?
The role that Stanford played was making the decision to be a place where African-Americans were accepted and were able to attend college, get degrees, then move on to higher levels of employment.
It’s been the employment opportunities and housing opportunities, diversity and education that’s made a difference, I think, for Black Americans.
In the 1960’s, the 1970’s, I think that made all the difference. And here in California, technology then — even though the numbers aren’t what they should be — I think many people that I’ve researched came here after World War II finding jobs in technology, finding employment, able to buy homes, raise their children and send them to schools here in California. Stepping up to diversify the workforce, and education in schools, in terms of higher education as well as diversifying curriculum.
Your book finds the story of Joseph Eichler, a realtor who sold homes to Black people in the 1950’s in Palo Alto. When I think of Black life on the Peninsula, unfortunately the segregation of East Palo Alto comes to mind. How do we go from Eichler’s opening homes then to the housing realities of subsequent decades?
Eichler said it didn’t matter, the question was whether the person can pay the money. There were many Black families that could acquire homes. They could buy homes. Eichler did not discriminate; redlining was not Eichler’s concern.
In terms of the Peninsula, redlining was a big problem in San Jose. We know that from my research about San Jose students trying to find housing. The dormitories were segregated. Many of them had to rent rooms in homes of Black families and many Black families had to invite the students to their home for food and meals because of segregation. Many students had to live on campus in substandard buildings that were not even designated for residential facilities. Housing redlining was a real problem in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Once that was eliminated through the Fair Housing Act, I think that began to open the doors so communities were not as segregated as they had been in the past.
The Bay Area’s reputation as a progressive haven is always championed, but it’s also very protected when challenged. What is important for people to consider when it comes to being allies to Black liberation?
Oh, that’s an excellent question. First of all, I think people cannot be afraid to talk about their understanding and the differences they see and to be open to exchange ideas. I think sometimes people that are so-called allies don’t want to ask the complicated questions. So you have to learn, you have to ask questions so that you can learn and understand how your own point of view might not be consistent with your own liberation attitude or desires.
We’re all biased in one way or another but we have to learn to overcome those biases of ourselves as to why do we feel this way?
In order to become a really good ally and support changes that need to be made, people have to be willing to share and talk about those difficult questions and those difficult issues. It has to be work on both sides.
Black people need to be open to asking questions of non-Black people, and non-Black people, whether Hispanic, Asian, white or whatever, need to ask questions and better understand each other.
I think that the state’s move on providing diversity in terms of curriculum — and ethnic studies in high schools and grade schools, colleges and universities — I think that’s crucial and so essential because the only way we’re going to understand each other is to learn about each other.
Allies need to read our history. We all need to read each other’s history. The history book of the past that was the history book only from the Protestant white perspective, there’s more than that in our communities.
We have all different communities side by side and we need to learn how to understand each other’s history, respect each other’s history, and learn how to support each other. Diversity and learning about our culture’s is a wonderful thing.
The Los Altos History Museum hosts historian Jan Batiste Adkins for “The History of African Americans in Santa Clara County, 1780 — Present” on Wednesday, February 24th at 5pm. Get full details here.
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