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'Since Before the Beginning': The Black Pioneers of the South Bay

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The Horton family of San Jose. For her latest book about African Americans in Santa Clara County, Jan Batiste Adkins talked to families whose presence in the South Bay dates back several generations.
The Horton family of San Jose. For her latest book about African Americans in Santa Clara County, Jan Batiste Adkins talked to families whose presence in the South Bay dates back several generations. (Courtesy of Sourisseau Academy/San Jose State University)

In 1777, five families of mixed Mexican and African heritage arrived in Alta California with the Spanish to help establish El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe.

"They grew the food for the presidios, the military installations in the Bay Area," explains local historian Jan Batiste Adkins, who's written three books on the history of African Americans in the Bay Area. Adkins says those are the first Black families in the South Bay she's found records for.

She notes there have historically been very few African Americans who have lived on the Peninsula and in the South Bay. This explains the relative lack of awareness of their cultural and economic contributions to those areas, particularly compared to those of the much larger Black communities in San Francisco and Oakland. But that's not to say the South Bay's Black communities have not been influential, from "since before the beginning," she says.

Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, but it took the United States until 1865 to officially do so. And although California was admitted to the Union in 1850 as a "free state," the experience of Black residents here was complicated. There was even a slave market in Los Angeles. Some Southerners who came to California after the Gold Rush brought slaves with them, and a number of them subsequently sued to secure their freedom.

James Williams was brought to California as a slave to mine in Sacramento Valley. Once he earned enough money, Williams was able to buy his freedom and moved to Murphy Ranch in Milpitas in 1852. Later he started his own business and operated freight teams between Hollister and San Francisco.
James Williams was brought to California as a slave to mine for gold in the Sacramento Valley. Once he earned enough money, Williams was able to buy his freedom and moved in 1852 to Murphy Ranch in Milpitas. Later he started his own business and operated freight teams between Hollister and San Francisco. (Courtesy of Santa Clara City Library)

"Many of the families that came here came as freed men and women from the East Coast. Many of them [also] came as slaves, and found freedom here in California," Adkins says.

First Draft of Black History

In the mid-19th century, a number of Black newspapers, like the Pacific Appeal, Mirror of the Times and the Elevator, emerged in San Francisco. Today, they remain a treasure trove of tidbits of early Black history in the region.

Consider this plea for subscriptions in the very first issue of the Pacific Appeal, in April 1862:

Reader! Our first number is before you. Will you sustain us in our infant enterprise? We have engaged in an undertaking which requires pecuniary outlay, energy, perseverance and ability. We have "Set our boat before the blast, Our breast before the gun," and while there is a breeze to swell our canvas we will continue our voyage; — while we have a hand to wield a weapon (the pen,) we will battle against oppression and injustice. Will you support us?

"I just fell in love with reading about the history of African Americans," Adkins said. "Those newspapers were published in San Francisco, and those newspapers carried the stories of local pioneers, not only in San Francisco, but in the entire Bay Area."

African Americans in the South Bay built homes, churches and schools. They were abolitionists before the Civil War, and sued for civil rights afterward. But the community was tiny, less than 100 people through much of the 19th century, according to Adkins.

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That changed with the Great Migration beginning in the early 20th century, as African Americans from southern and midwestern states seeking new economic opportunities were drawn to cities like San Jose, Palo Alto and Milpitas.

After World War II, some African Americans who had first arrived elsewhere in the Bay Area for military manufacturing jobs, later moved to the South Bay and the Peninsula for other industrial work, especially at Ford Motor Company in Milpitas. A number of large technology companies, like IBM, were also hiring, as were local governments and universities.

But newly arrived African Americans quickly discovered they were shut out from living in most South Bay neighborhoods due to "redlining" and other discriminatory local housing policies.

There were some exceptions, however, although few and far between. Adkins says some companies, like IBM, built worker housing where Black employees and their families could stay. And legendary Bay Area real estate developer Joseph Eichler famously did not discriminate.

The Jordan family poses for a photo in 1948. John Jordan settled in North San Jose in 1909, and was a leader in of the city's Antioch Baptist Church, itself established in 1893.
The Jordan family poses for a photo in 1948. John Jordan settled in North San Jose in 1909 and was a leader in the city's Antioch Baptist Church, which was established in 1893. (Courtesy of Robert Ellington)

In 1967, Harry Edwards, a young San Jose State University faculty member and former student athlete, organized a demonstration on the first day of fall semester to protest the lack of student housing available to Black football players.

Former KQED host Belva Davis, then with KPIX, reported, "Protesting groups have given the administration until 11 a.m. Friday to do something about the situation, or else they say they’ll stop the coming weekend football game."

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The president of the university ultimately canceled that game, and campus activism for racial equality continued to grow throughout the late 1960s. Most famously, San Jose State sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their clenched fists in a Black Power salute while receiving their medals during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City — a protest against racial discrimination back home.

Today, though, the explosive growth of Silicon Valley and the concurrent explosion in real estate prices have driven many Black residents out of the South Bay. Roughly 55,000 African Americans now live in Santa Clara County, less than 3% of the total population, according to U.S. census figures.

Adkins says her research into the local history of African Americans has convinced her there are many more fascinating stories hidden in the state’s archives and family attics that must be discovered and told.

"My feeling," she says, "is if we do not write our history, if we do not document our history, who will?"

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