SF remembers African American exodus

April 23, 2008 12:11:51 AM PDT
This week San Francisco is marking the anniversary of an event most people have never heard of. It was a time when more than half of the city's black population packed-up, picked-up and left town.

It's a little known chapter of San Francisco history that was commemorated at a ceremony with speeches, songs, a drill team and proclamations noting what few outside this crowd might know.

There was a black exodus from the city 150 years ago.

"What's to understand is that this was a protest and it was seen as a protest by the newspapers of the time," said San Francisco historian John Templeton.

Historian John Templeton says many blacks in San Francisco during the 1850'S were entrepreneurs or merchants.

Whatever their status, they were impacted by racism including attempts by the legislature to keep more blacks from coming to California.

After several meetings, more than half the community decided to leave America altogether.

"They left San Francisco for the same reason they came. They were looking for freedom, when they didn't get it they left and they went somewhere else," said Templeton.

We're told it was on a paddleboat that black people made their departure; 800 out of the 1500 who lived in San Francisco at that time.

They left for Victoria, British Columbia. Ninety-year-old Harold Alexander was born in Canada. His relatives were among those who made the journey.

"We were received there, not quite as much discrimination. Canada was under England's government so their laws were quite different," said descendant Harold Alexander.

There are books that profiles that time, which some say has parallels to the San Francisco of today.

"You do have blacks leaving the city for similar reasons in large part because they don't feel comfortable in the city, they don't feel invited, don't feel welcome," said Al Williams from the African American Historical and Cultural Society.

In 1970, 13 percent of San Francisco's population was African American. Now according to the U.S. Census it's down to seven percent.


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