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Historian’s talk, book highlight local region’s Black pioneers

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Jan Batiste Adkins

Capitalized, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is a political statement. Lower case, “Black lives matter” is a passion, especially to local historian, lecturer and author Jan Batiste Adkins.

Adkins discussed her research in a webinar titled “The History of African Americans in Santa Clara County, 1780 to Present,” hosted by the Los Altos History Museum Feb. 24.

The virtual event coincided with Black History Month. According to the history museum’s collections strategist Dianne Shen, the webinar “supports a new initiative to document the history of race, immigration and civil rights of the local region.” Santa Clara County is one of the most multicultural and multiracial regions in the U.S.

Adkins’ book “African Americans of San Jose and Santa Clara County” is the latest in the Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing Co. It’s a follow-up to her “African Americans of San Francisco” and “African Americans of Monterey County.”

The series took Adkins 15 years of research. Shen said the collection of pictorial and oral history “is archival research that is the ultimate labor of love to make sure these records exist.”
The stories, Shen added, are “left out of history books, buried in archives and, worst, forgotten,” and it remains a “responsibility to bring to light issues of institutionalized racism to document struggles toward peace and equality, especially in a marginalized population.”

Adkins earned master’s degrees in education and comparative literature from San Jose State University and has been a faculty member at Independence High School and San Jose City College.

She combed through family albums, library archives and the records of historical societies for the six-chapter, 180-photo “African Americans of San Jose and Santa Clara County.” She traced the first five mulatto families that came to the county and settled in the first town in 1777, east of the Guadalupe River near the Santa Clara Mission.

Adkins discussed the time of the California Free State, when some Southern plantation owners brought their slaves with them to help with agricultural chores or to mine for gold. Slaves could be kept in California temporarily for “three to four years,” she estimated. Some slaves ran away, but many worked in the day for their owners and at night for themselves to purchase their freedom. Adkins said the cost of freedom for them was “about $1,000.”

Enduring contributions

Adkins recounted the tale of Peter Williams Cassey, a Philadelphia native who relocated to San Francisco. Ordained as a minister in 1866, Cassey founded St. Philip’s Mission School and the Phoenixonian Institute in San Jose. He worked to overcome discrimination against African Americans, according to Adkins, and even Native Americans and Asians – “mostly Chinese,” she said – attended the schools.

There’s still a St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on Hyland Avenue in San Jose, and its ministries include an American Indian health center, Vietnamese community services, a Hawaiian community partnership and the Holy Child Filipino American Mission.

Adkins noted that Black people were able to vote in California in the late 1800s, but they had to go to the polls in numbers to overcome intimidation. There also was a law that prohibited Black people from testifying against white people.

Other Black pioneers from the area Adkins highlighted included Jacob Overton, who fought against discrimination and for voting rights; sculptor Edmonia Lewis, whose work from the 1870s is still on display at the San Jose Library; Gilroy native Ivie Anderson, a jazz singer who joined the Duke Ellington Band in the 1930s and performed around the world; and Sam McDonald, who worked at Stanford University beginning in 1903 and donated 400 acres of land to the university upon his death in 1957.

In more recent times, Adkins noted the contributions of Harry Edwards, a San Jose State student-athlete in four sports and founder of the Olympic Project for Human Rights that called for a boycott of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico; retired judge LaDoris Cordell, the first Black woman judge in Northern California; Teresa Deloach-Reed, the first Black woman fire chief in Oakland; former San Francisco 49ers running back Wilbur Jackson; Ken Coleman, one of the first Black executives at Hewlett-Packard; and 1988 Olympic bronze medalist figure skater Debi Thomas.

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