It’s San Francisco through a lens you’ve probably never seen—the city where poet Maya Angelou became a trusted advisor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; where California’s first African-American millionaire, William Leidesdorff, made his mark in the ‘30s and ‘40s; and where famed Western painter Maynard Dixon, working with his contemporary Frank Van Sloun, created a mural depicting 16th-century black folklore heroine Queen Calafia.
These are a few of the historic highlights on the California African-American Freedom Trail, a collection of 6,000 fascinating black-themed sites throughout the state. In spring, brand-new trail markers will begin popping up in San Francisco, home to a total of 400 Freedom Trail sites.
"San Francisco history puts the context of liberation into the accounts of the black experience in the Americas because it has been where the movements were launched to end racial discrimination in all its iterations," says California African-American Freedom Trail co-creator John William Templeton. "Their agency will give renewed hope to those who continue to fight against injustice."
If you’re interested in touring the entire California African-American Freedom Trail, San Francisco is indeed a good place to start. The statewide trailhead is located at the city’s Pier 27, just across from the James R. Herman Cruise Ship Terminal. The SF Soul Shuttle tour, run by Templeton, kicks things off there by talking about the life of Michael Healy, a career captain of African-American descent with the United States Revenue Cutter Service, which later became the United States Coast Guard. (To explore on your own, check out SF Travel’s map and list of sites or pick up a brochure in person from the Visitor Information Center in the Moscone Center at 749 Howard Street.)
At Laguna and Post Streets, see the location of celebrated poet and author Maya Angelou’s childhood home, now occupied by the Kabuki Hotel. Learn what San Francisco saga she recounted in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and visit the long-gone site of the record store where a teenaged Angelou worked.
The store isn’t far from where once stood the mansion owned by the so-called “mother of civil rights in California,” Mary Ellen Pleasant, a 19th-century African-American multimillionaire and West Coast sponsor of the Underground Railroad. Today, Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park sits in place of her former home.
A street named in Pleasant’s honor still exists in Nob Hill near the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel, which houses the historic Maynard Dixon paintings of Queen Calafia in the Room of the Dons. While in the neighborhood, learn the hotel namesake’s connection to three other businessmen, who together were nicknamed the “big four,” and discover how they may have helped further the abolitionist movement in the West.