By Callie Lawson-Freeman | OBSERVER Correspondent
The city of Sacramento has a rich Black history and needs your help to preserve it.
Sacramento’s historic preservation program was recently awarded $50,000 to preserve Black history. The grant was funded through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.
“We’re always excited to support projects in the western part of the country, as we’re letting people know about the many contributions of African Americans, beyond what has been told as part of the narrative of the country,” Tiffany Tolbert, associate director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, told The OBSERVER.
With the grant, the program has begun the groundwork to develop what Associate Preservation Planner Sean De Courcy called a historic context.
“We will use the historic context to identify important groups, places, and people associated with the African American experience in Sacramento, dating even before the city’s early history founding up to the recent past, which is roughly 1980 or so,” De Courcy said.
The final product will be a large report that could potentially be bound and used as a coffee table book with photos and markers of important historical locations.
To create this, historic preservation will work with Sacramento State’s history department, where an assignment to interview older Black Sacramentans will be incorporated into undergraduate and graduate syllabi.
As an oral history is developed from those assignments, the preservation team also will host workshops to identify more members of the community and garner more publicity for the project.
Confirmed partners of the project include the California Black Chamber of Commerce, Sacramento Modern, Preservation Sacramento, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and the Oak Park Neighborhood Association.
De Courcy says that an important aspect of the project will be capturing the themes of the African American experience in Sacramento. This will include police brutality, a timely issue with major local historical significance.
In 1969, a group of young Blacks erected a sign in James McClatchy Park, renaming it Brotherhood Park. The incident provoked a fight and after police were called, more than 40 people were arrested. More than 100 shots were fired with no fatalities, but later the police ransacked the Black Panthers’ Sacramento headquarters at 2941 35th St.
The preservation program has experience successfully nominating historic locations for physical preservation. Famed Black lawyer Nathaniel Colley’s former office, for example, is now recognized as a formal Sacramento landmark after its nomination in October.
That was a win for the city as many local history advocates feel that Colley should receive much more recognition. “His cases contributed to the integration of housing across America, and some people in Sacramento don’t even know about him,” former Councilmember Allen Warren told The OBSERVER.
Warren said there should be more funding for such an important effort. “It’s terrible the amount of resources dedicated to something so substantial,” he said.
In August 2020, Warren called for the city to create its first African American museum. Since then, he has shifted his efforts to working with the Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum, currently located inside of the Florin Square Business Arts Complex.
Warren says he wants to see the museum grow to “something that is effectively an attraction for this city, similarly to what we see in places like Alabama, D.C. and New York.”
“I don’t think ours would rival those, but could be just as impactful,” he said.
Preeminent Black historian Clarence Caesar used his extensive research to compile some key points for the California Department of Education, some of which provide a glimpse into the kind of stories that might be featured in the city’s final report. For example:
- In 1849, a small group of Black miners established one of the earliest mining claims in Sacramento County at Negro Bar, a historic location that made headlines this summer as meetings were held concerning a potential renaming.
- In 1850, a small Black congregation established the Colored African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Sacramento. Later renamed St. Andrews AME Church, this congregation is the first Black church established on the Pacific Coast and still operates today.
- In 1857, a fugitive slave named Archy Lee was brought to trial in what has been called California’s most celebrated fugitive slave case. California’s courts later freed him when it was shown that his master illegally hired him out to others in California for more than a year. Lee returned to Sacramento to live out the rest of his life.
Naturally, local Black history advocates are disappointed in the lack of visible markers to represent stories like these in Sacramento. “When you look around, there’s really nothing to show for our rich culture and the contribution we’ve made for the advancement of this city,” Warren said.
No monuments, plaques, or museums will come directly from this project. “Fifty thousand dollars is not very much money,” De Courcy said. “We had actually originally asked for $78,000. So we have to make up the difference.”
This project will, however, lay the foundation for individual plaques and monuments to be erected in recognition of Sacramento’s substantial Black history.
“The oral histories will be archived digitally and reserved as a technical document that will be stored in libraries, museums, and churches,” De Courcy said. “They’re not as interesting, but they can be used to nominate buildings and statues.”
De Courcy said that the lack of Black historic preservation in Sacramento is due in part to a systemic issue within historic preservation as a profession — a field that developed out of the early environmental movement as the civil rights movement was just gaining traction.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” he said. “This is one piece to try to make up for 50 years of kind of ignoring a whole segment of Sacramentans that have an important story to tell.”
If you or anyone you know are interested in participating as an oral history participant, contact De Courcy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 916-808-2796.
Good candidates are over age 65, have lived in Sacramento most of their lives, and are willing to have up to six meetings with a Sacramento State student.