Local Historian’s Bay Cruise Reveals San Francisco’s Hidden Black History
John Templeton’s been leading land tours of SF’s black history for years. Now, he’s launched a Bay tour, to share those hidden stories from the water. He hopes to defy stereotypes and give black youth, in particular, a sense of pride and belonging.
This is part of an ongoing series “Learning While Black: The Fight For Equity In San Francisco Schools.”
John William Templeton is widely known as the authority on San Francisco black history. His passion is unearthing and preserving the stories of African Americans who helped shape our city and state. He’s been leading walking tours and bus tours for many years. Now, there’s a boat tour.
On a gorgeous windy Saturday, Templeton waits in front of the Red and White Fleet’s vintage ticket booth at Fisherman’s Wharf to board the vessel. He’s partnered with the family-owned company on this latest project. Soon, his black history tour will be available in audio format on the fleet’s transmitters. Tourists and residents boarding for the hour-long Golden Gate Bay Cruise will then have the choice to hear the standard tour in 16 languages — or Templeton’s enthusiastic telling of African American ship captains, artists and more.
For today, he’s relying on his voicebox.
“One of the things we point out is where Alex Haley lived,” Templeton says, gesturing toward North Beach. “He wrote Roots here, and he got on a freighter here and sailed it across the Pacific so he could simulate what it was like. Langston Hughes, when he came here in ‘33, took a ship from China.”
This helps answer one big question: Why do an African American history tour from the water? Before commercial air travel took off, most long-distance travelers came in and out of San Francisco by ship. Long before Langston Hughes, the literary icon known as leader of the Harlem Renaissance, docked here.
Templeton is a young-looking 65, a tall man with a big contagious laugh. He was a journalist when he fell into the role of historian, activist and publisher about three decades ago. After he’d learned that many of the early founders of Los Angeles had African roots.
Aboard the ferry he meets his special guest for today, Debra Watkins. Watkins is the founder and executive director of the California Alliance of African American Educators — recently renamed A Black Education Network when it went national.
She’s come up from San Jose to check out the tour so she can recommend it to other educators. Watkins founded a Silicon Valley STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math) program for African American students nearly two decades ago, and says she may possibly bring up some of those young people, too.
Templeton has spent decades poring over early census records, troves of black newspapers and documents from fraternal organizations. He’s written many books and curates the California African American Freedom Trail, a collection of 6,000 historical sites — 400 of them right here in San Francisco. We launch, and his facts tumble out, many of them surprising even to someone as schooled as Debra Watkins.
“So these are ships that go back to the 19th century,” he says as the tour heads toward Maritime National Park. “One of the major things that happened in the late 19th century was the salmon trade to Alaska. What we found is that a third of the sailors were black.”
When we pass the U.S.S. Pampanito, the World War II submarine, Templeton relays a personal story. His father, it turns out, was stationed on an identical sub, out of nearby Mare Island. He was a messman. That’s how he managed to get on board.
“The only blacks who could serve on submarines were the cooks,” he said. So, my father, 18 years old, one of the first blacks to go in the Navy.
Though his father never talked about it, Templeton learned while touring the Pampanito that the only person on the subs that got to take a shower every day was the cook.
“So it’s kind of ironic,” he says to a nodding Watkins, who’s already gripped by Templeton’s storytelling.
About a mile to the West, the Maritime Museum comes into view. Inside are the frescoes of Sargent Johnson, another Harlem Renaissance leader. Johnson came to San Francisco in 1915 for the Panama Pacific International Exposition and quickly rose to prominence in the art world, despite his African heritage, which he would later come to openly celebrate.
“Another hidden figure,” Watkins exclaims.
But it’s the 19th-century ship captains with African roots that seem to delight Templeton the most though. People like William Alexander Leidesdorff, who was born in the Virgin Islands to a white father and black mother. He passed for white — even became a cotton broker in New Orleans before he turned to the sea. Then, Templeton informs,”in 1841 he set up the first shipping warehouse and built the first shipyard. He built the first hotel in San Francisco, first general store.”
As a school board member he was also behind the construction of the city’s first school. Templeton fills Watkins in on other captains. There’s Michael Healy, born into slavery in Georgia, who rose to rank of captain with the United States Revenue Cutter Service (which predated the United States Coast Guard).
“He was essentially the military governor of Alaska,” says Templeton. And yes, he, too, had African roots. Captain William Shorey was yet another, commanding the last whaling ship on the Pacific. A friend to Booker T. Washington, he and other members of the “black affluent class of San Francisco,” contributed to the creation and growth of historically black colleges and universities in the South and East. They also helped bankroll the underground railroad, and the campaign for passage of the 15th amendment, which guaranteed black men the right to vote.
All of this, Templeton says, is lost on people who accept a common narrative, that San Francisco’s African American roots only date back to the families who came during World War II to work in the shipyard, “because the black community here,” he exclaims with delight, was in the middle of everything.”
Even on Alcatraz. As we pass the island prison, Templeton reveals a campaign by black prisoners segregated in their own cell block to press for integration. It happened during the Civil Rights era, as they got word of growing protests in the American South.
Watkins is an expert in her own right. Or she thought she was. She loves Langston Hughes, she tells Templeton, but had no idea he’d spent time in San Francisco. As for writer Maya Angelou, Watkins learns that she dropped out of San Francisco’s Washington High, and during World War II wound up studying drama and dance at the city’s communist-founded California Labor School, a college for adults.
The fun facts are flying. Otis Redding, as it happens, wrote “(Sittin’On) the Dock of the Bay” in Sausalito. But Templeton, who also publishes curriculum for schools, tells Watkins his greatest hope is that his many projects highlighting these histories will shift the mindset of the younger black generation.
We grew up in a time where we were kind of sheltered by a supportive black community,” he says, as Watkins murmurs in agreement. Kids today, he says, see themselves in many media representations in such negative light, “they don’t think they belong at all. So these are the kinds of interventions that you have to do to just kind of shock them back into the belonging that they should have.”
The hour flies by. Templeton and Watkins disembark and say their goodbyes in front of the Red and White Fleet’s map display. “See the Bay in a Whole New Way,” is the company slogan. And Templeton’s tour puts a point on it.
“You can’t tell the lie of black inferiority after you’ve been on this tour,” Templeton says, and Watkins responds: “That’s right, that’s right. I’m stuck on Captain Healy. Just one guy. I mean, I’m just stuck on Captain Healy.”
The audio tour that will soon be available, Templeton says, was produced by some talented local black teens from Project Level, a nonprofit arts program. And once tour-goers can put on their headsets to hear Templeton’s voice, he won’t have to show up in person anymore.
“Artificial intelligence,” he laughs. “I guess I’ll be replacing myself.”