Joanna Haigood’s ‘Sailing Away’: Black exodus from San Francisco 1858 and 2012

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Review by Wanda Sabir

I arrived at Powell Street and Market a bit late Friday afternoon, so I had to race ahead to catch up with the performers as they made their way down to the pier where they would board the steamship “Commodore” headed for Victoria, British Columbia.

Sometimes one gets tired of living in a place that doesn’t want you there, Zaccho Artistic Director, Joanna Haigood, states at the reception Thursday at the California Historical Society. The only problem is 154 years later, Black people are still unwelcome in San Francisco, which is what “Sailing Away” addresses so eloquently without words.

Why do we have to keep starting over, asks the choreographer and creative mind behind this site specific dance theatre piece, which concluded Sunday.

Sometimes one gets tired of living in a place that doesn’t want you there, Zaccho Artistic Director, Joanna Haigood, states at the reception Thursday at the California Historical Society. The only problem is 154 years later, Black people are still unwelcome in San Francisco, which is what “Sailing Away” addresses so eloquently without words.

“Sailing Away” is based on the story of eight of the 800 African Americans who left San Francisco April 20, 1858. Stripped of their civil rights, the final straw was the ruling that would not let Black people testify in court.

Representing prominent citizens of the time who lived and worked on or about Market Street, the nine actors dressed in stunning costumes walk us from Powell to Battery Streets along Market, stopping to highlight historic monuments along the way like the Daughters of the Revolution, the Old Saloon and the plaque which marks the San Francisco shoreline at the time the first gold was discovered in California. It also marked the place where the pier was; however, landfill has moved the piers far away. As we stood there, it was interesting to think how over 100 years ago, we’d have been standing in water.

Joanna Haigood’s attention to history, historic accuracy and its details, made this the point of departure. As we stood on shore surrounding the sunken urban plaza, the actors seated on benches swayed with the churning tide which grew more turbulent as the journey continued until dancers spun out onto the ship deck.

“Sailing Away” is based on the story of eight of the 800 African Americans who left San Francisco April 20, 1858. Stripped of their civil rights, the final straw was the ruling that would not let Black people testify in court.

The choreography was really great here. My granddaughter said she didn’t know where to look. One couldn’t catch it all.

I saw so many people at the closing performance Sunday – like Anthony Brown, Rhodessa Jones, Derethia DuVal, Pippa and many other familiar faces. I was happy to see that Raissa Simpson was better and back. I’d missed her two days earlier.

I loved Raissa’s “Sara Lester” solo with her father, “Peter Lester,” portrayed by Travis Santell Rowland. Sara Lester’s story is a sad one. She is 15 years old and a student at the only San Francisco public high school. An excellent student, her character is maligned by the San Francisco Herald, a newspaper that often promoted pro-slavery views. In a letter by a reader, Sara’s school is told to expel her because she is Black.

Sara says of herself that “ordinarily modesty would prevent me from disclosing that I was the second highest achiever academically and first in art and music at the school.” Her classmates defended her and encouraged her to stay, threatening to boycott classes if she was removed, but the negative energy surrounding the public debate made attendance unbearable for Sara and her parents removed her from the school and decided to move to Canada.

The father and daughter share a wonderful dance, both of them unhappy about the turn of events forcing them to leave. One of the many migrating business men, Peter Lester owns the shoe salon on Clay with Mr. Gibbs.

Robert Henry Johnson as Grafton Tyler Brown, the painter, is so classy as he stops on his way to the dock to paint landscapes along the way. Some of the pieces seemed to anticipate the exodus party and their time at sea.

Just two days earlier, as we made our way down the block, I heard a narrative on a radio/tape recorder giving the history of the time 1858 and place San Francisco. This time the radio was not cued to 1858 (smile).

I loved Byb Chanel Bibene’s George Washington Dennis’ industry. He pushes a cart with all the travelers’ trunks from Powell all the way to the pier. It was a good thing Mr. Gibbs watched out for pedestrians, as I could have been run over looking at the performance and not where I was going (smile). Several times drivers told us to get out of the street.

Young George purchases his freedom from the tips he receives working as a hotel porter. He then saves enough for his mother’s purchase. His mother then operates a cooking concession at the El Dorado Hotel. George eventually opens the Custom House Livery Stable, located on Sansome and Washington Streets. After the Civil War ends, he opens San Francisco’s first fuel yard, the Cosmopolitan Coal & Wood Yard, located at Broadway near Montgomery. He buys a property with Mifflin Gibbs, which he later sells at a huge profit.

His son becomes the first Black police officer in San Francisco and his daughter is the first Black girl to graduate from San Francisco High School. I wonder how she does it and why Sara Lester could not? George’s girl graduates with honors and skills like language fluency in Spanish and Chinese, her father states proudly. He writes that some of his descendants live in this area still.

Antoine Hunter as Mifflin Gibbs, San Francisco pioneer and businessman, one of the founders in 1851 of the Mirror of the Times, California’s first Black newspaper, states that his journeys are recounted in his memoir, “Shadow and Light: An Autobiography.” Dressed in a top hat and long coat, regal posture matched by that of Ms. Mary Ellen Pleasant, portrayed by Amara Tabor-Smith, the two act almost as escorts and hold a space between them for the loss to fall.

Stern, Madam Pleasant never smiles; she looks perhaps how the San Franciscans felt who were leaving behind the known for the unknown. As she twirls down the street, wheel or helm carried above her head, black skirt billowing out, not a hair out of place, Mary Ellen Pleasant represents our collective consciousness to this travesty of justice. Black people built and were building this nation at the time of this migration. Slavery was not over, yet these freemen and women of color could not enjoy the fruits of their labor.

There was nothing to smile about. Copies of Mirror of the Times: Historic New Millennium Edition lined San Francisco’s Market Street announcing the news to passersby about the event – that hundreds of Black people were leaving town. On the final day at Powell Street, merchants and street peddlers were answering questions about the work (smile).

Mary Ellen Pleasant represents our collective consciousness to this travesty of justice. Black people built and were building this nation at the time of this migration. Slavery was not over, yet these freemen and women of color could not enjoy the fruits of their labor.

“Newsy” was played by Shakiri. Her movement shouted “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” as she moved between the audience on the street – some aware and others impervious to what was going on. People came out of their offices and stores and got off buses to find out what was going on. Who are these elegant, silent people dancing down Market Street?

I gave my newspaper to one of these persons. Actually, each day I shared what I knew as I pointed to the newsstands for information (smile).

It was that kind of party. Those that knew schooled those who didn’t know. Robert Henry Johnson said in retrospect that the characters were ghosts; this is why they didn’t talk – they were not really there. But if this is true, then explain Jetta Martin’s character, who is definitely a part of the here and now.

Jetta Martin’s “Woman on the Move” connects the historic story to the present. Pregnant and without a partner, she says: “I am having a baby boy soon and I am moving out of Bayview Hunters Point. It’s the only home I’ve ever known. One third of all toxins are dumped in Bayview,” she says. She is moving because of the social and environmental toxins.

Robert Henry Johnson said in retrospect that the characters were ghosts; this is why they didn’t talk – they were not really there. But if this is true, then explain Jetta Martin’s character, who is definitely a part of the here and now.

These toxins are both external and internal. Toxic societies or social constructs are active when we look at the violence in Black neighborhoods. In “Black Youth Rising,” Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D., states that “gangs and crime exist because young people don’t see a way out. They don’t see the possibility of having a good job and a decent life. There’s a sense of hopelessness that causes people to join gangs and to kill each other.” We see this reality on the faces of our ancestors 150 years ago as they left, as they sailed away.

“Woman on the Move” and Matthew Wickett’s “Archy Lee” climb the Mechanics Monument and look out over the city into its infinite possibilities. Archy sees his in Canada once he is finally free. “Woman on the Move” sees hers and her baby’s in places like Antioch, Bay Point, Pittsburg, Suisun, Vacaville.

Archy Lee was brought to California as a slave where he met free Blacks who tell him about his rights. Archy runs away to Sacramento to keep his owner from taking him back to Mississippi, as California was a free state and slave owners who wanted to keep their property had to keep moving. Archy hides in Sacramento in a hotel owned by a Black man, but his owner finds him and has him arrested as a fugitive. It takes several trials before he is finally awarded his freedom. Supreme Court justices in Sacramento free him. There is of course a party for him at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, where some of the folks who helped him beat the rap tell him about Canada and offer to purchase a ticket for him.

Archy sees this as an opportunity to be free from threats of re-enslavement and he too sails away that year, 1858. Archy is so anxious to leave, he carries the ship anchor down Market Street. Perhaps he is anxious to put down roots? Madam Pleasant is at the helm and Archy has the anchor. They are a great pair – youth with maturity.

When Archy is released from custody, Madam Pleasant lets him stay with her at her mansion so that his former owner would not try to kidnap him. Rudolph Lapp speaks of this in his book “Archy Lee: A California Fugitive Slave Case.”

On April 20, 1858, 800 Black people sailed away from California, sailed away from careers and financially secure lives for freedom elsewhere, democracy elsewhere, opportunity elsewhere. Whenever one hears popular discourse which promotes the idea that Black people are lazy, no ‘count and have no values, think about these men, women and children who tried the judicial system and it failed them, tried to participate in a just society where the rule of law protected everyone yet it failed them (http://www.nps.gov/safr/parknews/nationalparkweek2008.htm).

On April 20, 1858, 800 Black people sailed away from California, sailed away from careers and financially secure lives for freedom elsewhere, democracy elsewhere, opportunity elsewhere.

Look at the men, women and children who were not dependent on society for their welfare. Rather they shared their economic and intellectual wealth with others, yet this was not enough to grant them citizenship in this great state.

Black exclusion then and now

April 1858 marks a great loss to the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Black children need to know this history. This history and the monuments throughout the downtown area which are significant to Black people as well as others and these stories are necessary, especially now when American history is once again doing its cyclical number, using redistricting to suppress the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 in many states: Alaska, Texas, Georgia, yes, even California. These recent proposals, whether ratified as they were in California or denied so far in Alaska, Texas and Georgia, disenfranchise entire populations as other federal and state laws limit our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and freedom to assemble on the first anniversary of the Occupy Movement Sept. 17, 2012.

In 10 states, many of them swing states, voter ID laws have been passed which will further suppress and keep people from voting Nov. 4.

“The Brennan Center for Justice calls it ‘the first rollback in voting rights since the Jim Crow era,’” reports BillMoyers.com. “The charge: that new state voter ID requirements, voter list purges, voter registration restrictions and other laws and rules are taking the right to vote away from citizens completely entitled to it. These restrictive measures are conceived in the name of fighting voter fraud, which has been shown to be so rare and statistically insignificant that some states pushing for these laws have given up trying to prove it. The net effect – whether by intention or not – is voter suppression, particularly in the case of minorities, the elderly, the young and the poor. This page is dedicated to putting research above rhetoric, disinfecting political tactics with truth, and fighting for one of the most fundamental rights we hold as Americans.”

In California for first time, voters who did not provide identification with their applications will need to show ID at the polls. The postmark for registration is Oct. 22, which ironically is the day the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded 46 years ago. It is also the birthday of co-founder Bobbie Seale.

“The net effect – whether by intention or not – is voter suppression, particularly in the case of minorities, the elderly, the young and the poor.”

I wonder what thoughts these silent ancestors held behind their composed faces as they “sailed away” or waved bon voyage? Were they angry that they had to leave all they’d developed? Once in Victoria, did they face similar challenges? What happened to those Black people who could not leave? When did the discriminatory laws change? Besides Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was left to hold California accountable for Black civil rights?

How do they feel about the apathy surrounding participation in civic life when one looks at today’s youth?

Madam Mary Ellen Pleasant, born enslaved in 1812, talks in a memoir printed in the “Sailing Away” edition of Mirror of the Times about moving to San Francisco from Nantucket with her second husband, John James Pleasant, whom she married at 33, with other abolitionists. A wealthy widow, she says her strategy for “amassing the necessary power and influence for her activism required keeping a low profile. Passing as a white woman, [she] assumed a new identity. As Ellen Smith [she] began working as a cook, housekeeper and manager of several boarding houses for wealth gold rush entrepreneurs.

“Having arrived in San Francisco with my own fortune,” she writes, “I assumed this role to protect myself and to engage in activism on behalf of other Blacks.” She writes of real estate purchases and her husband John’s work as a cook on a ship.

“Although California was a free state, slave owners often flouted the law. Blacks were further disenfranchised by laws requiring free Blacks to pay poll taxes, denying us the right to vote or testify in court, leaving us vulnerable to theft and assault.

“When Mifflin Gibbs formed the Franchise League to use the court system to fight these forms of discrimination, I was a covert supporter of their efforts. I utilized my dual identities to great effect. As Ellen Smith I used my influence with wealthy whites to gain material support for my causes. As Mrs. Pleasant I went to rural areas to rescue slaves who were being illegally enslaved. I also went down to the docks with legal documents to prevent the extradition of [the enslaved].

“George Washington Dennis often assisted me in these interventions, as did others. I helped Blacks establish businesses and pressed my wealthy friends to supply jobs. My ubiquitous efforts earned me the nickname ‘The Black City Hall.’ Despite my best efforts to maintain a low profile, I attracted a lot of negative attention from pro-slavery elements in the press.

“When Mifflin along with many other leaders of our San Francisco community departed to Victoria, Canada, in 1858, I decided to return to the East to aid John Brown in his quest to end slavery. I contributed substantial sums to his effort and was planning to disguise myself as a jockey and ride in advance of his uprising to spread the word to those in bondage. But John acted too hastily. We all know how that ended. I was very distraught because John was a good friend, but I had to carry on. Although an incriminating letter was discovered on his person signed with my initials, they were misread. I sailed back to San Francisco undiscovered and went about my business.”

This business included suing the North Beach and Mission Railroad Co. for refusing to let her ride on the San Francisco street car in 1866. After a two-year lawsuit, she was awarded $500; however, an appeal to the California Supreme Court reversed the decision, and she was refunded her nickel fare.

There is a commemorative plaque at Octavia and Bush where her Victorian once stood. It was torn down in 1964 to build a dental school. Feb. 10 is Mary Ellen Pleasant Day in San Francisco.

I wonder what thoughts these silent ancestors held behind their composed faces as they “sailed away” or waved bon voyage? Were they angry that they had to leave all they’d developed? Once in Victoria, did they face similar challenges? What happened to those Black people who could not leave? When did the discriminatory laws change? Besides Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant, who was left to hold California accountable for Black civil rights?

Visit http://zaccho.org/article-detail.php?article=Joanna_Haigood%E2%80%99s_Sailing_Away_Sept_13-16_2012 for more information about Zaccho Dance Theatre Artistic Director Joanna Haigood and “Sailing Away.”

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wsab1@aol.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 6-7 a.m. and Fridays at 8-10 a.m., can be heard by phone at (347) 237-4610 and are archived on the Afrikan Sistahs’ Media Network.

 

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