When asked if he’s comfortable being known as the official historian of Black San Francisco, John Templeton laughed, “I couldn’t hide from it if I wanted to at this point.”
Compiling the four-volume history, Our Roots Run Deep: The Black Experience in California (which includes old newspaper clippings and valuable census data that could help with searches for local ancestry), is just a fraction of the work Templeton has contributed to the fabric of San Francisco life as a curator, archivist and general enthusiast of The City.
“I love it. I wouldn’t go anywhere else,” he said. “I was having dinner with someone in D.C. and they asked me where would I live if I wasn’t in San Francisco and I got a blank look on my face. I couldn’t even imagine it,” he said. “I don’t think the positive attractions have really changed.”
Even in the face of the significant drop in the African American presence here, and all the attempts to wipe out residents — whether being shut out of labor contracts, tech jobs and housing or becoming the targets of police shooting and brutality, among other injustices — Templeton is more apt to point to past and present black triumphs that contribute to the area remaining a stronghold for innovation and leadership.
“As a historian, I can tell you, the African American population here, no matter how big it is, has always had a global impact, even at our reduced numbers,” he said.
“In the last few years, Take A Knee and Black Lives Matter started here,” he said. “There was the hunger strike that replaced the police chief,” he said, referring to the role the Frisco Five played in police accountability in the wake of multiple shootings of black and brown residents. “And we just celebrated black women taking the top jobs in San Francisco,” pointing to the election of Mayor London Breed and Board of Supervisors President Malia Cohen.
“It’s a western sanctuary, a place where black folks can come and do things they can’t do anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. That has never changed,” he said.
Trained as a science journalist, Templeton arrived in Silicon Valley from Washington D.C. in 1987 to work as the editor at the San Jose Business Journal, but he soon made history his business here. Lured by the mural by Maynard Dixon and Frank Von Sloun in the Room of the Dons at the Mark Hopkins Hotel depicting Queen Califia, our state’s namesake, he found himself spending more and more time in The City. By 1992, he had moved to the Western Addition to stay. His deep interest in the black history of the west, San Francisco and his neighborhood has led him toward connecting residents to their local roots as well as to the greater African American experience.
“In a typical history, they just get Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. No one mentions that MLK came to San Francisco every summer as a teenager and stayed on Scott Street with his cousin.
“Asking, ‘who were his people?’ leads you to Howard Thurman, W.E.B. Du Bois and Goodlett, all right here. Same with Langston Hughes. He stayed in San Francisco from 1934-1935. If you don’t ask the question, you don’t dig deeper,” he said. “Mary Ellen Pleasant funding John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry? It started here.”
Templeton’s interest in all things historical dates back to when he was a child of five in North Carolina, listening to stories told by his 80-year-old grandfather.
“My family was free since before the American Revolution and has continuously owned property since the 1790 census, so we had a sense of comfort and heritage,” he said. He traced his own family’s roots back to 15th Century Mali.
Belonging to the first generation to integrate schools in the American South, Templeton was suspended from high school for inquiring why stories of African Americans were not included in his school’s text. He went on to graduate from Howard University where he majored in journalism.
“I was a copy boy at the Washington Post during Watergate and worked as a White House correspondent during the Ford Administration,” he said. His graduate studies at University of North Carolina covered the history of black newspapers; he went on to edit the Richmond Afro American and Richmond Planet.
“Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett was a mentor of mine even when I was at Howard. He was responsible for starting the school of communications there,” he explained. “I knew him for 20 years before I even moved here,” he said of Goodlett, the physician, publisher, key civil rights leader and namesake of our City Hall’s street address, for his insistence on moving black voices to the front.
Templeton also worked side by side with Leroy King and Mary Helen Rogers, great defenders of the Western Addition in the face of its redevelopment.
“In ‘03 we did the largest oral history project in The City with 300 people for the sidewalk monument at O’Farrell and Fillmore. Those 64 squares? We had to write the histories of not only African American but Jewish and Japanese neighbors. I learned the importance of actually talking to people without preconceived notions,” he said.
Though Templeton said San Francisco’s loss of African Americans is more complicated and calculated than the redevelopment narrative, the outmigration of residents since the ‘90s has been unnecessary. “The Western Addition didn’t get targeted just for the hell of it, it was targeted for a purpose,” he said. “What’s happened has been bad policy.”
Part of Templeton’s solution to restoring black San Francisco’s balance is business ownership: This August, in coordination with the 15th Annual Black Business Month he co-founded, Templeton and his colleagues have established a San Francisco African American Commonwealth Council to encourage and assist under-served black entrepreneurs.
“The reality of being a black journalist is you don’t just get to write about these things. Once you become aware, you have to do something about it,” he said.
Despite the dip from 10 percent upon his arrival to the present three percent African American population here, Templeton remains encouraged.
“As we speak, there are 400,000 African Americans in the metro area. There’s another 150,000 in the Sacramento area; when you add in San Jose, you have basically 750,000 black folks in this region. We have to nothing be melancholy about,” he said.
“We started at the waterfront, we’ve been at the Marina, we’re in Pacific Heights, Bernal Heights. There are very few neighborhoods the black population hasn’t been,” he said. “African Americans have been in every part of San Francisco and generally right at the center of the action.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.