Inspired by San Francisco’s early African American settlers
Performances are free and open to the public on Market Street
It is sometimes referred to as the “San Francisco Exodus of 1858” a little-known part of the City’s history in which hundreds of African Americans fled discrimination and the threat of slavery for the safety of a Canadian exile. Choreographer Joanna Haigood and her Zaccho Dance Theatre (www.zaccho.org) are marking the iconic event with free public performances of her powerful work Sailing Away. Performances will be given in three continuous cycles, September 13, 14, 15, and 16 at 12noon, 1:30pm and 3pm daily starting at Market Street and Powell.
Market Street will provide the backdrop as performers interpret historical narratives through a series of vignettes and activities incorporating sites and monuments located between Powell and Battery streets. Important city monuments in the piece include: Mechanics Monument and Admission Day Monument.
“It’s ironic that a City now celebrated for its diversity once saw hundreds of its citizens flee in fear for their lives,” says Haigood, a celebrated local choreographer known for her unique and powerful site-specific works.
In the mid 19th century, San Francisco’s main thoroughfare, Market Street, was home to a burgeoning black middle class. However, Governor Peter Hardeman Burnett, California’s first governor (1849-51), pushed for the exclusion of free Negroes from the entire state. Although a black exclusion bill never passed in California, it reflected strong public opinion within the state, which eventually led to the passage of other discriminatory bills against blacks as well as Chinese, Mexicans and Native Americans.These bills restricted education, homesteading, voting, intermarriage and the right of testimony, which barred blacks from testifying against whites on their own behalf in court. By 1858, because of increasing discrimination, some 800 African Americans sailed for British Columbia aboard the steamer Commodore to escape growing hostility.
While some people may know the names of people such as early enterprenuer Mary Ellen Pleasant (AKA “Mammy” Pleasant), or Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, a participant in the Underground Railroad and friend of Frederick Douglas, they may not have heard of figures like Grafton Tyler Brown, Archie Lee or Peter Lester. Produced and presented in partnership with the California Historical Society, Sailing Away features eight such prominent African Americans who lived and worked near Market Street during the mid-nineteenth century and evokes their participation in the 1858 exodus.
During each performance and event, newspapers containing historical information that is referenced in the work (maps, biographies and significant events) will be distributed to the public. Through character interactions, audience members will get a feel for the 19th-century in a 21st-century commercial life on the city’s most important thoroughfare.
“While creating this work, it was important to acknowledge the invisibility and loss of African American history and the current out-migration,” notes Haigood. “Since 1858, there have been two notable waves of black ‘out migration.’ The first occurred during the redevelopment of the Fillmore district in the 1950s and ‘60s. The second is currently underway.”
The African American population in San Francisco has declined by 40.8 percent since 1990. Some stated causes of this new out migration are the lack of adequate housing, discouraging achievement gaps in education, and the disproportionate incidents of violence in the changing, de-integrating neighborhoods. The study implies that African Americans live in an environment that habitually dismisses palpable challenges to full participation in the health and commerce of San Francisco.
In addition to the performances, the details for the public forums will include:
School Assembly with performance at Bayview Opera House On Tuesday, September 11, Joanna Haigood and Cast Members will host a lecture and performance excerpt for local Bayview Schools moderated by Susheel Bibbs, an award-winning expert on early African American out-migration and author.
Panel Discussion at California Historical Society
On Thursday, September 13 at 5:00pm, California Historical Society and Museum of the African Diaspora will co-host a panel discussion with scholars, historians, and local community leaders to discuss the past and current timeline of African American out-migration from San Francisco.
The panel discussion and performances are free and open to the public on a first-come, first serve basis.
Funding for the performances is provided by the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Grants for the Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund, Wells Fargo Foundation, Bayview Community Fund of the Tides Foundation and California Historical Society and Bayview Opera House.