The Man Who Helped Build California

President Obama noted, when his campaign for the presidency began, that his was post racial experiment.  In every respect this was an admirable goal, but as events including the Henry Louis Gates’ imbroglio in Cambridge suggest, the race card is still reflexively enjoined when convenient.

However there is a narrative in American history that could prove to be very illustrative and useful for this president. It involves the life of William Alexander Leidesdorff, arguably one of the best kept secrets in the history of the West and the creation of the state of California.

Mr. Leidesdorff was born in St. Croix in 1810 to a Jewish sugar planter and a black plantation worker. Next year is his 200th birthday, a time to reflect on his role in history and the unique dimensions of American life.

After working for his father’s cotton business in New Orleans, he moved to Yerba Buena, the Mexican town that would later become San Francisco where the efflorescence of his career emerged.

In 1844 he became a Mexican citizen and was granted 35,000 acres on the American River. It was on this property that gold was discovered shortly before he died in 1848. That discovery made him the first black millionaire in the United States.

After becoming a successful merchant, he was appointed Vice Consul of the United States to Mexico, albeit this position was not formally recognized by Washington, D.C. until after his death. Similarly, he did not receive formal acceptance as the first black American diplomat even though he was integrally involved in the establishment of the republic of California.

As a member of the San Francisco City Council, he donated land and authorized the building of the first public school in San Francisco with an expenditure of $1000. He launched the first steam powered schooner in the bay and held the first horse race in the state.

When he died at the tender age of 38, the entire state mourned; flags were flown at half mast and he received a 21 gun salute. It is no surprise that a four block long Leidesdorff Street in San Francisco’s financial district keeps his name alive today. Most tourists and even home grown Franciscans who pass the Mission District fail to realize that the William Alexander Leidesdorff who is buried in the mission, helped to shape the destiny of the city and the state of California.

When he was a young boy, Leidesdorff was adopted by an Englishman and raised as his son, but the young man was cautioned to never reveal the facts of his birth. “Never allow anyone guess that you are a Negro.” William gave his foster father this promise. Yet the life of this man was a repudiation of this pledge.

Although not raised as a Jew and denying his African American heritage, he was the embodiment of the American man who integrated ethnic backgrounds and diverse traditions. In a sense, not realized by historians who overlooked Leidesdorff’s achievements, this early resident of San Francisco built a city of dreams through a mixture of races and ethnicities.

On this the 200th anniversary of his birth, it is appropriate to honor William Leidesdorff, a millionaire, philanthropist, diplomat and statesman. His life might well inspire those who emphasize cooperation as opposed to ethnic tension. And even if inspiration isn’t elicited, Leidesdorff should be recognized as the man who built one of the great cities in the United States and set the course for the Bear Flag republic which ultimately became the state of California.