The Story of William Leidesdorff, ‘African Founder of California’

Good morning, and welcome to Essential California newsletter† To be Thursday, June 23. I’m Justin Ray.

The name of a California recreation area was changed because it was deemed offensive. It’s not the first time the state has seen residents reassess the name of a regionbut the controversy is worth watching.

California’s State Park and Recreation Commission has voted to temporarily rename a historic park formerly known as Negro Bar while a new name is being selected. It will be known as Black Miners Bar, the committee said in a 7-0 vote.

Residents and visitors have been calling for a name change for years. An online petition launched in 2018 collected nearly 68,000 signatures. It was founded by Phaedra Jones, a native of Stockton, a black woman, who was on his way to deliver an Uber Eats order and was furious when she saw a sign saying ‘Negro Bar’. The petition notes that this is actually the tamer version of the original, offensive name. (Zoom in on San Juan and look to the right.)

Reading about the controversy, I heard about a man named William Leidesdorff, who once owned the land. When I tried to find recent articles about him published by this newspaper, I couldn’t find any. So I want to take this opportunity as the writer of this newsletter, now that I have it, to tell the world about the “African Founder of California.”

The following information comes from the book by author and civil rights activist Sue Bailey Thurman:Pioneers of Negro Origins in California,” the Sacramento Beethe San Francisco Examiner and the state Legislature

The Legacy of William Leidesdorff

A photo of William A. Leidesdorff in Sue Bailey Thurman’s “Pioneers of Negro Origin in California.”

(Justin Ray/Los Angeles Times)

William Alexander Leidesdorff Jr. was born in 1810 in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, the son of Danish sugar planter William Leidesdorff and Anna Marie Sparks, an African woman.

He left in his youth and traveled to New Orleans to participate in the maritime trade. He became a captain of ships, sailing between New Orleans and New York. He also amassed wealth.

But the West called and urged him to sell his New Orleans possessions and buy a 106-ton schooner named Julia Ann, who took him across the Pacific. After many months, he landed in the sleepy Mexican fishing village of Yerba Buena Cove (part of present-day San Francisco) to create a global maritime center.

His ability to speak Spanish (alongside at least five other languages) helped him forge ties with the Mexican government. In 1843 Leidesdorff was naturalized as a Mexican citizen, which was done to help him acquire a sizable land grant from the Mexican authorities in the Sacramento Valley.

With dual citizenship, he obtained a grant of 35,521 acres of prime real estate on the left bank of the American River. He called it Rancho Rio de Los Americanos. Through global trade and financing trade projects, he helped stabilize and develop the Sacramento Valley. He also had the distinction of being the first African American diplomat in history (even before Frederick Douglass), after being appointed vice consul in Mexico by Consul Thomas Oliver Larkin, under the jurisdiction of Commodore Robert F. Stockton, who was the military governor of California. These achievements led to him being affectionately known as the “African Founder of California.”

But his legacy contains shameful chapters. He accepted Native American slaves from friend John Sutter to repay debts, an example of the little-recognized institution of Native slavery that took place in the Golden State in the 1850s and 60s. Leidesdorff also hosted the West Coast’s first recorded minstrel show.

When he died of typhoid fever in 1848, he had no children and no will, causing a struggle for his estate. One of the territories he owned was the country that was at the center of the name dispute that started this newsletter. It was taken over by black prospectors, who could amass wealth and escape poverty.

*A funny side story: To find a book about William Leidesdorff in Los Angeles, I went to the Central Library downtown. A librarian noted that a book I was interested in had water damage and ripples. (She told me that each book had two stories: one inside and one outside.) She explained that the injuries from the work had been caused by the great fire that destroyed the branch in 1986. Then she told me about a writer who documented its aftermath. She walked up and down the stairs and talked to the staff about the incident. You couldn’t miss her because she had hair as red as the flames she would eventually shoot. That writer was Susan Orleans.

A partially opened book on a table.

Sue Bailey Thurman’s book “Pioneers of Negro Origin in California” at the Central Library in downtown LA. The book suffered water damage from a fire on April 29, 1986.

(Justin Ray)

*Another note: Essential California will be written next week by my colleagues while I’m on vacation.

And now, this is what is happening in california:

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Interactive Report: Black LA is all around us. Just wanted to share this in case you missed it. The LA Times created an interactive story about “the beauty of Black Los Angeles.” We interviewed and took great portraits of the community. “We bring such history to every place we go,” said Michael J. Fisher, senior pastor of Greater Zion Church Family in Compton. “We’re going to bring a culinary aspect, we’re going to bring the arts, we’re going to bring dance, we’re going to bring the energy, poetry.” Los Angeles Times

Portraits of black people.

A new portrait series from The Times lets Black Los Angeles speak for itself.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

A woman and two dogs were fatally struck by lightning in Pico Rivera on Wednesday morning as thunderstorms ravaged Southern California, forcing officials to temporarily close beaches and stay alert for fires caused by dry lightning. Los Angeles Times

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California officials have recovered $1.1 billion in unemployment insurance funds during an ongoing investigation into widespread pandemic-related fraud. Most of the money, out of about 780,000 inactivated benefit cards, will be turned over to the federal government as the claims went through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance emergency program, according to a statement from Governor Gavin Newsom’s office. Los Angeles Times

A person is jogging past a building with the words "Employment Development Department" am working on it.

An office of the California Employment Development Department in Sacramento.

(Associated Press)


Bill Cosby sexually assaulted teenage Judy Huth at the Playboy Mansion in the mid-1970s, a civilian jury ruled Tuesday in Santa Monica. The disgraced comedian, 84, was ordered to pay Huth $500,000. Los Angeles Times

Police arrested a man on hate crime charges after multiple cases of anti-Asian graffiti were found on a home in Northern California. San Leandro Police say someone smashed a sign for sale in front of the house. The real estate agent of the property initially did not want to report the incident, but decided after graffiti with a racist slur appeared on the garage. Nicholas Swyers, 25, was arrested early Monday. ABC 7


Column: I have avoided COVID for over two years. The last wave has finally got me. Opinion columnist Robin Abcarian finally discusses catching COVID-19. “Tuesday morning I woke up with a sore throat, a slight fever and the oppressive feeling that my luck had run out. Two red lines on the rapid antigen test confirmed it,” Abcarian writes. “With two vaccines and one booster shot under my belt, how sick would I get?” It turns out to be worse than she thought. Los Angeles Times

Eight scattered red pills.

Molnupiravir, an antiviral drug that is effective against COVID-19.


In California, it hardly pays to care for the needy elderly at home. More than 666,000 Californians were authorized recipients of home support services, according to the State Department of Social Services. Those numbers are expected to grow, but the state is already lagging behind in its ability to provide those services. In 2020, the state auditor found that more than 32 million hours of assessed needs were not being met statewide. Why? Low wages can make the job unappealing to prospective assistants. Women make up 88.6% of the workforce, with 54.6% of workers being women of color and over a quarter of them immigrants. Capital and Main


Sriracha Hot Sauce Shortage and California Drought. Huy Fong Foods has been making its world famous sriracha hot sauce in Irwindale for four decades. However, climate change is impacting the company’s ability to make the hot stuff. The heat and drought have impacted the crop of hot peppers from which sriracha is made, and the company has had to stop production until at least autumn this year. CBC

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Today California Memory is of Elizabeth Stewart

“We often camped in Hendy Woods State Park in the summers when the kids were little. We all loved it: the pebble beaches of the Navarro River, the majestic silence in old redwoods, the campsites under the trees with their rustic ease, the loud cries of the steller jays. The kids were in charge of the place. Enjoying coffee one morning, we saw Roddy, about 10 years old, running excitedly out of the river. He got up early in the morning and went exploring. “Mommy! Dad! I saw it run along the bank! Then it slid in! An otter!” †

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us† (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

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