STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN AND ARI STROBER, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY
Local author and historian Jan Batiste Adkins will be speaking at the Los Altos History Museum in a Zoom event on Feb. 24 at 5 p.m. to commemorate the contributions of Black visionaries in the Bay Area.
African Americans have a long, yet relatively unknown history in Santa Clara County brought to light in Adkins’s recent book.
Adkins, an adjunct faculty member and lecturer at San Jose City College, wrote “History of African Americans of San Jose and Santa Clara County” to educate her students on the contributions of African American people to the history of California.
While Adkins was working on her master’s degree at San Jose State University, she found that she had trouble finding local literature written by Black people in the Bay Area. Adkins then set out to find Black writers and read their accounts of why they arrived in this area and what they contributed to the local community. Her interest in researching grew from there, leading her to local libraries and historical societies.
“I wanted to research more; I wanted to find out more about some of the early pioneers,” Adkins said.
With this newfound interest in researching the history of Black families in Santa Clara County, she began to study the paths that African American people took to get to the region.
“African American families started to come to this area in waves of migration both before and after the Civil War,” Adkins said. “They heard the call ‘Go west young man, go west,’ and free men and women came to California to buy land to establish businesses, establish farms, and establish schools.”
Adkins explained that prior to the Civil War, many families of African heritage came to California as slaves. However, miners in the area believed that slave owners received an unfair advantage through employing slave labor, allowing enslaved workers to go to court in California and win their freedom.
“Miners collaborated with abolitionists to work towards freeing the slaves in California,” Adkins said. “Thus Black families were able to build Black schools, Black churches and Black businesses in this area.”
Through hundreds of historical accounts and photographs, Adkins’s book pieces together the stories of the Black pioneers whose names are unknown to history but played an important role in local development.
One of those pioneers, Sam McDonald, was born in Louisiana in 1884. A descendent of slaves, he worked various jobs before settling in South Palo Alto, then known as Mayfield, where he eventually became superintendent of athletic grounds and buildings at Stanford University and deputy sheriff for Santa Clara County. McDonald began acquiring property in the local hills and eventually bought 400 acres of land that he later donated to Stanford.
As Adkins described, McDonald’s legacy lives on through his “pet project” of planting gardens and cooking food alongside children at the Stanford Convalescent Home for Underprivileged Children, now known as the McDonald House.
“I think someone needs to write a movie about him,” Adkins said.
In her book, Adkins also features the story of Roy Clay. Originally from Kansas, Clay worked with Hewlett Packard during the early years when the company was founded in a garage in Palo Alto. After working in Hewlett Packard, Roy Clay started his own successful company called Rod Electronics. Eventually, he became the mayor of Palo Alto.
“He loved kids and loved making people happy,” Adkins said. “He tried to help students understand the impact of racism and how to succeed. He made a big impact on the local community.”
Throughout the webinar, Adkins will present those stories along with others and share the past of Santa Clara County.
“Santa Clara County has historically attracted people of color, not just African Americans, but Asians and Hispanic families,” she said. “We have a lot to be proud of and I look forward to discussing this diversity.”
Register to listen to Adkins’s talk here.