Remembering Leidesdorff

Why is one of the central names in California history—and African-American history—a name most of us have never heard?

In 1841, international trade tycoon William Alexander Leidesdorff sailed the first commercial ship into San Francisco Bay. He also built the first hotel and the first shipping warehouse in San Francisco (before it was San Francisco), and wrote the petition for California to become a state. And that’s only the beginning of the story of his influence in this region. But he hasn’t received near the recognition that other prominent founders have.

Michael Harris, founder and executive director of the Sacramento African Cultural Center, hopes to change that. His vehicle is the Leidesdorff Project.

“The primary reason [for the Leidesdorff Project] is that here you have, if not the most prominent, then an equally prominent, founding father of California, right along with Sutter, Larkin, Stanford,” Harris said. “But nobody knows Leidesdorff.”

Raised on a street named after one of Leidesdorff’s ships, Sitka, it seems almost fated that Harris would discover the 19th-century African-American pioneer. That coincidence, combined with the urging of a professor, sent him on the quest for his heritage that brought him to Leidesdorff.

“One of my professors said to me, man, you need to stop calling yourself African-American because you don’t know nothing about your African history,” recounts Harris.

That was years ago, and now, talking to Harris, his knowledge is impressive. And he’s putting this knowledge of the past to use in the present, through both the Sacramento African Cultural Center and the Leidesdorff Project.

Though they are separate organizations, their aims do seem to overlap. The African Cultural Center seeks to foster trade and cultural exchange between California and Africa. It has worked with African leaders in facilitating talks between them and leaders here in the capital. Harris feels that Leidesdorff is a perfect example to follow in building those kinds of relations. The story should bolster confidence.

“When our organization is talking about developing California-African trade and development, we don’t have to fabricate the fact that Africans have been doing this, not just in Africa thousands of years ago, but right here in California, in a big way.”

The main goal of the project is to involve both public and private groups in funding a Leidesdorff Maritime Park Complex in Old Sacramento. The site would focus not only on nurturing our historical maritime legacy, but also on the environmental use of our resources and career opportunities within our region.

Harris hopes that, ultimately, Leidesdorff’s story will have an inspiring impact on the current affairs in this region.

“When I wrote to [San Francisco Mayor] Willie Brown, I said, you know, [Leidesdorff] is the only politician greater than you in California history,” Harris recalls, “but you still have time.”