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“One A Day” Black History Month Series ~ Ms. Eartha Mae Kitt


By Jueseppi B.

 

 

Twenty-Seventh in the “One A Day” Black History Month Series: Ms. Eartha Mae Kitt.

 

I could go on for days on this diva….among the very first black Diva’s in my mind. Instead I will just attempt to give tribute to a GREAT American Icon. Ms. Eartha Mae Kitt.

 

Eartha Mae Kitt (January 17, 1927 – December 25, 2008) was an American singeractress, and cabaret star. She was perhaps best known for her highly distinctive singing style and her 1953 hit recordings of “C’est Si Bon” and the enduring Christmas novelty smash “Santa Baby“. Orson Welles once called her the “most exciting woman in the world.” She took over the role of Catwoman for the third and final season of the 1960s Batman television series, replacing Julie Newmar, who was unavailable due to other commitments.

 

Early years

Kitt was born Eartha Mae Keith on a cotton plantation in North, a small town in Orangeburg County near Columbia, South Carolina. Kitt’s mother was of Cherokee and African-American descent and her father of German or Dutch descent. Kitt was conceived by rape.

 

Kitt was raised by Anna Mae Riley, an African-American woman whom she believed to be her mother. Anna Mae went to live with a black man when Eartha was aged 8. He refused to accept Kitt because of her relatively pale complexion. Kitt lived with another family until Riley’s death. She was then sent to live in New York City with Mamie Kitt, who she learned was her biological mother. She had no knowledge of her father, except that his surname was Kitt and that he was supposedly a son of the owner of the farm where she had been born. Newspaper obituaries state that her white father was “a poor cotton farmer”.

 

 

Career

Kitt began her career as a member of the Katherine Dunham Company in 1943 and remained a member of the troupe until 1948. A talented singer with a distinctive voice, she recorded the hits “Let’s Do It“; “Champagne Taste”; “C’est si bon” (which Stan Freberg famously burlesqued); “Just an Old Fashioned Girl”; “Monotonous”; “Je cherche un homme”; “Love for Sale“; “I’d Rather Be Burned as a Witch”; “Uskudar’a Gideriken (aka Katibim)”; “Mink, Schmink”; “Under the Bridges of Paris“; and her most recognizable hit, “Santa Baby“, which was released in 1953.

 

Kitt’s unique style was enhanced as she became fluent in the French language during her years performing in Europe. Her English-speaking performances always seemed to be enriched by a soft French feel. She spoke four languages and sang in seven, which she effortlessly demonstrated in many of the live recordings of her cabaret performances.

Career peaks

In 1950, Orson Welles gave Kitt her first starring role, as Helen of Troy in his staging of Dr. Faustus. A few years later, she was cast in the revue New Faces of 1952, introducing “Monotonous” and “Bal, Petit Bal”, two songs with which she is still identified. In 1954, 20th Century Fox filmed a version of the revue, titled New Faces, in which she performed “Monotonous”, “Uska Dara“, and “C’est si bon“.

 

Though it is often alleged that Welles and Kitt had an affair during her 1957 run in Shinbone Alley, Kitt categorically denied this in a June 2001 interview with George Wayne of Vanity Fair. “I never had sex with Orson Welles”, Kitt told Vanity Fair: “It was a working situation and nothing else”. Her other films in the 1950s included The Mark of the Hawk (1957), St. Louis Blues (1958) and Anna Lucasta (1959).

 

Throughout the rest of the 1950s and early 1960s, Kitt recorded; worked in film, television, and nightclubs; and returned to the Broadway stage, in Mrs. Patterson (during the 1954–1955 season), Shinbone Alley (in 1957), and the short-lived Jolly’s Progress (in 1959). In 1964, Kitt helped open the Circle Star Theater inewdh San Carlos, California. In the late 1960s, the television series Batman featured her as Catwoman after Julie Newmar left the role.

 

 

Anti-war controversy

In 1968, during the administration of US President Lyndon B. Johnson, Kitt encountered a substantial professional setback after she made anti-war statements during a White House luncheon. Kitt was invited to the White House luncheon and was asked by Lady Bird Johnson about the Vietnam War. She replied: “You send the best of this country off to be shot and maimed. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot.”

 

During a question and answer session, Kitt stated:

The children of America are not rebelling for no reason. They are not hippies for no reason at all. We don’t have what we have on Sunset Blvd. for no reason. They are rebelling against something. There are so many things burning the people of this country, particularly mothers. They feel they are going to raise sons — and I know what it’s like, and you have children of your own, Mrs. Johnson — we raise children and send them to war.

 

Her remarks reportedly caused Mrs. Johnson to burst into tears and led to a derailment in Kitt’s career. The public reaction to Kitt’s statements was extreme, both pro and con. Publicly ostracized in the US, she devoted her energies to performances in Europe and Asia.

 

She returned to New York in a triumphant turn in the Broadway spectacle Timbuktu! (a version of the perennial Kismet set in Africa) in 1978. In the musical, one song gives a “recipe” for mahoun, a preparation of cannabis, in which her sultry purring rendition of the refrain “constantly stirring with a long wooden spoon” was distinctive.

 

 

 

 

In 1978, Kitt did the voice-over in a TV commercial for the album Aja by the rock group Steely Dan. She wrote three autobiographies — Thursday’s Child (1956), Alone with Me (1976) and I’m Still Here: Confessions of a Sex Kitten (1989).

 

In 1984, she returned to the music charts with a disco song, “Where Is My Man“, the first certified gold record of her career. “Where Is My Man” reached the Top 40 on the UK Singles Chart, where it peaked at #36; The song also made the Top 10 on the US Billboard dance chart, where it reached #7. The single was followed by the album I Love Men on the Record Shack label. Kitt found new audiences in nightclubs across the UK and the US, including a whole new generation of gay male fans, and she responded by frequently giving benefit performances in support of HIV/AIDS organizations.

 

Kitt appeared with Jimmy James and George Burns at a fundraiser in 1990 produced by Scott Sherman, Agent from The Atlantic Entertainment Group. It was arranged that James would impersonate Kitt and then Kitt would walk out to take the microphone. This was met with a standing ovation. Her 1989 follow-up hit “Cha-Cha Heels” (featuring Bronski Beat), which was originally intended to be recorded by Divine, received a positive response from UK dance clubs and reached #32 in the charts in that country.

 

In 1991, Eartha returned to the screen in the Jim Varney children’s Halloween movie Ernest Scared Stupid as Old Lady Hackmore. In 1992, Kitt had a supporting role as Lady Eloise in the film Boomerang starring Eddie Murphy. In the late 1990s, she appeared as the Wicked Witch of the West in the North American national touring company of The Wizard of Oz. 1995 saw Eartha Kitt appear as herself in an episode of ‘The Nanny’, where she performed a song in French and flirted with Mr Shefield.

 

In November 1996, she appeared on an episode of Celebrity Jeopardy. In 2000, Kitt again returned to Broadway in the short-lived run of Michael John LaChiusa‘s The Wild Party opposite Mandy Patinkin and Toni Collette. Beginning in late 2000, she starred as the Fairy Godmother in the US national tour of Cinderella alongside Deborah Gibson and then Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

 

In 2003, she replaced Chita Rivera in Nine. She reprised her role as the Fairy Godmother at a special engagement of Cinderella, which took place at Lincoln Center during the holiday season of 2004. One of her more unusual roles was as Kaa the python in a 1994 BBC Radio adaptation of The Jungle Book.

 

Kitt lent her distinctive voice to the role of Yzma in Disney’s The Emperor’s New Groove, for which she won her first Annie Award, and returned to the role in the straight-to-video sequel Kronk’s New Groove and the spin-off TV series The Emperor’s New School, for which she won two Emmy Awards and two more Annie Awards (both in 2007–08) for Voice Acting in an Animated Television Production. She had a voiceover as the voice of Queen Vexus on the animated TV series My Life as a Teenage Robot.

 

In her later years Kitt made annual appearances in the New York Manhattan cabaret scene at venues such as the Ballroom and the Café Carlyle. She was also a guest star in The Simpsons episode “Once Upon a Time in Springfield“, where she was depicted as one of Krusty’s past marriages.

 

From October to early December, 2006, Kitt co-starred in the Off-Broadway musical Mimi le Duck. She also appeared in the 2007 independent film And Then Came Love opposite Vanessa Williams.

 

Kitt was the spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics‘ Smoke Signals collection in August 2007. She re-recorded “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” for the occasion, was showcased on the MAC website, and the song was played at all MAC locations carrying the collection for the month.

 

 

Personal life

After romances with the cosmetics magnate Charles Revson and banking heir John Barry Ryan III, she married John William McDonald, an associate of a real estate investment company, on June 6, 1960. They had one child, a daughter named Kitt McDonald, born on November 26, 1961. They got divorced in 1965.

 

A long-time Connecticut resident, Eartha Kitt lived in a converted barn on a sprawling farm in the Merryall section of New Milford for many years and was active in local charities and causes throughout Litchfield County. Subsequently moving to Pound RidgeNew York, then in 2002, Kitt moved to the southern Fairfield County, Connecticut town of Weston to be near her daughter Kitt and family. (Kitt McDonald married Charles Lawrence Shapiro in 1987 and had two children, Jason and Rachel Shapiro.)

 

Activism

Kitt became a vocal advocate for homosexual rights and publicly supported same-sex marriage, which she believed to be a civil right. She had been quoted as saying, “I support it [gay marriage] because we’re asking for the same thing. If I have a partner and something happens to me, I want that partner to enjoy the benefits of what we have reaped together. It’s a civil-rights thing, isn’t it?” Kitt famously appeared at many GLBT fundraisers, including a mega event in Baltimore, Maryland, with George Burns and Jimmy James. Scott Sherman, an agent at Atlantic Entertainment Group, stated “Eartha Kitt is fantastic… appears at so many GLBT events in support of civil rights.”

 

 

Death

Kitt died from colon cancer on Christmas Day 2008 at her Weston, Connecticut, home.

Feature Films
Short subjects
  • All About People (1967) (narrator)

Television Work

Stage work

Next in the “One A Day” Black History Month Series is……….The Buffalo Soldiers

“One A Day” Black History Month ~ Mr. Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor


By Jueseppi B.

Nineteenth in The “One A Day” Black History Month Series is…..Mr. Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor.

Before Lance Armstrong, there was Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor, World Champion Cyclist.

Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor (26 November 1878 – 21 June 1932) was an American cyclist who won the world 1 mile (1.6 km) track cycling championship in 1899 after setting numerous world records and overcoming racial discrimination. Taylor was the first African-American athlete to achieve the level of world champion and only the second black man to win a world championship—after Canadian boxer George Dixon.

Taylor was the son of Gilbert TaylorCivil War veteran and Saphronia Kelter, who had migrated from Louisville, Kentucky with their large family to a farm in rural Indiana. He was one of eight children, five girls and three boys. Taylor’s father was employed in the household of a wealthy Indiana family, the Southards, as a coachman, where Taylor was also raised and educated. When Taylor was a child, his father would bring him to work. The employer had a son, Dan Southard, who was the same age and the two boys became close friends. Taylor later moved in with the family and was able to live a more advantaged life than his parents could provide.

This period of living and learning at the Southard house lasted from the time he was eight until he was 12 when the Southards moved to Chicago and Taylor “was soon thrust into the real world.”

At age 12, Taylor received his first bicycle from the Southards and became such an expert trick rider that a local bike shop owner, Tom Hay, hired him to stage exhibitions and perform cycling stunts outside his bicycle shop. The name of the shop was Hay and Willits. The compensation was $6 a week, plus a free bike worth $35. Taylor performed the stunts wearing a soldier’s uniform, hence the nickname “Major.”

When he was 13 in 1891, Taylor won his first race, an amateur event in Indianapolis. Two years later, in 1893 at age 15, Taylor beat the 1 mile (1.6 km) amateur track record where he was “hooted” and then barred from the track because of his color.

One of the first races that Taylor participated in occurred on September 26, 1891 when he was 13 and was recorded in The New York Times. The 10 miles (16 km) event took place in Brooklyn, New York on Ocean Parkway and was called the Citizen HandicapMajor Taylor listed his address as Worcester, Massachusetts and rode with a 1:30 handicap in a field of 200. There were nine scratch riders.

Major Taylor won his first significant race in 1895 at age 16. The 75 miles (121 km) road race, near his hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana “came amid the racial threats of his white competitors.” Shortly afterward, he relocated to Massachusetts with the help of his benefactor, Louis D. “Birdie” Munger, who was to become his lifelong friend and mentor, to a more tolerant area of the country.

As an African-American, Taylor was banned from bicycle racing in Indiana once he started winning and made a reputation as “The Black Cyclone”. In 1896, he moved from Indianapolis to Worcester, Mass., then a center of the United States bicycle industry with half a dozen factories and 30 bicycle shops, to work as a bicycle mechanic in the Worcester Cycle Manufacturing Company factory, owned by Louis D. “Birdie” Munger where he was a racer for Munger’s team. Taylor first worked for Munger in Indianapolis and along the line, Munger “made up his mind to make Taylor a champion.”

Taylor’s first east coast race was in a League of American Wheelmen 1 mile (1.6 km) race in New Haven, where he started in last place but won.

Taylor turned professional in 1896 at the age of 18 and soon emerged as the “most formidable racer in America.” One of his biggest supporters was President Theodore Roosevelt who kept track of Taylor throughout his 17-year racing career.

Beginning on December 5, 1896, and ending on December 12, Taylor participated in a six-day cycle race in Madison Square Garden where 5,000 people attended. The event was an indoor cycle meet and Taylor had achieved enough notoriety to be listed among the “American contestants” which included A. A. Hansen, the Minneapolis “rainmaker” and Teddy Goodman. Many “experts from abroad” participated such as Albert Schock of Switzerland, Frank Waller, Frank Forster and Ed von Hoeg of Germany, and B. W. Pierce of Canada. Several countries were represented including Scotland, Wales, France, England and Denmark.

The main feature of the meet was the six-day race, however, several other events were of “full interest”. Taylor entered the race and listed his address as South Brooklyn, New York. It was his first professional race and he won the final heat by 105 feet (32 m) over A. C. Meixwell of Philadelphia and E. C. Bald, scratch rider representing Syracuse, New York and riding a Barnes bicycle. Taylor lapped the entire field during the .5 miles (0.80 km) handicap race.

At the Blue Ribbon Meet of the Bostonian Cycle Club hosted on May 19, 1897, Taylor won first place in the 1 mile (1.6 km) open professional on a Comet bicycle.

He eventually settled in Worcester, Massachusetts (where the newspapers called him “The Worcester Whirlwind”), marrying there and having a daughter, although his career required him to spend a large amount of time traveling in AmericaAustralia, and Europe.

Major Taylor after he defeated “Jimmy” Michael at Manhattan Beach on August 27, 1898

By 1898, he held seven world records at distances from .25 miles (0.40 km) to 2 miles (3.2 km) and he placed first in 29 of 49 races in which he competed. No one else came close to that record. Taylor was entitled to recognition as national champion but formation of a new cycling league that year “clouded” his claim to the title.

During 1899 he won the world championship, preceded only by boxing bantamweight George Dixon as a black world champion in any sport.

In one six week period in 1899, Taylor established seven world records. These included the .25 miles (0.40 km), .33 miles (0.53 km), .5 miles (0.80 km), .66 miles (1.06 km), .75 miles (1.21 km), 1 mile (1.6 km) and the 2 miles (3.2 km). He did the mile from a standing start in 1:41, a record that stood for 28 years.

In late 1899, Taylor raced under the colors of the Iver Johnson Arms and Cycle Company in Fitchburg, Massachusetts and won the 1 mile (1.6 km) sprint world championship by a lead of one wheel in a “thrilling” race at Montreal, Canada. He placed second in the 2 miles (3.2 km) sprint and won the .5 miles (0.80 km) championship.

Earl Kiser, who was nicknamed the “Little Dayton Demon,” raced for the Stearns Yellow Fellow team during the same period as Taylor. Kiser became a two time world cycling champion and competed all across Europe in the late 1890s. Kiser gave support to Taylor after he was barred from most national races. Kiser petitioned to have him included and Taylor went on to become the world sprint champion in 1899 and 1900. He was the first African-American to win a world title.

Taylor participated in a European tour in 1902 where he entered 57 races and won 40 of them, defeating the champions of GermanyEngland and France. Besides racing in Europe, Taylor also competed in Australia and New Zealand, although because he was very religious, never on Sunday. He always carried a catechism and began each race with a silent prayer and refused to compete on the Sabbath.

During February 1903, Taylor was competing in the Sydney (New South Wales) handicap for a $5,000 prize and the headline flashed worldwide was “Rich Cycle Race.”

Although he was greatly celebrated abroad, particularly in France, Taylor’s career was still held back by racism, particularly in the Southern states where he was not permitted to compete against Caucasians. The League of American Wheelmen for a time excluded blacks from membership. Other prominent bicycle racers of the era, such as Tom Cooper and Eddie Bald, often cooperated to ensure Taylor’s defeat. During his career he had ice water thrown at him during races, and nails scattered in front of his wheels, and was often boxed in by other riders, preventing the sprints to the front of the pack at which he was so successful.

In his autobiography, he reports actually being tackled on the race track by another rider, who choked him into unconsciousness but received only a $50 fine as punishment. Nevertheless, he does not dwell on such events in the book; rather it is evident that he means it to serve as an inspiration to other African-Americans trying to overcome similar treatment.

Taylor retired at age 32 in 1910, saying he was tired of the racism. His advice to African-American youths wishing to emulate him was that while bicycle racing was the appropriate route to success for him, he would not recommend it in general; and that individuals must find their own best talent.

Taylor married Daisy V. Morris in Ansonia, Connecticut, on March 21, 1902. While in Australia in 1904, Taylor and his wife had a baby girl who was named Sydney, in honor of the town in which she was born.

Taylor was still breaking records in 1908 but age was starting to “creep up on him.” He finally quit the track in 1910 at the age of 32.

While Taylor was reported to have earned between $25,000 and $30,000 a year when he returned to Worcester at the end of his career, by the time of his death he had lost everything to bad investments (including self-publishing his autobiography), persistent illness, and the stock market crash. His marriage over, he died at age 53 on June 21, 1932—a pauper in Chicago‘s Bronzeville neighborhood, in the charity ward of Cook County Hospital—to be buried in an unmarked grave. He was survived by his daughter.

In 1948 a group of former pro bike racers, with money donated by Schwinn Bicycle Co. (then) owner Frank W. Schwinn, organized the exhumation and relocation of Taylor’s remains to a more prominent part of Mount Glenwood Cemetery in Bloom Township, Illinois, near Chicago. A monument to his memory stands in Worcester, and Indianapolis named the city’s bicycle track after Taylor. Taylor’s daughter, Sydney Taylor Brown, died in 2005 at age 101; her survivors include a son and his five children.

Taylor was posthumously inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame in 1989.

  • On July 24, 2006, the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, changed the name of part of Worcester Center Boulevard to Major Taylor Boulevard — where his memory is honored for his athletic feats as well as his character.
  • A bicycle, of unproven provenance was donated by Worcester resident Sy Farnsworth to the Worcester Historical Museum — with the understanding the bicycle may have belonged to Taylor.
  • The band Oh Yeah! performed a tribute song describing Major Taylor’s Iver Johnson bicycle and the racism he encountered, entitled “Major Taylor’s Grave”.
  • The first African-American cycling club named in honor of Major Taylor was organized in Columbus, Ohio, in 1979.
  • In East Palo Alto, California, a racially-mixed community that was until recently mostly black, hosts a Major Taylor Cycling Club.
  • Other cycling clubs dedicated to Major Taylor include the ‘Major Motion’ Cycling club in Los Angeles, the Major Taylor Cycling Club in Minnesota, the Major Taylor Cycling Club Chicago in Chicago, IL and the Major Taylor Cycling Club of New Jersey.
  • Nike markets a sports shoe named after Major Taylor.
  • The company Soma Fabrications makes a set of bicycle handlebars called the Major Taylor Track Bar, a replica of Major Taylor’s 1930s bike handlebar.
  • The city of Columbus, Ohio renamed the Alum Creek Trail bicycle path [22] as the ‘Major Taylor Bikeway’[23] on September 3, 2010.

Major Taylor’s Autobiography: The Fastest Bicycle Rider in the World, 1929 ISBN 0-8369-8910-4

Next In The “One A Day” Black History Series……Mr. Prince Hall

“One A Day” Black History Month ~ Mr. William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr.


By Jueseppi B.

Eighteenth in the “One A Day” Black History Month Series is……Mr. William Alexander Leidesdorff Jr.

Once again, I knew nothing about this man. I think that is a direct smear on the teaching of Black American History. My thanks again to Ms. Shelley Peterson for her knowledge of Black American History, she suggested Mr. William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr.

William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. (October 23, 1810 – May 18, 1848) was one of the earliest mixed-race U.S. citizens in California and a highly successful, enterprising businessman. He was a West Indian immigrant of African Cuban, possibly CaribDanish and Jewish ancestry. William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. became a United States citizen in New Orleans in 1834. He migrated to California in 1841, then under Mexican rule, settling in Yerba Buena (San Francisco), a village of about 30 European-Mexican families.

He became a Mexican citizen in 1844 and received a land grant from the Mexican government, 8 Spanish leagues, or 35,500 acres (144 km) south of the American River, known as Rancho Rio de los Americanos. He served as US Vice Consul to Mexico at the Port of San Francisco beginning in 1845. Leidesdorff was Presdident of the San Francisco school board and also elected as City Treasurer. Shortly before Leidesdorff’s death, vast amounts of gold were officially reported on his Rancho Rio De los Americanos. By the time his estate was auctioned off in 1856, it was worth more than $1,445,000, not including vast quantities of gold mined upon his land.

International Leidesdorff Bicentennial Celebrations will feature the “Golden Legacy of William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr.” On October 22, 2011 on his native isle of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, a special event was held to highlight the season of celebrations.

Born in St. Croix, Virgin Islands when it was under Danish rule, William Leidesdorff, Jr. was the oldest son of four children of Danish sugar plantation manager Wilhelm Alexander Leidesdorff (who used Alexander Leidesdorff as his name) and his common-law wife Anna Marie Sparks, reportedly of African and Spanish descent. Wilhelm Leidesdorff Sr. was reportedly of Jewish descent from the community of Altona, Hamburg. It was part of the Danish Schleswig-Holstein, then across the river from but now part of today’s port of Hamburg, Germany. He migrated to North America and later the Caribbean to further his career as a merchant. Leidesdorff and Anna Marie lived in New Orleans under Spanish rule before the Louisiana Purchase, and he worked as a sugar factor.

Leidesdorff, Jr.’s mother Anna Marie Sparks, was described in one account as a Carib Indian woman; she was believed also to have had African and European ancestry. Her race was noted in a census report. Many people observed that what were called “Carib” people had skin of various hues that likely reflected mixed ancestry, ranging from dark brown to lighter shades of brown, resulting in a Virgin Islands Creole, to which she may have belonged. Other sources said the mother Marie Anne Spark (as she was also known) was a mixed-race woman of African and Spanish heritage, thought to have been born in Cuba.

In census records, Marie Anne Spark was classified as a free Carib Indian, but few Carib survived into the late 18th century, according to Gary Palgon’s biography of Leidesdorff. Other sources document tens of thousands of Caribs, most of mixed heritage, living in the Windwards and Trinidad at the time of Leidesdorff’s birth. Together the accounts describe Spark as a light-skinned woman of mixed-race ancestry, yet classified as black by the 1850s California Court System, where blacks were restricted from testifying in court. According to Sue Bailey Thurman, “With the name of William Alexander Leidesdorff, we begin the documentary history of pioneers of Negro origin in California.

Today, William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. is recognized as the “African Founding Father of California”, as noted by the California State Legislature. 2011 is the United Nations International Year for People of African Descent.

Leidesdorff, Jr. was said to leave St. Croix at about fifteen years of age to be educated in Denmark. Afterward, he migrated to New Orleans, where he operated as a master of shipping vessels after he was naturalized as a United States citizen. He held posts with firms associated with his father or perhaps his mentors. Ship manifest documents show Leidesdorff’s working as Ship Captain and/or Master, 1834–1840, out of the Port of New Orleans. William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. was thought the last black ship captain in Louisiana after strict enforcement of the Negro Seamen Acts began at the Port of New Orleans.

Leidesdorff traveled to New York to become the Master of the schooner Julia Ann that sailed from New York to Yerba Buena (later San Francisco) in Alta California, then part of Mexico, in 1841. His route was via Panama, St. Croix, Brazil, Chile the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Sitka, Alaska, and on to California following the Pacific Ocean currents during the “Age of Sail”.

On arriving at Yerba Buena, Leidesdorff, Jr. began to re-build his businesses. He launched the first steamboat to operate on San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River; it was 37 feet (11 m) long and purchased in Alaska. He built the City Hotel, the first hotel in San Francisco, and the first commercial shipping warehouse, the latter on what became Leidesdorff Street off the Embarcadero.

In 1844 Leidesdorff obtained a vast land grant through favor from the Mexican government for 35,521 acres (143.75 km) on the south bank of the American River, near today’s City of Sacramento. He named the property Rancho Rio de los Americanos. During this period, Mexico encouraged leading Americans to settle in its territory by granting large land grants; in exchange the government required Americans to convert to Catholicism, the state religion; learn to speak Spanish; and accept Mexican citizenship. He went on to establish extensive commercial relations throughout Hawaii, Alaska and Mexican California.

During the eight years of his residence, Leidesdorff served as one of six aldermen or town councilors of the Ayuntamiento. After the United States took over California following the Mexican-American War, he was one of three members on the first San Francisco school board, which organized the first public school in the city; later he was elected City Treasurer. His house was one of the largest, and he donated land for the first public school.

In 1845, during the President James Polk administration, Leidesdorff accepted the request from US Consul Thomas O. Larkin to serve as the US Vice Consul to Mexico at the Port of San Francisco, a measure of his political standing in region. Larkin was the first and last U.S. Consul appointed to serve in California. Before the American flag was raised over San Francisco (July 1846), Leidesdorff had the U.S. Declaration of Independence read for the first time in California on the veranda at his home in celebration of Independence Day.

Leidesdorff, Jr. achieved a high reputation for integrity and enterprise; he is said to have been “liberal, hospitable, cordial, confiding even to a fault.” Leidesdorff became one of the wealthiest man in California. The value of his property near Sacramento began to rise dramatically just before his death, when gold was discovered along the American River just above his Leidesdorff Ranch, in the Gold Mining District of California.

Leidesdorff never married. According to the explorer John C. Fremont, he lived with a Russian woman while maintaining diplomatic relationships with the Russian community in Sitka, Alaska.

William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. died of brain fever on May 18, 1848. Other accounts noted the cause as pneumoniatyphus or murder. On the day of his burial, the town was in mourning, flags were at half-mast, business was suspended, and the schools were closed. His remains were interred near the front entrance of Mission Dolores on the same day, May 18, 1848.

In his honor, the following still remains in effect:

  • Leidesdorff Street in San Francisco, California and Leidesdorff Street in Folsom, California were named for him.
  • 15 miles (24 km) of U.S. Highway 50 was dedicated the William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr. Memorial Highway along the boundary of “Historic Leidesdorff Ranch”, his 35,000-acre (140 km) cattle and wheat ranch along the southern banks of the American River Parkway, Sacramento County.
  • 25th Anniversary of the Federal Holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the CORE New York City, New York Gala honoring the Leidesdorff Legacy.
  • Leidesdorff Exhibit, Mission Delores Basilica, San Francisco, California, May 1–31, 2010
  • Leidesdorff Bicentennial Celebration – “Golden Legacy of William Alexander Leidesdorff, Jr.,” October 23, 2010, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

The California pioneer died intestate, with no living relatives in California or the United States. In 1848 his estate was assumed devalued and in debt. The public discovery of gold in the American River valley and upon his extensive land holdings increased the actual value of his estate dramatically. His waterfront property in today’s financial district of San Francisco would be valuable today. A complete inventory of his estate has yet to be quantified.

The court appointed temporary administrators of his estate because there no Probate laws in California at that time. By 1854, when the California State Legislature considered escheat to take control of the property, Leidesdorff’s estate was worth well over one million dollars and multiple of millions of dollars in gold was mined off his land. When the Leidesdorff-Folsom partitioned estate was auctioned off in 1856, the property brought more than $1,445,000.

Next in The “One A Day” Black History Month Series……Mr. Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor

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