Exploring African American History with Jan Batiste Adkins by Robin Shepherd , Morgan Hill Historical Society
“ It energizes me to share history with people of all ages and backgrounds . I absolutely love it .”
Jan Batiste Adkins has transformed her passion for history into a successful career as an author , educator and lecturer . But there is more to her story . This wise and soft-spoken woman is creating a legacy by preserving California ’ s rich African heritage and sharing it with others .
Adkins is the author of three historical nonfiction books in the “ Images of America ” series by Acadia Publishing : African Americans of San Francisco ( 2012 ), African Americans of Monterey County ( 2015 ), and African Americans of San Jose and Santa Clara County ( 2019 ). The result of Adkins ’ more than 12 years of historical research , they ’ re a fascinating read .
After graduating from San Jose State University in the 1980s , Adkins taught high school in the 1990s , then earned Master ’ s degrees in Education and English . A pivotal moment came in 2005 when she enrolled in a graduate course on California Literature .
“ I flipped through the course textbook . One thousand pages covering the 1840s to 1940s . An incredible era in our history , but what stood out was that the authors and stories did not reflect the diversity of California during that era .
Jan Batiste Adkins speaking at Stanford History Conference 2022 . Courtesy of Robin Shepherd
“ I asked my professor , ‘ Where are the Black people ? I don ’ t think I can take this course .’ She said , ‘ Go and research . You ’ ll find the answers you need .’ That sparked the theme of my master ’ s thesis , which focused on the African American community in San Francisco during the late 1800s . One week into the research , I was hooked .”
Adkins spent hours exploring San Francisco , Oakland and California state libraries , historical societies , and church records . Two African American newspapers published in early San Francisco caught her attention .
“ In those days , newspapers were the outlet for Black expression . Early publishers included abolitionists like Lloyd Garrison , Frederick Douglass , Mifflin Gibbs and Philip Bell in New York . Gibbs and Bell headed west to publish their own papers . Mirror of the Times and Pacific Appeal became a living record of the imaginative writings , poetry and short stories of African Americans of the San Francisco Bay Area .
In 2007 , Adkins joined the faculty at San Jose City College , landed a book deal with Acadia Publishing , and continued her research .
Adkins is quick to credit the librarians who connected her to historical archives at the Martin Luther King Jr Library at SJSU , UC Berkeley ’ s Bancroft Library , History San Jose and other organizations .
Even though California achieved Statehood in 1850 and entered the Union as a free state , historical records show an underground slave trade persisted to support the Gold Rush and farming . The Santa Clara County Census of 1852 still listed “ slave ” as an occupation .* Original emancipation papers and manumission papers from the 1800s reveal many stories of slavery .”
While Adkins ’ books recount some harrowing aspects of the African American experience , she devotes greater attention to stories of their accomplishments and says , “ There are more stories out there , and they ’ re a source of pride and hope .”
For example , Adkins ’ third book features statues by Mary Edmonia Lewis , the first African American sculptor to achieve international distinction . In the 1870s , her bust of Abraham Lincoln was purchased and gifted to the MLK Library where it ’ s on public display today .
Another example is the cover photo of Adkins ’ third book . She visited the family that lived in the historic San Jose home ( pictured ) and received permission to photograph and use the original photo for her book . Built in 1910 , the house is still standing today . Adkins learned that the family pictured on the front porch were the Mc- Calls , who founded the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ( NAACP ) in 1942 .
Historic records of people of African heritage in the Santa Clara Valley date back to the 1770s . By the 1800s , they were a close knit community . During the Great Migration of the early 1900s , neighborhoods in San Jose , Palo Alto , and Santa Clara became home to African Americans who ’ d come West seeking a better life . In the face of discrimination and exclusion , they formed their own businesses , schools and churches and social clubs . They have overcome unimaginable obstacles and contributed to every aspect of America ’ s history .
Thanks to people like Jan Batiste Adkins , their stories continue to be uncovered and shared for the enlightenment and benefit of all Americans .
“ One person ’ s story led to another . My writing naturally expanded beyond San Francisco to Monterey , San Jose , and Santa Clara County — and from one book to three .”
Find Jan Batiste Adkins ’ books at BookSmart of Morgan Hill . Hear Jan Batiste Adkins ’ 2021 lecture on the Santa Clara County Library District website .
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