Starting today, you may notice some unusual activity occurring on Market Street. Don't mistake it for the usual cast of crazies known for loitering and creating ruckus of all sorts on the sidewalk. These people aren't homeless and begging for money, but rather make up a troupe of characters telling the story of eight prominent African Americans who lived and worked near Market Street during the mid-19th century.
Forget the grit and grime that currently litters this forgotten neighborhood and instead imagine it as it once existed—a place of bustling activity and rapid change that has helped shape our city into what it is today. Created by artistic director of Zaccho Dance Theatre Joanna Haigood, the players of Sailing Away will enlighten us by acting out the events leading up to the mass exodus of African Americans from San Francisco in 1858 through a series of historical narratives. Using gestures and incorporating sites and monuments located between Powell and First streets, performers will interact with onlookers, giving us a feel for 19th-century commercial life on the city’s most important thoroughfare, which was once home to myriad African American-owned enterprises.
Presented as part of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Art on Market Street Temporary Projects Program, the performances will take place in one continuous loop of 30-minute cycles, beginning at Powell Street and ending at the northeast corner of Battery Street near Shoreline Plaque, a brass plaque that marks the early San Francisco shoreline. “The history of African Americans in San Francisco and their important role in shaping the city is absolutely fascinating, but, tragically, largely unknown,” says Mr. Cancel of the Arts Commission. "Zaccho Dance Theatre brings this history to life in a way that is visually engaging."
You'll have the opportunity to learn about Mary Ellen Pleasant, an entrepreneur who used her wealth to further the abolitionist movement; Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, a devoted abolitionist and participant in the Underground Railroad; Archy Lee, a slave who was the focus of several court cases involving slavery laws and a civil rights movement in 1858; James Monroe Whitfield, a major propagandist for black separatism and racial justice. Sailing Away also includes a contemporary character referencing African Americans living in San Francisco today and the current trend in relocation to East Bay communities.
“African Americans and their histories are disappearing from San Francisco,” says Ms. Haigood. “The average San Franciscan would not recognize the names of these important, national figures, working on behalf of all African Americans. This piece hopes to illuminate obscured histories and initiate meaningful dialogue around their subsequent legacies.”
If you consider yourself a true San Franciscan, do your due diligence and learn the part of this city's history that you likely know nothing about.
This special event will take place from October 7-10 between 1 and 5 p.m. each day on Market Street between Powell and First streets.