From Lands End to Golden Gate: Discovering African American History on San Francisco’s Coast!
by Zoë Polk
“I am a walker. Walked most of the major seaport cities of this country…. my favorite has always been and will be the city of St. Francis, San Francisco… To walk around Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park at seven o’clock on a cool, windy morning, with that fog rolling in from the ocean to smell the eucalyptus and the pine, not even your best wine is more intoxicant. Take Kennedy Drive to the Great Highway, stroll along Ocean Beach from the Cliff House to the zoo and back- that is a blessing for any man who loves land, wind and sea. There are so many wonderful places to walk here in this great city, should I stand here all day I could not name half of them.” Ernest J. Gaines, African American writer, excerpted from Black California
LEAVING FROM BAKER BEACH, we were making our way up a long stretch of stairs which would lead us to our first close up view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Slightly breathless as I climbed, I turned around to check on the 25 Outdoor Afro’s who’d joined me on this invigorating adventure. Many were close behind me, keeping a steady pace as they climbed.
Then I scanned further back on the trail and saw one Outdoor Afro, racing to catch up.
“No need to rush!,” I called. “We’ll wait for you!”
“Don’t worry,“ she yelled back, “I’m not running for you, I’m running for me!”
The group responded with a loud cheer and encouraging applause as our trail runner joined us at the peak. This was a telling moment of the fellowship, physicality and mood of Outdoor Afro’s coastal hike, from Lands End to the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sutro Baths has always been one of my favorite places to take friends and family visiting from out of town. I love the way the ocean crashes against the rocks and ruins of the baths. I love seeing the wildlife including seals, pelicans and seagulls. I also love exploring the cave like tunnel beside the ruins and listening the loud roar of the ocean as the waves crash against the rocks. The Outdoor Afros who joined me on May 10 renewed my love for this space as I witnessed their delight and appreciation at the same unique things that I love about this historic site .
That Saturday, I revisited the Sutro Baths with new friends and also had my own new experiences. When we began the hike at the new Lands End Visitor Center, I led a discussion about African American history that is sometimes left out of information placards and park brochures. I encouraged all hikers to read the placards and think about the time periods that they describe. What was happening in African American history during this time? How does contemplating historical African Americans in nature enhance our learning experience in public parks?
With that lead in, we talked about John Harris, an African American San Franciscan who tried to enter the Sutro Baths on July 4, 1897. Mr. Harris was denied use of the baths because he was black and thus, he filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court. Harris subsequently won $100 in damages in what was one of the first test cases for African American civil rights in California.
Despite the San Francisco fog, we enjoyed beautiful ocean views and a cool climate. Outdoor Afros commented on the refreshing smell of the pacific ocean and eucalyptus trees, so aptly described by author Ernest J. Gaines. Some of us were treated to the site of dolphins cresting in the ocean. In addition, Outdoor Afro Leader and resident birder, Clay Anderson, invited everyone to look above for seagulls and jays and listen closely for their songs.
Along the way, we learned about the Bay’s treacherous history for seamen in the early twentieth century. The GGNRA placards told the story of the numerous shipwrecks that happened barely a mile from where we were hiking. While he was not mentioned in the park placard, visualizing giant old ships in the bay brought the memory of Captain William T. Shorey to my mind. Many Outdoor Afros were surprised to learn that Captain Shorey was a skilled African American captain and navigator who lead whaling expeditions from San Francisco during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Known as the “Black Ahab,” Captain Shorey was one of many nautical Outdoor Afros of that time, as the whaling business was the largest employer of African American seamen on the west coast until it ended in WWI.
From there, we made our way to Baker Beach for lunch, all the while noticing that the GGNRA placards covered a time period from 1900-1925. This facilitated a discussion of a very significant event of African American history: the Great Migration. Hikers conversed about the Great Migration and its influence on African American life and culture in the bay area. Many of us talked about our own grandparents’ and parents journeys from the Jim Crow South to the West. We continued this conversation during lunch as we rested up for the final ascent from the ocean to the cliffs of the Batteries to Bluffs Trail.
In our final discussion of the African American history around us that day, we talked about the Buffalo Soldiers’ history in the Presidio. Stationed there in 1902, these African American soldiers were some of the first park rangers of the Presidio, Yosemite, Kings Canyon National Parks and many of the parks that we love. Thinking about them under this light was a good reminder of the vital role African Americans have played and continue to play in conservation of our beautiful and wild natural spaces.
After a joyous ascent to the Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point, we paused for a final group shot. While the fog did not lift in time for our requisite group photo in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, I think everyone of us felt uplifted in our spirits.
Overall, it was an amazing day and I’m so grateful for the wonderful Outdoor Afros who took part in this adventure!
Interested in trying this hike yourself? Check our hiking route and let us know how you enjoy it:
• Start at Sutro Baths/Lands End Visitor enter Parking Lot
• Walk down the stairs to Sutro Baths
• Go up Sutro Baths Upper Trail
• Take a LEFT on Lands End Trail/Coastal Trail
• Exit onto Lincoln Hwy/El Camino Del Mar and turn LEFT
• Turn LEFT on Sea Cliff Ave and then LEFT on 25th Avenue
• LUNCH AT BAKER BEACH
• Take the path past the Battery up to Lincoln Blvd
• Take a LEFT on Batteries to Bluffs Trail
• Walk under Golden Gate Bridge
• End at Golden Gate Bridge Vista Point