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Monday, April 13, 2015

MS Monday—PPIE Part 3: The girl who named the fair

Another unexpected gem from the James Rolph, Jr. papers is this letter from Virginia Stephens to then mayor James Rolph, Jr.:

Virginia Stephens letter to Hon. James Rolph, Jr., James Rolph, Jr. papers, MS 1818, California Historical Society

In her book, San Francisco’s Jewel City, Laura Ackley describes Stephens as the “child who had the most profound effect on the Exposition.” A twelve-year-old African American student at Oakland’s Longfellow Elementary, Stephens won a contest hosted by the San Francisco Call to nickname the Exposition. Her lovely suggestion, “Jewel City,” remains with us today. According to Ackley, Stephens went on to have an illustrious career of her own, graduating from Boalt Law School in 1929 to become the first African American woman to be admitted to the bar in the state of California.

Stephens’ school, Longfellow Elementary (closed in 2004) was at the corner of Lusk and 39th Streets, between San Pablo and Telegraph Avenues in the “long corridor” (to quote Robert O. Self’s American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland) between West Oakland and South Berkeley that was—and remains, despite the pressures of gentrification—a historically and politically vibrant center of African American life in the Bay Area. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was active here, and it was here that the Black Panther Party was born, at the old Merritt College on Grove Street, now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.

To learn more about Stephens and the role of African Americans at the fair, please attend our April 30th program, in partnership with the Museum of the African Diaspora and the African American Museum and Library at Oakland:

Marie Silva
Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian

1 comment:

Laura Ackley said...

Some other details I had to cut from the book (Bonus!)

Oakland’s Bournemouth Circle club held a “Jewel City Ball” at which Virginia was presented with a gold cross necklace and a bouquet of choice roses. On a fair, breezy summer day, Virginia rode in state through the streets of San Francisco on a float emblazoned with a large banner identifying her as having named the Fair. The float bore about 50 African-American children and was organized by the Alameda County Colored American Civic Center.
Virginia’s early successes were predictive. When she won the Call contest, she had just been promoted to eighth grade at the top of her class. Mary Church Terrell, journalist and founding president of the National Association of Colored Women, said of her, “One might travel a long distance before meeting a girl with brighter eyes, a more intelligent, pleasant countenance and a more prepossessing personality.” Virginia attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduated from Boalt Law School, and in 1929 became the first African-American woman admitted to the Bar in California. She went on to a long career in the State Office of Legislative Counsel.