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
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