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Friday, March 29, 2019

The Life of Elaine Black Yoneda, In Her Own Words

The concept for Women’s History Month was born in California, beginning as a local, week-long celebration in Santa Rosa in 1978. The idea quickly spread across the country as other communities adopted their own versions of the celebration, and in 1980 President Jimmy Carter issued a proclamation instituting a nationwide “Women’s History Week.” This eventually evolved to encompass an entire month, observed annually, and designated each year by Presidential proclamation. Every March, we take the opportunity to recognize the achievements, struggles, and experiences of women by telling their stories and exploring individual contributions to history as well as contemporary life.


Examining the past can allow us to understand and appreciate the people, places, and events that have made up our history, inform our present, and inevitably shape our future. Studying what came before can help route the course for a world that is more inclusive and equitable. It’s common to learn the stories behind well-known names, the key players in text books, interpretations of the past that are well-loved and often repeated. These stories are important, yes, and their reappearance in our lives in no way diminishes their significance, but what about the other, less talked about stories?

Recently I made a trip downstairs to visit CHS’s North Baker Research Library, feeling a bit overwhelmed by my task of identifying a source around which to compose a Women’s History Month blog. There are a lot of women of gumption ingrained into the story of our state…so where to begin? Luckily, my colleague, Lynda Letona, had recently stumbled upon the oral history of Elaine Black Yoneda, a gem in our collection because of the figure behind the name but also unique because the history is oral and publicly available online.

A complete typed transcript of Yoneda’s oral history is stored in our vaults as well, so Lynda hauled the thick volume up for me to peruse. Within a few minutes I was entranced by this woman and elbows deep in her life. Across 7 days and 14 hours in the late 1970’s, at Elaine’s apartment in the Outer Mission District of San Francisco, the interviewer proceeds with a purpose to “obtain Yoneda’s background, schooling, early life, marriages, and involvement in the left wing movement of the thirties. Then to develop her activities and motivations as an official of the International Labor Defense, and as a member of the Communist Party, particularly her thinking and opinions as a woman leader during that period.” 

Transcript of  Elaine Black Yoneda's oral history, 1978
The thing I love about Elaine’s oral history is that it’s told from her first person perspective and speaks to her political activism, but also includes descriptions of her personal life, things she experienced as a woman, daughter, sister, and mother, as well as how those experiences affected and were affected by her public life and work. It is compelling because so much of it is relatable and provides insight into the little things that make up a life, the things that make us human and connect us across time and diversity of experience. Her work was radical for her era, especially as a woman, and echoes battles still being waged across the nation and world today.

Elaine Black Yoneda was born in 1906 in New York City to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. Her family moved to California in the 1920's and Elaine’s political awareness emerged after she experienced police brutality at a mass unemployment demonstration in Los Angeles. From there she quickly became a civil rights leader with the International Labor Defense (ILD), an organization for the defense of political and trade union prisoners, including deportees. She earned the nicknames “Red Angel” during the 1934 waterfront strike and General Strike in San Francisco, and “Tiger Girl” in Salinas during an agricultural strike. She was arrested many times, and used the courtroom as a forum to bring to light civil rights violations, including the right of free speech and the right to assemble.

Like many good stories, this one includes love and drama. Yoneda’s oral history outlines both of her marriages, including her second marriage to a Japanese American activist named Karl “Hama” Yoneda, whom she met when she bailed him out of jail as part of her duties working for the ILD. (He changed his name in honor of Karl Marx). They married in Seattle, as anti-miscgenation laws still in place at the time made it illegal for them to marry in California. As Japanese Americans, Karl and their son Tommy were sent to Manzanar Interment Camp following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Elaine insisted on joining them. 

The Yoneda family at Manzanar Internment Camp in 1942, credit: TradingCardsNPS 

Throughout her oral history one can garner a sense of Elaine’s passion for the labor movement, her convictions about civil liberties, tenderness towards her children and family, and snippets of wisdom gleaned from 70 years of life experience. She discusses her childhood as a second generation American with revolutionary parents, her hopes for her daughter, and her participation in the Salinas Lettuce Strike, National Scottsboro Week, and the Spanish Civil War relief. She discusses being the only woman on the steering committee of the 1934 San Francisco Strike, her unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1939, and examples of male chauvinism within the Communist Party in the 1930’s. It’s engaging, informative, inspiring. 

Elaine Black Yoneda with “Free the Scottsboro Boys” Activists, 1934
California Historical Society
Elaine Black Yoneda died on May 29, 1988, one day after attending a longshoreman’s rally in support of Reverend Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. She leaves us with some wisdom to be passed on to future political activists:

“Sometimes some of them have a tendency (perhaps I did at that age) to think that the revolution should have happened yesterday. There may be many tomorrows. You have to work with the people, and you have to discuss their needs, not just your own needs, and see it from a wider perspective than just a narrow path. Things do not happen overnight. It takes a long period of working for an objective and if it’s the right one, eventually you’ll get it.” … “ I think for a while they tended to disregard everything that is so-called history. 'We don’t need history, that’s ancient.' But more and more, are beginning to see the need to at least know that history so that they don’t commit some of the same errors that others committed.”

by Katie Peeler, Marketing Associate at California Historical Society

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Celebrating the start of two railroad exhibitions with our San Francisco community

One hundred and fifty years ago, the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in North America signaled the closing of the American frontier and the ability to travel from coast to coast quickly and with more ease than ever before. In recognition of this anniversary, the California Historical Society (CHS) presents two simultaneous exhibitions that examine the history of the railroad in California and beyond: Mark Ruwedel: Westward the Course of Empire and Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad. Last week all of us at CHS had the pleasure of celebrating the opening of these two exhibitions with our members, VIP guests, and staff!

In his series Westward the Course of Empire (1994–2008), photographer Mark Ruwedel documents the physical traces of abandoned or never completed railroads throughout the American and Canadian West. Built in the name of progress as early as one hundred and fifty years ago, these now defunct rail lines are marked by visible alterations to the landscape. Ruwedel catalogues eroding cuts, disconnected wooden trestles, decaying tunnels, and lonely water towers in quietly powerful images that point to the contest between technology and the natural world. Using a large-format view camera, Ruwedel treads the same territory as nineteenth century survey photographers, but his contemporary perspective brings a sense of loss to landscapes once viewed as exploitable resources.

Overland to California: Commemorating the Transcontinental Railroad draws from the California Historical Society’s vast archival and photographic collections to consider the railroad’s impact on the industry and culture of California. Featuring photographs, stereocards, historical objects, and ephemera, this exhibition explores how the major railroad companies used marketing images to bolster their reputations and promote their lines in a period of rapid growth and social unrest. Overland to California will also examine the railroad’s complex labor history, taking into consideration the immigrant populations who built its infrastructure, as well as the scandals surrounding the monopolistic practices of the so-called “Big Four” railroad executives: Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins.

The exhibition features important archival material from CHS’s permanent collection including a mammoth plate photograph by Carleton Watkins of a helix-shaped stretch of track known as the Tehachapi Loop, as well as a first edition copy of Frank Norris’ 1901 novel, The Octopus. Also being exhibited on select viewing days is a 9.25 ounce gold spike, the last to be driven into the railroad that connected Los Angeles and San Francisco on September 5th, 1876, thereby joining Los Angeles to the East Coast. The spike was donated to CHS by an heir of railroad magnate Charles Crocker in 1956. It will be on view during special events throughout the exhibition.

Last Thursday night's opening included remarks by Managing Curator, Erin Garcia, as well as CHS’s Director of Library, Collections, Exhibitions, and Programs, Susan Anderson. Food was provided by Straw Carnival Fare, with refreshments from Fort Point. Guests also enjoyed jazz by Francis Wong and Karl Evangelista.


Westward the Course of Empire and Overland to California will remain on view at CHS’s headquarters at 678 Mission St. in San Francisco until September 8, 2019. Please visit or call us at 415 357-1848 for more information.

Want to hang out with us at fun history events like this one? Join today!

Images courtesy of Shannon Foreman photography

Monday, March 25, 2019

Teaching California at California Council for the Social Studies conference 2019

On March 15th, California Historical Society Reference Librarian (and super colleague) Frances Kaplan and I traveled to the annual California Council for the Social Studies (CCSS) conference to promote CHS’s new curriculum project, Teaching California. Each year, the CCSS conference aims to deliver professional development for educators focused on new scholarship, research-based strategies, and networking -- all designed to improve the teaching and learning of history/social studies across the state. Held in San Jose this year, CCSS 2019 was filled to the brim with presentations, workshops, and exhibitors, and was well-attended by educators from across the state.
Shelley Brooks, California History-Social Science Project (CHSSP) Program Coordinator, previewing student and teacher resources found in Teaching California’s instructional materials focused on the California Missions (taught in 4th grade).
Frances and I presented at two separate sessions (one aimed at the elementary school-level and one at the high school-level), each together with members of our Teaching California curriculum partners at the California History-Social Science Project. In these sessions, titled “Teaching CA: Bringing Archives into the Classroom,” we introduced teachers and administrators to our project, a joint collaboration between archivists, librarians, educators, and subject specialists.

Our goal is to empower teachers to engage in inquiry instruction that is aligned to California’s new History-Social Science Framework, improves student literacy, and supports civic learning and engagement. In both sessions, teachers practiced the historical investigation process and, excitingly, previewed some of the inquiry-based lessons (and primary sources!) that we are creating for the project. Here are more scenes from our sessions:
Tuyen Tran, Assistant Director of CHSSP, going over the basics of California’s new History-Social Science Framework. Teaching California will create Framework-aligned materials that will aid in school and classroom implementation.

A closer look at a draft of one of our Teaching California lessons, called “inquiry sets,” for the second grade, which includes both primary sources and contextual information aimed at both students and teachers. This set includes a handwritten note on a collar produced during the 1906 earthquake and fire, from CHS's collections of California history.
Elementary school teachers review drafts of Teaching California’s second-grade instructional materials, which includes never-before-seen objects and photographs from CHS’s collections.

To view the slides for one of our CCSS sessions on Teaching California, visit this link.
This post comes from Kerri Young, Teaching California Project Manager. You can reach out to her at

Monday, March 18, 2019

Glimpses of Paradise

There is a church a block away from where I live. I go there to visit a tree. One of its branches has descended upon the earth, bending heavily from its weight; a forked stick helps support it and hold it up. I also go there to see a spirit mural. It is a beautiful mosaic of a white-tailed dove crowned with what I imagine is intended as a symbol of the holy spirit. Some may interpret it a phoenix rising. Its tail spreads across four columns of the church, spawning various symbols—hearts, shells, angels, and my favorite, a couple - the silhouette of a man and a woman. My idealist self places her fingers on the shadowy figures and yearns, wishing for these symbols to materialize into existence. This idealist yearning, this ideal is something like the glimpses of paradise that I see in the eyes of the believers in Peoples Temple, particularly in the photographs of the children, the dancers, and the older women who believe in the possibility of healing, of all races coming together as a unit under the banner of love.
Child with baby sloth, circa 1974-1978; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; Box 30, folder 6; California Historical Society.
What is Peoples Temple? Difficult question. Difficult and perhaps impossible to answer. The more you learn about Peoples Temple, the more questions begin to multiply and answers become hazy. Working on the Peoples Temple Publication Department records, a project funded by the National Historical Records and Publications Commission (NHPRC), has provided me with some insights into this important time in history. It’s worth keeping in mind the context of the photography prints--they were designed to serve the Publications Department’s purposes including fundraising, church member activities, public relations, and community outreach.

Working on the Peoples Temple photographs and some of the textual material gives one a glimpse into the ideal that was sought from its conception. Perhaps you come upon a beautiful child taking a stroll in the jungle at Jonestown, discovering a flower and pausing for a moment to consider it and hold it with care.

Child with flower, circa 1974-1978; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; Box 30, folder 6; California Historical Society.
One might come upon an image of a troupe of African American dancers in exuberant dress, striking a pose with raised fists, a symbol for Black power. Their youthful energy electrifying you and making you remember what it was like to yearn for equality, making you still yearn for it like the dream lives on.
African dancers, circa 1975-1976; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; Box 30, folder 2; California Historical Society.
Then there is the look that the woman at church gives her pastor, in whom she places her complete trust. So what if he is forged from another clan, another color? He has embraced you and accepted you and welcomed you in this space that you believe is your new home. Your history is a heavy tree branch that needs holding up a bit.

Woman at church service with Jim Jones, circa 1974-1978; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; Box 31, folder 2; California Historical Society.
Some observers like to fixate on the end, but sometimes forget to consider or question the beginning and the ensuing journey. What impetus drove this engine? We cannot dismiss the importance of symbols and the meaning they carry in our frail vessels. We yearn for community and company. The photographic prints and textual material in the newly processed Peoples Temple Publications Department records are a testament to such yearning. Whether one considers the tragic end, regarding it as a warning not to trust those who claim benevolence and promise protection then betray such a trust, or whether one suspends their disbelief and allows the yearning to take hold through the eyes and deeds of the beholder, one may catch a glimpse of paradise. A glimpse of paradise in the sense that, look—it can be all simple, we can all work together under the same roof, share the same land and space, dance to the same drum beat. Yet this simple thing eludes us continually so we are always just catching glimpses of what could be.

Two youth in Jonestown, circa 1974-1978; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; Box 30, folder 4; California Historical Society.
But ... what if we were to reframe the question? What if we were to temper our idealism with a dose of realism? As I was contemplating the Peoples Temple after processing the photo prints, a play titled Tetecan: An Aztec Tragedy, from another of CHS’s collections caught my eye in the vault. I opened it to the foreword, which besides some anachronistic observations on the Aztecs, had something interesting written there:

“Each of us in his destined hour, in hope or extremity, mounts the steps of idealism. In all times and places, fervid youths have climbed in search of idealism, driven upward by sight of the seething plain of life across which the light of brotherhood appears at times to burn fitfully. Too many of them have climbed in vain.”

Sometimes the young of spirit desire to undo the imperfect system that keeps the light of brotherhood from burning with a peaceful flame. We dare give birth to hope and begin to climb the mountain of idealism, leaving the plain of life behind; almost obliterating it and starting anew with our own thoughts, on our own terms, seeking like-minded people. We want paradise on earth, now. We tire of waiting for elusive promises. This, however, can be a dangerous proposition. Humans are imperfect beings embedded with foibles and faults, often drawn to extremes. Often reacting to others’ extremes—from greed to idealism. The lessons imparted to us in the narratives of the Peoples Temple and those who seek to explain the church are often extreme, understandably mirroring such narratives. But what about the lessons imparted in the brief glimpses of the promise of paradise the eye may draw from some of the photographs? Can anything be extracted from these? Even if there’s a strong possibility that some of it was curated to fit the purpose of publication?

I think there is something important to be extracted from these brief glimpses. I think part of the lesson lies in contemplating the extremes, sure, but also, considering the journey in between, the fissures where love was let in. This is a quiet journey that involves reflection, pause, and silence.

Church members praying during service, circa 1965-1978; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; Box 30, folder 9; California Historical Society.
Processing the Peoples Temple photo prints was something we took our time with. We sleeved some of the larger prints, housing them in new folders while keeping categories labeled by the publication department or creating new folder categories if they reflected a theme such as with the “African Dancers” folder. For some of the smaller prints such as passport photos or member photos we opted to house these in envelopes to keep them from falling from their folders…. I wanted to contain the photographs as if I could contain the spirit of the lives reflected there. I wanted to keep a level of privacy and respect to Temple members photographed even though their lives have become very public. Sometimes it’s the smallest details that show people we care.

The Peoples Temple photographs give us glimpses of a paradise the youth in us has yearned to see. But did many of them climb in vain? I like to think that the climb was not in vain. I like to do a challenging thing—to turn from the sensationalized end and pause a bit to study the faces of the people whose life held meaning and the potential for a longer, better life. The idealist in me keeps searching for these glimpses, hoping they bloom and multiply and one day materialize like during my yearning by the spirit mural. The realist in me, however, reminds herself to also temper such yearning given the nature of man and its excesses. It’s a challenging task—to both acknowledge the end, to grasp the fitful yearning of utopia so as to temper it and prevent it from happening again, but also to not forget the fissures and glimpses of paradise where life and love seeped through.

Woman with baby girl, circa 1974-1978; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; Box 30, folder 4; California Historical Society.
Written by Lynda Letona, Assistant Archivist & Reference Librarian at California Historical Society (CHS).

Photos digitized by Marissa Friedman, Imaging Technician and Cataloger at CHS.

A finding aid for the People Temple collection can be found here.

Brown, Hugh. 1950. Foreword to Tetecan: An Aztec tragedy. San Francisco: Bohemian Club.

Photographic Prints, circa 1965-1978; Peoples Temple Publications Department Records, MS 3791; California Historical Society.

The processing of this collection was made possible by funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

Thursday, March 14, 2019

California Historical Society's Recently Cataloged Maps

Among the 5,000 to 6,000 maps in the California Historical Society’s collection are many examples of rare and unique titles. Below is a sampling of a few recently cataloged items:

1. An interesting manuscript Map of St. Louis, surveyed and drawn by Asa F. Bradley, dated 1850. The developers of the proposed settlement had grand plans for a relatively large (103-block) town which included wide diagonal streets and a central plaza. It was located south of the City of Sonoma and is currently of much more modest in size. Over the years it was known as Saint Louis, Saint Louis Landing, San Luis, and currently Embarcadero. The map is in pen-and-ink.

2. Plan of Marysville lays out all the city blocks, lots and squares. It was published in Marysville by Eddy Brothers, Stationers, and was beautifully lithographed by Alexander Zakreski in San Francisco. Zakreski (or Zakrzewski, 1799-1863) was a Polish emigrant and skilled mapmaker and lithographer. The map is on indefinite loan to CHS from the De Young Memorial Museum.

3. A Map of a Portion of the Hock Farm surveyed by Nelson Wescoatt in 1857 and drawn in 1860. Sutter Hock Farm, north of Sacramento on the Feather River, was the first non-Indian settlement in Sutter County and was established in 1841 by early settler John A. Sutter. The hand-drawn map, in pen-and-ink and watercolor on cloth, includes a beautifully decorated north arrow. It was given to CHS by F.S. Hudson in 1946.

4. Another colorful manuscript map entitled Map of All the Swamp and Overflowed Lands in Santa Clara County … 1868 to 1872 was drawn by the County Surveyor A.H. Parker. It shows lots, land owners, land grants and watercourses. The map includes a table of surveyor’s courses and distances and is drawn in pen-and-ink and watercolor on cloth. 

5. An Outline Map of Southern Central California Showing Railroad and Steamboat Routes, although undated, was probably published in the 1880s by Wallace W. Elliott & Co. in San Francisco. Counties are hand colored.

6. Hill Street, 6th to 10th St[reet]s, Los Angeles, California is one of about 130 blueline print maps covering business districts in Southern California, Arizona and Nevada drawn by Coldwell, Cornwall & Banker (later Coldwell, Banker). This one is dated July 1938 and shows individual businesses with lot sizes. Firms shown include The May Company and Bullocks department stores and the Los Angeles Theater.

Slightly over half of the CHS maps that have been cataloged over the last three years are unique to WorldCat (the world’s largest library catalog). That is, at the time of cataloging no other library had created records for these maps. To date 3,200 maps (or about two-thirds of the collection) have been cataloged. Records for them may be found in our online library catalog as well as in WorldCat.


Written by Philip Hoehn