An annual celebration of African Americans’ powerful legacy, Black History Month has been honored in California—and nationwide—every February for nearly 100 years, beginning with Carter G. Woodson's establishment of Negro History Week in 1926. This year, with parades and festivals on pause, things may look a little different, but there are still plenty of ways to recognize Black excellence in the Golden State and reflect on the continued struggle for racial justice across the country.
“Both the natural landscape and built environment of our state are filled with the significance of California’s African American past,” says Susan Anderson, history curator of the California African American Museum (CAAM) in Los Angeles. “Black history is often under-researched and underrepresented, and there is so much out there for people to experience year-round. Black History Month is a way of opening that door.” Explore, honor, learn, and uplift Black history in California through these February events and others that you can experience any month of the year.
Visit an African American Historical Site
As an expert in California Black history, CAAM’s Anderson notes a few historically significant places across the state that “invite reflection, learning, pride, and sometimes heartache.” In eastern San Diego County, spend a night at the Julian Hotel, founded by African American couple Margaret and Albert Robinson in 1887. Head to the Central Valley to find Tulare County’s Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, the site of a restored town that was originally founded and governed by African Americans in 1908, and Stockton’s Moses Rodgers House, the former home of an enslaved man turned wealthy mine owner. Other sites that offer insight into the critical but often forgotten role African Americans played in the California Gold Rush include Folsom Lake State Recreation Area, where visitors can learn about one of the American River’s largest gold camps founded by African American miners, and Sonora’s Sugg House, a boarding house founded by a formerly enslaved couple who came to California during the Rush.
Of course, the state’s two largest metropolitan areas have their share of Black history–related historical sites as well. In Los Angeles, this map will lead you to 28 places, monuments, and institutions of Black cultural or historical significance. Locations include Biddy Mason Memorial Park, where you can learn about the inspiring woman who fought successfully to free her family in 1856, and El Pueblo de Los Angeles, a living museum dedicated to the city’s 44 founders, more than half of which were of African descent. Head 380 miles up the coast, and the Bay Area is home to many important Black Panther Party locations like It’s All Good Bakery in Oakland, while San Francisco’s Mary Ellen Pleasant Memorial Park honors the powerful African American woman who funded anti-discrimination measures in the late 1800s.
Learn from Black California Writers
Given the ongoing pandemic, now is a great time to cultivate a deeper understanding of the power, contributions, and impact of Black Californians with these books by authors from across the state. Browse the online selection at Eso Won Books, a Los Angeles institution highlighting the work of African American creators.
Black Artists in Oakland by Jerry Thompson and Duane Deterville
Black California: A Literary Anthology edited by Aparajita Nanda
Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West by Albert S Broussard
A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler and No Crystal Stair: African-Americans in the City of Angels by Lynell George
Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era by Alison Rose Jefferson
Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah
Attend a Black History Month Virtual Event
From film festivals to cooking demonstrations, California-based organizations have created excellent online programming for Black History Month in 2021. Have some fun with the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, which is hosting its annual African American Festival online this year with soul-pop music, drumming, storytelling, and dance performances. Take in Black History Month–related talks, screenings, and concerts hosted by UC San Diego, or take part in a conversation focused on Ida B. Wells through the California Museum in Sacramento.
Visit Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs website for a comprehensive list of virtual events streamed from all around the city, including a discussion with hip-hop artist Talib Kweli from CAMM, newly released shorts and full-length features through the Pan African Film and Arts Festival, and a panel on diversity on the stage with the Los Angeles Opera. Explore more events hosted by the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society, the San Diego Public Library, and the cities of Pasadena, Santa Barbara, and San Jose, to name a few.
Put Black Arts and Cultural Institutions on Your Travel Must-See List
Take a deeper dive into African American history, arts, and culture at one of California’s many museums—once they reopen. At the African American Historical and Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin Valley, you can find permanent and rotating exhibits centered on the history of the Fresno area and beyond. The aforementioned CAAM, in L.A.’s Exposition Park, focuses on the broader legacy of Black Americans across California and the western United States through more than 4,000 works of art, artifacts, and historical documents.
In San Francisco, visit the Museum of the African Diaspora in the Yerba Buena Arts District to take in both African and African American artwork. In the museum’s Toni Rembe Freedom Theater, no images are projected and the audience hears only stories from different historical figures such as Maya Angelou. Near Hayes Valley, find the 34,000-square-foot African American Art and Culture Complex, home to galleries, exhibition spaces, dance studios, a library, theater, and more. Across the bay in Oakland, visit The African American Museum & Library, dedicated to preserving the African American experience through first-hand accounts, including photos, art, periodicals, and diaries.
While these museums are currently closed due to the COVID-19 health risk, you can explore virtual galleries and events for all of them online. Many are hosting a full calendar of virtual Black History Month programs until they reopen for in-person guests.