“All of my stories come from the past” asserts Damon Lawrence, CEO and Creative Director of Homage Hotel Group. His company will debut The Town Hotel, a black-owned boutique hotel in downtown Oakland slated to open Summer 2016. Homage is defined as “respect or reverence paid or rendered,” and Damon is paying homage to black pioneer William Leidesdorff who opened the first hotel in San Francisco during the 1800s. When asked about the connection between Leidesdorff’s story and his business Damon states, “there is a need in our society as a whole to acknowledge black culture as part of the larger American story. It IS the American story.” Before learning about Damon and his new project, I was unfamiliar of the far-reaching legacy of William Leidesdorff. However the more I uncovered, the more I realized his integral contribution to U.S. History.
William Leidesdorff (1810- 1848) was a pioneer in many respects and accomplished a long list of firsts during his short life of 38 years. Leidesdorff was born on a plantation in the West Indies to a Dutch father and a mother of African and Spanish descent. After spending a period of his adult life in New Orleans, he sailed to Yerba Buena, which is currently known as San Francisco. During his time there, he built the first public school in California, was elected to San Francisco’s first city council and school board, and was the first African-American diplomat to serve as U.S. Vice Consul to Mexico in 1845. Moreover, he also built the first shipping warehouse, hotel, and racetrack in San Francisco , owned the seafront property of what is now considered San Francisco’s Financial District and operated the first steamboat on the San Francisco Bay. Learning about Leidesdorff inspired Damon to dream big.“He had no rubric or guide,” says Damon. “He didn’t need to follow in anyone else’s footsteps in order to succeed.” Damon says that Black people are constant creators of U.S. culture. “We define what popular culture is in America. We pave the way but we let other people sell our culture. We’ve become too accustomed to selling things for other people.” The aforementioned trend that Lawrence identified has taken many names, from cultural appropriation, to the newly-coined term, “cultural smudging” used most recently by rapper Azealia Banks. Whatever name it’s given, the historical and current trend of black people and culture being used to extend profit margins for non-black communities is undeniable.
This brings us back to Mr.Leisdesdorff and why many people aren’t familiar with his story. When William died, he was single and childless. Due to the gold found on his property, his estate was worth 1.5 million dollars and since he did not have any heirs, it was tied up in auctions for some years. A man by the name of Joseph Folsom seized this opportunity and took a trip to the West Indies to visit William’s mother and convinced her to sign over her inheritance for $75,000. Once she realized she had been swindled, it was too late. She lost her court case and Folsom was a very rich man who is also falsely credited as being a founder of the city of San Francisco. This explains why there is no Leisdesdorff street in the Financial District, and why we not only have a Folsom Street, but even a city named Folsom, California.
Damon seeks to revive Leisdesdorff’s lost legacy by serving in the industry he loves: Hospitality. He views hospitality as a way of life and a trait that’s an inherent part of black culture. “When you look at the phrase ‘southern hospitality’, who was doing most of the serving and raising most of the children in the south? It was us. I feel that hospitality is who we are at our core. ” Lawrence doesn’t just seek to have a black-owned hotel, his goal is to have the first black-owned management company and brand. “Many black Americans own amazing hotels however, their hotels are managed by large brands like the Marriott and Hyatt” (Carter, 2015). He sees the importance of black ownership of a brand in order to maintain cultural integrity.Damon wants to create “a world-renowned and respected brand that can transcend race and culture while paying respect to the history of African-American culture.” When asked about The Town Hotel’s Oakland location, Lawrence speaks about Oakland’s infinite potential, “Oakland is a blank canvas for an open mind. There’s a need for a lot of services and a deep black legacy in this city.”
Reflecting back on Leidesdorff’s story is simultaneously inspiring and unsettling. In one respect it’s encouraging to see just how much a black man living in the 1800s was able to contribute to U.S. history. However, it’s also sobering to see how easy it was for his hard-earned profits to be usurped and for this information to remain hidden. William Leidesdorff played an instrumental role of the transition of California from a Mexican to U.S. territory. In 1846, he translated the proclamation that California was part of the United States. It was noted that “Before the American flag was raised over San Francisco in July 1846, Leidesdorff had the U.S. Declaration of Independence read for the first time on the veranda of his home in celebration of Independence Day” (Wikipedia). A man who played such a quintessential role in U.S. history deserves to be paid homage to, because his story strengthens our history and our future.