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by Elaine Elinson

When my coauthor and I were invited to read in the auditorium of the main San Francisco Public Library this week, I got butterflies in my stomach.

Don’t get me wrong – I love libraries.  To me they are a cross between a sanctuary and a treasure trove.  When we were researching our book, Wherever There’s a Fight:  How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California, we spent hours in libraries, pulling books off the shelves and combing through dusty archives.  I’d often look up when the librarian warned us they were closing in fifteen minutes.  Where did the time go? How could I have missed lunch?

And I love librarians too.  There are many librarian heroines in our book.  Like Gretchen Knief, the chief librarian of the Bakersfield Public Library in 1939. The Kern County Board of Supervisors told her that she could not lend out John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath because they did not like the way the growers were portrayed. Knief fought the ban, and while it was in effect, she distributed her 60 copies to other libraries so patrons in other counties could read the book.  Or the Yolo County librarian who, after the Patriot Act mandated that all library records were subject to unannounced FBI searches, shredded patrons’ records by hand so they could not be scrutinized by the government. The library eventually bought her a new shredder.

No, I get nervous because I am sure there will be someone in the audience who knows way more about labor, or immigration, or women’s rights than we do – and that person will challenge our interpretation or berate us for not including something crucial.

As I looked out over the library audience, it looked like a friendly crowd. But as we began our reading, I wondered who was the one who would take us to task.

Many of the stories that we unearthed for the book have not been told for a very long time.  Hidden by a dominant view of history or one that sanitized our past for textbooks and official proclamations, many courageous, iconoclastic rebellious Californians had their voices muffled and marginalized.

Like Charlotte Brown, the daughter of a freed slave, who was told by a San Francisco street car conductor that she would have to get off the car because “colored persons were not allowed to ride.”  She defied him and took the streetcar company to court – almost a century before Rosa Parks.

And Selina Solomons, a Jewish suffragist, who cooked and served lunch to shop girls at the Votes for Women Club, and then organized them to walk precincts to win the right to vote.

Mary Tape whose daughter was barred from her local public school because she was Chinese and Patricia Maginnis, arrested for helping women find safe abortions, before Roe v. Wade.

We are not trained historians, but loved discovering these courageous people, and amplifying their voices.

At our readings, these stories often come full circle.  There is often someone in the audience who has a civil rights story of their own to tell.  They remember when their Japanese American neighbors were forcibly uprooted and incarcerated in the bleak, desert camps of Manzanar during World War II.   As a UC Berkeley sophomore, they heard Mario Savio speak from the top of a police car during the Free Speech Movement.  Their mother walked a picket line in the first Delano grape strike.

And this is exactly what happened this week at the San Francisco Public Library.  One person remembered his father taking him as a 9-year-old boy to the sit-in at the Sheraton Palace Hotel when they would not hire Blacks.  A teacher told us that she had fought the censorship of Bless Me, Ultima, the prize-winning YA novel by Rudolfo Anaya in her middle school.

And, yes, there was the history professor in the audience who berated us for not devoting a chapter on the San Francisco State student strike, an unforgivable offense in his view. But my butterflies had flown by then and I told him, as our very smart editor had advised, that we look forward to his book on that subject.

We have a date at the Albany Library next month – still a little nervous, but looking forward to it!



Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.

Elaine Elinson
About Elaine Elinson

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