Forget Columbus. My grandfather discovered America.


They call him Mr. Burton. (They all do.)

This Columbus Day, while some protest and others laud the discovery of America – and some dispute if a land with inhabitants can even be discovered – I’m going to take a break from all the controversy and celebrate another, lesser-known explorer: my grandfather, Jewell ‘Burt’ Burton. If Columbus discovered Hispaniola, Burt discovered America.

When I describe my ancestral homeland, hidden by the mists of history, I don’t imagine a West African village beset by slavers. I conjure grainy black-and-white photographs of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. In 1943, my grandparents, second- and third-generation Arkansans, became part of the Second Migration, the mass of skilled urban workers who left the South for better jobs during the wartime boom. This time, instead of moving North, a lot of them went West. My grandparents, as if by destiny, both ended in the same place: San Francisco.

Legend has it that, upon his arrival in the Fillmore District, my grandfather spent every day walking the streets of San Francisco, getting lost again and again, so that he would learn the lay of the land he’d discovered, taming it in the process.

Although a popular misconception is that participants in the Second Migration were invariably fleeing poverty, Burt was doing well in Arkansas. Burt’s family owned their farm; he was not descended from sharecroppers, and was comparatively well off. In fact, by the time he left for California, he was a skilled concrete mixer, and actually suffered an initial pay cut upon his arrival.

But, in segregated Pine Bluff, he had gotten in trouble on jobs for complaining that black men made less than their white counterparts, for not shutting up and going home when foremen had refused to pay him. It wasn’t just money he wanted: it was the freedom to make the same wage as any other man, black or white. And in San Francisco, he got it, too, demanding to be promoted above the white men he’d trained in the shipyards.

There were already people living on the island of Hispaniola when Columbus “discovered” it, and there were certainly a lot of people inhabiting San Francisco in 1943. The Fillmore District later became celebrated as a center for Black culture in the Bay Area, but, in the years during and after World War II, it was dangerously overcrowded. In 1940, San Francisco’s black population was 4,846; by 1950, it was 43,502, nearly ten times that. Because of discrimination in housing – everything from housing covenants to outright refusal to rent – black migrants were largely confined to the Fillmore, in conditions rivaling Jacob Riis’ turn-of-the-century New York. Yet, once he had saved up enough money, my grandfather changed real estate agents until he found one – the only woman in the office – who would show him property in historically white neighborhoods, and settled in a pair of Victorian flats.

The Great Migration – after slavery – integrated the North, but the Second Migration integrated America. Burt, like it or not, must have put a human face on the Civil Rights Movement everywhere he went. His initially hostile neighbors might not have known Martin Luther King, but they knew their neighbor, Burt – Mr. Burton, to you — who looked them right in the eye and demanded their respect.

My grandfather came to San Francisco and founded a family, a settlement in an unfriendly land. He had six children and saw five of them grow up. He has sent grandchildren to college and great-grandchildren to private school. His choice to leave his decent life in Arkansas for something greater, something largely unknown, has shifted the course of his line in ways we won’t fully grasp for generations.

In short, my grandfather discovered America. If you follow your line far back enough, someone in your family probably did, too.