Past Programs

The California Historical Society is pleased to present public programs that further our mission of making our state’s richly diverse past a meaningful part of contemporary life. Scroll down to see a list of our past events. Many of our programs have been recorded and you can find links to videos below or by visiting our YouTube channel.

The views and opinions expressed in these programs are those of the speakers. The California Historical Society is not responsible for errors, inaccuracies, omissions, or other inconsistencies and disclaims any liability for any loss, damage, or disruption they may cause. The content presented here is intended to encourage critical thinking and further study.


October 24, 2023 Portal: San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Reinvention of American Cities with John King
September 26, 2023 Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties, with Jon Wiener
August 22, 2023 George Meléndez Wright: The Fight for Wildlife and Wilderness in the National Parks
July 11, 2023 California, A Slave State
June 6, 2023 John A. Todd: Photographing Mining Pollution in Gold Rush California
May 23, 2023 My biography is the history of California: Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and his Recuerdos
April 25, 2023 We Are Not Animals: Indigenous Survival and Rebellion in 19th Century Santa Cruz
March 21, 2023 Emily and Matilda Bancroft: Women Writers in Their Own Right
March 7, 2023 African American Family History & Reparations in California
February 21, 2023 The Racial Railroad
January 24, 2023 Communists in Closets: Queering the History 1930s–1990s

October 25, 2022

Frederick Law Olmsted: Bringing Nature to the City

Historian and filmmaker Laurence Cotton dives into the remarkable life and career of the Renaissance-man Olmsted–writer, philosopher, social reformer, advocate for the preservation of natural scenery, and creator of some of the most beautiful public parks, gardens, and institutional campuses across the US. Cotton highlights select Olmsted landscapes and master plans in California including the Stanford University Campus and Yosemite National Park.

September 29, 2022

Listen, World! How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman

Best selling author Julia Scheeres discusses her new book “Listen, World!: How the Intrepid Elsie Robinson Became America’s Most-Read Woman”, in conversation with SF Chronicle columnist and history podcaster Heather Knight, about American newspaper columnist Elsie Robinson who used her national platform to defy social mores. For more than 30 years, Robinson shared her blistering and unapologetic opinions in support of women’s rights and immigrants; deriding capital punishment, racism, and anti-Semitism; and urging women to realize bigger, more fulfilling lives. 

September 8, 2022

Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America

Author Gene Slater discusses his book, “Freedom to Discriminate,” in which he uncovers realtors’ definitive role in segregating America. Drawing on confidential documents from leaders of the real estate industry, Slater reveals how realtors systematically created and justified residential segregation. “Freedom to Discriminate” traces the increasingly aggressive ways realtors justified their practices, and how America’s divides and current debates are rooted in the history of segregated neighborhoods.


August 2, 2022

California Disasters: True Stories of Golden State Tragedies and Triumphs

Author Phyllis J. Perry discusses her new book “California Disasters: True Stories of Golden State Tragedies and Triumphs” and highlights major events—such as the unforgettable San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906—as well as less familiar wrecks, tsunamis, dust storms, fires, floods, and collapsed bridges and dams. Perry points out that although disasters usually bring loss, they sometimes also bring hard-won knowledge that may prevent future tragedies. Out of each disaster, there are acts of heroism, bravery, and compassion as individuals and groups attempt to aid victims in need.

July 26, 2022

Elaine Black Yoneda: A California Story

In conversation with Tanya Hollis of the San Francisco State University Labor Archives and Research Center, author Rachel Schreiber discusses her new book about Elaine Yoneda, daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants to the US, who spent eight months in a WWII concentration camp—not in Europe, but in California. She insisted on accompanying her Japanese American husband, Karl Yoneda and their son Tommy when they were required to go to Manzanar. Prior to WWII, Elaine had an important career in labor activism throughout the state of California, including being the only woman on the organizing committee of the 1934 General Strike in San Francisco, and extensive agricultural activism throughout the Central Valley and in Northern California.

July 19, 2022

Surf and Rescue: George Freeth and the Birth of California Beach Culture

June 23, 2022

Celebrating Chinese American Family History

A panel of genealogy experts discuss their genealogical research and stories they have uncovered about their family history. Followed by a discussion with the audience.

June 16, 2022

Writing the Land with Greg Sarris

Celebrated storyteller and tribal leader Greg Sarris explores how, despite the trauma of settler-colonialism, Native American communities have preserved cultural heritage through the power of story and the significance of these stories in influencing our relationship with the lands where we live. Drawing from his experience writing his own “fascinating and evocative memoir in essays” (Kirkus, starred review), Sarris shares insights of the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo ancestors whose inspiration is alive in his writing. His underscores the urgency of what these inherited wisdoms and the rise of Native American literature have to teach us in the era of climate breakdown.

June 7, 2022

Uncovering the Queer History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in California

The women’s suffrage movement was very queer. But, the queer history of the campaign for the vote has been largely erased. The true story of their lives and loves were buried or obscured. Historian Wendy Rouse has attempted to recover some of this lost queer history. By piecing together clues from the personal diaries, letters, and the private papers of individual suffragists, Rouse has begun to reconstruct the queer history of the suffrage movement. This investigation has helped reveal the important role of queerness and queer suffragists in the fight for the vote.

May 10, 2022

The Murders That Made Us: How True Crime Built the San Francisco Bay Area

April 19, 2022

A Country Called California: Photographs 1850’s to 1960’s

Photography collector Stephen White and curator Jonathan Spaulding discuss A Country Called California: Photographs 1850s to 1960s, a new book that traces the development of the Golden State from the nineteenth century to its emergence as the fifth-largest economy in the world as seen through the lenses of California photographers.

March 8, 2022

In a Chinatown Opium Den

Photographs can play a key role in sorting out the madness of cultural encounter at the turn of the last century, when immigrants, migrants, and settlers found themselves together in American port cities. Anthony W. Lee, professor of art history at Mount Holyoke College, looks at pictures of San Francisco’s notorious opium dens and shows how they can be mined for the various meanings the dens held for visitors. In so doing, he also reveals the tense and sometimes comic encounters that took place underground.

February 8, 2022

Working on the Railroads: Chinese Labor Contractors

Based on her forthcoming book, Sue Fawn Chung, professor emerita at University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), discusses organizations and individuals that contracted Chinese workers for the construction of railroads throughout the American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her research highlights the experiences of one Chinese American laborer who succeeded in a time of hostility and violence against Chinese people. In examining his experience as well as others during that time, Chung hopes to correct misconceptions about the Chinese people who contributed to the settlement and economic prosperity of the American West and notes how the perceptions and challenges of being Chinese American are still present today. This presentation is followed by a lively discussion.

November 30, 2021

Truth & Resistance: Mapping American Indian Genocide in San Francisco

The American Indian Cultural District (AICD) in San Francisco is undertaking a project called Mapping Genocide to examine the intentional erasure of American Indian history and contributions. AICD’s Co-founder and Executive Director Sharaya Souza (Taos Pueblo, Ute, Kiowa) and Director of Community Development & Partnerships Paloma Flores (Pit River, Purhepecha) discuss the history of genocide of Native California Indians in San Francisco. The panelists also share ideas and efforts underway to acknowledge and honor the indigenous peoples of our past and those alive today. Includes a Q&A between the attendees and panelists.

November 16, 2021

The Golden Fortress: California’s Border War on Dust Bowl Refugees

Eighty years ago, this November, the U.S. Supreme court dramatically expanded Americans’ freedom to travel across state lines regardless of their income. Drawing heavily on the California Historical Society’s American Civil Liberties of Northern California collection and other primary sources, author Bill Lascher revisits an era when California and other states turned neighbor against neighbor and made criminals out of Dust Bowl refugees and other migrants crossing state lines in search of economic opportunity. From armed police blockades of interstate borders to family members arrested and prosecuted for helping relatives reach the Golden State, Lascher describes the battle that culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark November, 1941, Edwards v. California decision.

September 7, 2021

Bohemian San Francisco

In the 1920s San Francisco hosted its own community of bohemians—not unlike Greenwich Village’s. Artists, writers, musicians, radicals, and free-thinkers of many stripes gathered in eateries such as the legendary Coppa’s and the artist colony at Monkey Block. Their goal: to create a new world of freedom, art and politics. Novelist Jasmin Darznik, author of The Bohemians, and historian Sherry L. Smith, author of Bohemians West: Free Love, Family and Radicals in Twentieth Century America, discuss this brilliant moment in San Francisco history.

August 16, 2021

West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California’s Color Line

African Americans who moved to California in hopes of finding freedom and full citizenship instead faced all-too-familiar racial segregation. As one transplant put it, “The only difference between Pasadena and Mississippi is the way they are spelled.” From the beaches to streetcars to schools, the Golden State—in contrast to its reputation for tolerance—perfected many methods of controlling people of color.  Discussing her new book West of Jim Crow: The Fight Against California’s Color Line, Lynn M. Hudson deepens our understanding of the practices that African Americans in the West deployed to dismantle Jim Crow in the quest for civil rights prior to the 1960s. 

July 13, 2021

Preserving Los Angeles: How Historic Places Can Transform America’s Cities

The notion that Los Angeles does not care about its history and historic buildings has been pervasive among outsiders. In fact, the city is breaking new ground in its approach to historic preservation by moving beyond architecture to protect places that are socially and culturally meaningful to Los Angeles’s diverse communities. Ken Bernstein, head of the city’s Office of Historic Resources, and architectural photographer Stephen Schafer discuss their new Angel City Press book Preserving Los Angeles: How Historic Places Can Transform America’s Cities.

June 22, 2021

Black Leaders of Leisure: Their California Dream during the Jim Crow Era

Bruce’s Beach was an African American resort overlooking the water in Manhattan Beach until 1924, when the city seized the land under the pretense of building a park. Officials recently took steps to return the property to the Bruce family. Alison Rose Jefferson, author of Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era, discusses the history of Bruce’s Beach, other African American leisure sites in California, and how the fight for equal access to public recreation contributed to the civil rights movement and the state’s development.

June 25, 2021

Shattering the Myths of Women in the West

Stereotypes of women in the Old West are ingrained in the American collective consciousness thanks to early pulp fiction and Hollywood movies. Fiction writer Wendy Voorsanger discusses how male storytellers romanticized a mythology of men as saviors of women. Presenting research for her historical novel, Prospects of a Woman, Voorsanger considers how early California laws granted women unusual agency, allowing them to redefine their roles, become more independent, and help build new, fast-growing societies. Voorsanger presents the stories of real California women—who inspired the characters in her book—as the basis for reimagining how contemporary writers tell stories about early California.

May 23, 2021

Her Mural Story: Taking Action to Preserve Culture

Muralists working in public spaces risk having their artworks lost to whitewashing, censorship, demolition, or neglect—erasing them from history. Further, murals made by female identifying artists are less prevalent making them all the more valuable to telling her story in the future. During this program we speak with mural artists—Barbara Carrasco, Yreina D. Cervántez, and Audrey Chan whose murals elevate community stories helping to change dominant narratives and make a more inclusive history. These artworks are important monuments for regional communities as well as for what they contribute to art history. How do we plan now for the eventual loss of these murals? How can we assure that their messages are not lost to history? What archival materials will historians, curators, and community members need to share these works of art in the future? Photographs, letters, drawings, and studio archives are essential to the legacy of these artworks, Chicana/o history, and the fight for racial justice in Los Angeles. This talk discusses the ways in which we can protect their messages through the preservation of archival materials. This conversation is co-presented by California Historical Society, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes and the The Autry Museum of the American West.

May 13, 2021

Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy that Transfixed the Nation

The 1949 tragedy of Kathy Fiscus forever changed the way the world reported, received, and reacted to breaking news. The three-year old girl fell down an abandoned well shaft near her family home in the quiet community of San Marino. For two full days her fate remained unknown, and thousands of concerned Southern Californians rushed to the scene. Jockeys hurried over from the nearby racetracks, offering to be sent down the well after Kathy. 20th Century-Fox sent over the studio’s Klieg lights to illuminate the scene. Rescue workers–ditch diggers, miners, cesspool laborers, World War II veterans–dug and bored holes deep into the aquifer below, hoping to tunnel across to the old well shaft that the little girl had somehow tumbled down. Historian William Deverell tells the story of the first live television news spectacle in American history—the subject of his new book Kathy Fiscus: A Tragedy That Transfixed The Nation (Angel City Press).

May 2, 2021

Exploring Regional Film Collections in California

Audiovisual collections are everywhere– in federal institutions, arts organizations, historical societies, and in our own attics and closets at home. California, in particular, has a rich network of regional audiovisual collections, including the California Historical Society. This film explores several of California’s audiovisual collections and serves as a primer for those interested in how films and videos get from the reel to our screens. The video is a collaboration between the California Historical Center and the Audiovisual Heritage Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

April 20, 2021

Politicizing Vernacular Photographs of the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906

At the 115th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake and fire, Professor Carolin Görgen focuses on the many photographic images and objects in the California Historical Society collection that tell a different story of the event. While boosters depicted the city as rapidly rising from the ashes and artists contemplated the urban ruins, inhabitants of the many refugee camps faced a profoundly different set of challenges. Drawing on photo-albums, prints, postcards, and correspondence, this talk attempts to reconstruct how San Franciscans tried to navigate their new environment, far from the popular rhetoric of the day. Görgen looks at how the availability of ‘snapshot’ photography in the early 1900s allowed inhabitants to document their extraordinary living conditions—at times humorous, at times tragic. Görgen explores how extreme seismic events, local politics, as well as the loss of life and livelihood led to the creation of new forms of communal memory through photography. Re-assembling images of the most-photographed event of the early twentieth century will also mean retracing the many gaps and absences that persist in the dominant history of the disaster.

April 19, 2021

Stories from the Collection: Ted Huggins collections of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge

In the 1939 message opening the Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge “engineering marvels of the century”. Frances Kaplan, CHS reference and outreach librarian, invites you into the archive for a look at the Ted Huggins collection to see photos of these marvels. The collection comprises photographs of the Golden Gate Bridge, with an emphasis on its construction (1933-1937), and opening in May 1937, and the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge.

March 23, 2021

Wherever There’s a Fight: Uncovering Hidden Civil Liberties in the Archives

Authors and former ACLU staffers Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi dive deep into the archives at the California Historical Society and other libraries to uncover voices of Californians who stood up for their rights – voices that had been ignored, marginalized and even silenced. They found court documents from Charlotte Brown, a Black woman who fought against race segregation on San Francisco streetcars in 1863, identification papers of Wong Kim Ark who challenged anti-Asian restrictions on citizenship, and yellowing newspaper clips with photos of labor organizers Sol Nitzberg and Jack Green, who were tarred and feathered by vigilantes Santa Rosa. One of their most surprising finds was correspondence from their own ACLU revealing the controversy over challenging the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. CHS archivist Al Bersch joins the authors with a practical how-to guide on using the recently digitized newsletters of the ACLU-NC, the ACLU News, to uncover thousands of civil rights cases dating back to 1932.

March 9, 2021

Documenting Lesbian History: The June L. Mazer Archives

LGBT people, events, and issues are often invisible in mainstream accounts of history, but the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives is working to change that. The largest archive on the West Coast dedicated to preserving and promoting lesbian and feminist history and culture strives to guarantee that no one will ever think they “walk alone.” Celebrate Women’s History Month with this conversation between Frances Kaplan, CHS reference and outreach librarian, and Angela Brinskele, director of communications for the June L. Mazer Lesbian Archives. Brinskele shares fascinating stories of women’s political activism in the twentieth century and collecting lesbian history.

February 16, 2021

Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era with authors Elizabeth Pepin Silva and Lewis Watts

In the 1940s and 1950s, the twenty-block area known as San Francisco’s Fillmore District was home to more than a dozen nightclubs where many legendary African American musicians performed. This multicultural neighborhood populated by African Americans, Japanese Americans, and Filipino Americans was one of few places where people of color could go for entertainment. In Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era authors Elizabeth Pepin Silva and Lewis Watts chart the emergence of this exciting place and time with restored images and oral accounts from residents and musicians.

Photographer and filmmaker Elizabeth Pepin Silva has been writing about the Fillmore and its jazz scene since taking a job as historian and day manager of the Fillmore Auditorium by Bill Graham Presents in the late 1980s. Lewis Watts is a photographer, archivist, and professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz with a long-standing interest in African American visual history.

February 9, 2021

In the Library: Chinatown’s Children through the Lens of Arnold Genthe

The Chinatown photographs by Arnold Genthe (1869–1942) are a remarkable record of Chinatown after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and before the 1906 earthquake and fires leveled the district. Genthe’s aestheticized views of the quarter and its inhabitants brought a new perspective to subject matter that previously had been portrayed in abject terms, and his photographs underscore the social hierarchies of the time. Genthe was particularly interested in Chinatown’s children. In this short online talk, Erin Garcia, CHS director of exhibitions, presents vintage Genthe photographs from the CHS collection.

January 19, 2021

Sex and Suffrage

A number of early twentieth-century suffragists’ sexual lives not only intersected with their political activities, but helped define them. Kimberly Hamlin’s account of Helen Hamilton Gardener tracks how Gardener’s scandalous affair with a married man shaped her determination to empower women through the vote and to exercise greater control over women’s and girls’ sexuality and bodies. Sherry Smith’s presentation on Sara Bard Field reveals how Field’s decades-long free-love affair with a married man coincided with her involvement in the suffrage movement. The latter, in turn, helped Field recalibrate her power relationship with her longtime lover. Wendy Rouse examines the significance of queer relationships among suffragists who challenged the heteronormative social conventions of their day.

October 15, 2020

This Is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot

Ballots from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries offer insight into a period of tectonic shifts in the US electoral system—one fraught with fraud, disenfranchisement, scams, and skullduggery. Indeed, printed ballot design illuminates the noble but often flawed process at the heart of our democracy. Alicia Cheng, founding partner of MGMT. design in Brooklyn, takes us on an exploration and celebration of ballots—a visual history of unregulated, outlandish, and at times absurd designs that reflect the explosive growth and changing face of the voting public.

September 26, 2020

Revealing San Francisco’s Hidden 19th-Century Black History

Susan Anderson, history curator of the California African American Museum, tells the history of San Francisco’s nineteenth-century African American past, beginning with the Gold Rush. Using photographs and manuscripts from CHS collections, Anderson weaves California’s beginnings into the national narrative. This program was originally recorded as part of San Francisco History Days 2020 in partnership with the California African American Museum and the Institute for Historical Study.

August 18, 2020

American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford

American Disruptor is the untold story of Leland Stanford, from his birth in a backwoods bar to the founding of the world-class university that became and remains the nucleus of Silicon Valley. The life of this robber baron, politician, and historic influencer is an astonishing tale of how one supremely ambitious man became this country’s original “disruptor,” reshaping industry and engineering one of the biggest-ever raids on the public treasury to fund the transcontinental railroad, all while living more opulently than maharajas, kings, and emperors. It is also the saga of how Stanford, once a serial failure, overcame all obstacles to become one of the nation’s most powerful and wealthiest men, using his high elective office to enrich himself before losing the one thing that mattered most to him: his only child and son.

Roland De Wolk is a UC Berkeley–educated historian who left academia for a career in journalism, then returned to teach at a Bay Area university as an adjunct while retaining his prizewinning investigative reporting work.

July 24, 2020

Stories from the Collection: Japanese in Sacramento Valley

Explore a special-edition photo book created in 1911 by the Nichi-Bei Shimbun (Japanese American Times). The book is a pictorial history of Japanese American families in the Sacramento Valley region, documenting and celebrating their important contributions to California’s agricultural economy in the early twentieth century. This installment of CHS’s “In the Library” program series is presented by Frances Kaplan, CHS reference and outreach librarian.

May 14, 2020

Stories from the Collection: Del Valle family

Reginaldo del Valle was a prominent Mexican American politician and civil servant who served in both the California State Assembly and the Senate and was instrumental in the construction of the Owens River aqueduct. CHS holds a collection of del Valle’s business, political, family, and personal papers dating from 1829 to 1932, including portraits of the extended del Valle family at their ranch, Rancho Camulos, in Ventura County. Join Frances Kaplan, CHS reference and outreach librarian, for a virtual “In the Library” program on the del Valle collections.

May 12, 2020

Emboldened Women: The First Suffrage March in the United States

The year 2020 marks one hundred years since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing women’s right to vote, but California women gained that right a few years earlier by state election in 1911. Evelyn Rose, director and founder of San Francisco’s Glen Park Neighborhoods History Project, uncovers an often overlooked, historic event in California—what is believed to be the nation’s first women’s suffrage march. On August 27, 1908, in Oakland, representatives of the California Equal Suffrage Association, including Johanna and Jeanette Pinther of San Francisco and Lillian Harris Coffin of Mill Valley, marched to the California State Republican Convention to demand suffrage be added to the party’s platform.

February 20, 2020

Culture for Community: Free Community Day and Docent Tours

Culture for Community is a unique group of Yerba Buena district arts and culture institutions who have joined together to open their doors for free on selected days. Each Free Day focuses on a theme that resonates with the unique perspectives of the Bay Area community. Join us on February 20 for Culture for Black History.

February 20, 2020

Call and Response: Curator Swap

In celebration of Black History Month and Culture for Community, CHS, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and the Museum of the African Diaspora present a magical night in which they swap curators and examine work in one another’s exhibitions.

Curator Swap with Museum of African Diaspora and Contemporary Jewish Museum

February 18, 2020

In the Library: Hidden History of African Americans in the Bay Area

An intimate viewing of unique and rarely seen collections documenting the history of African Americans in California, presented by Susan Anderson, CHS director of collections, library, and programs.

Curator Swap with Museum of African Diaspora and Contemporary Jewish Museum

February 11, 2020

Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era

Author Alison Rose Jefferson discusses how African Americans spent leisure time between 1910 and 1960, and how their fight for equal access to then-segregated recreational spaces contributed to the broader civil rights struggle. Cohosted with the San Francisco Public Library, and featuring a conversation with Shawna Sherman from the library’s African American Center.

January 21, 2020

The Redwoods, Women Who Fought to Protect Them, and the Red Woods League with Heyday Books and Save the Redwoods League

The authors of The Once and Future Forest: California’s Iconic Redwoods and Who Saved the Redwoods: The Unsung Heroines of the 1920s Who Fought for Our Redwood Forests (both published by Heyday Press) discuss the history of the Save the Redwoods organization and the role women played in fighting for and protecting trees throughout California.

Peter Palmquist Collection of Humboldt County, California, Male Photographers. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

January 14, 2020

Soldiers Unknown: Graphic Novel Talk with Author Chag Lowry

Author and historian Chag Lowry presents his newest book, Soldiers Unknown, a graphic novel that tells the previously untold story of Native Yurok men who fought and died in World War I.