BY MELISSA DE WITTE
While there have been a number of extraordinary Black Americans who have helped transform Silicon Valley into a global hub of high-tech industry and innovation, their lives, stories and accomplishments have been largely absent from public record.
A new archive at Stanford Libraries hopes to change that.
Set to launch later this year, the “Histories of African Americans in Silicon Valley” will ensure that the experiences of Black Americans who lived and worked in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay area are represented in the annals of history.
Leading the effort is Harold C. Hohbach Curator Henry Lowood, who has spent more than three decades building the Silicon Valley Archives (SVA), an ongoing effort at Stanford Libraries to establish the world’s most comprehensive collection of materials that show how the Bay Area transformed into a global center of scientific and technological innovation. Including stories from Black Americans, who have been historically underrepresented in those industries and face ongoing discrimination today, is a critical part of that effort.
“We need to document the Valley in its full complexity and diversity,” said Lowood, who is also the curator for Film & Media Collections. “Our diverse community will expect diverse stories.”
“Histories of African Americans in Silicon Valley” was inspired by the Bay Area entrepreneur turned filmmaker Kathy Cotton, who in 2018 reached out to Lowood’s colleague, Leslie Berlin, the project historian at Silicon Valley Archives and author of Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Cotton wanted to speak with her about her own work documenting prominent Black professionals in Silicon Valley for her documentary film, A Place at the Table: The Story of the African Americans Pioneers of Silicon Valley. The film includes interviews with innovators like Roy Clay Sr., one of the founding members of Hewlett-Packard’s computer division who oversaw the development of the company’s first computer, and Wilbur Jackson, a now-retired IBM executive.
Through Cotton’s help and guidance, the “Histories of African Americans in Silicon Valley” project was born.
The archive will include all of the footage Cotton captured for her film – which includes hours of unedited interviews with Clay, Jackson and others – as well as newly conducted oral histories with Cotton herself and other Black Americans who have lived and worked in Silicon Valley for over half a century. One of those interviews is with Cotton’s husband, Al, who grew up in the Bay Area during the 1940s and 1950s and went on to work for Silicon Valley companies including Apple and Inmac, the first company to ever sell computer products through a direct mail catalog, and Solectron, an electronics manufacturing company.
Conducting some of the interviews is Alesia Montgomery, the subject specialist for sociology, psychology and qualitative data at Stanford Libraries. For Montgomery, gathering these stories is about celebrating early Black tech pioneers as well as learning from their life experiences.
“These people achieved in the face of various types of discrimination, on and off the job. For example, some interviewees tell us of their battles with housing discrimination in the Bay Area,” Montgomery said. “We – as researchers and as individuals – can learn from their stories about the history of systemic racism in the Bay Area and the diverse strategies that Black people have used over the decades to overcome racism.”
Alesia Montgomery (left) talked over Zoom with Max Pearl, an independent software developer as part of the archives efforts to gather oral histories of Black Americans who have lived and worked in Silicon Valley. (Image credit: Silicon Valley Archives)
Building the “Histories of African Americans in Silicon Valley” came with challenges, Lowood said, particularly when it involved finding primary source materials that institutional archives traditionally rely on for their collections, like book manuscripts, letters and correspondence, photographs and other ephemera such as company memos and brochures.
For the most part, information about these prominent Black figures, like Roy Clay Sr., is scarce, which Lowood said he found surprising considering Clay’s distinguished career in the technology industry but also local politics. Clay was the first Black American to serve on Palo Alto’s city council before also becoming the town’s vice mayor. According to Palo Alto Online, his efforts to advance opportunities often denied to people of color earned him the reputation of being the “godfather of black (sic) Silicon Valley.”
“It’s very difficult to find anything about him, except for these isolated newspaper articles. It’s strange because it’s not as if he didn’t have a prolific career – he did. It’s not quite invisible, but it is pretty close,” Lowood said.
That’s why Lowood has relied heavily on conducting oral interviews to build the “Histories of African Americans in Silicon Valley.”
Lowood hopes the interviews will provide a glimpse of not only what it was like to be a Black tech worker during the early years of Silicon Valley, but also what it was like to be a person of color living and raising a family in the region and how they endured racial tensions in their local communities.
“Technology and innovation are not the only storylines. If we want to inspire students and others, we must offer experiences that do more than present a limited gallery of past inventions and inventors,” Lowood said.
The “Histories of African Americans in Silicon Valley” will also feature people who lived in Silicon Valley and contributed to the community outside of the tech industry. Some of Lowood and Montgomery’s interviewees include entrepreneurs like Pamela Isom, whose company, In Case of Emergency Safety Solutions, is recognized for being a model woman-owned business and a minority enterprise, and polymath Max Pearl, whose activities over the years have ranged across neuroscience, software development, science fiction writing and transgender rights advocacy.
The curators of “Histories of African Americans in Silicon Valley” hope that students and other scholars can turn to the archive to learn from the past to inspire a better future.
Montgomery cited Vincent Harding, a Black historian who said that it is right and important to celebrate the elders because it helps you develop an appreciative heart by connecting with those who came before you and showing respect for them, and you open yourself to feeling their brilliance and their love for you. “But Harding went on to say that it is important to not only celebrate the elders but also to ask yourself what should be the new America,” she added. “You celebrate the elders but you also learn from their victories and their mistakes to develop a strategic understanding of what you need to do.”
Lowood also hopes that “Histories of African Americans in Silicon Valley” can be a place where students – particularly those from communities of color – can find role models in other Black Americans.
“Including communities that are underrepresented in the archive can serve as an inspiration to students. We know that for a student seeing a professor who looks like them is very important, so it stands to reason that seeing the story of someone who represents them in the archive can also contribute to that,” Lowood said.
If you have a story to share or know a person who we should reach out to who has helped/is helping shape Silicon Valley, Stanford Libraries asks that you please fill out this questionnaire.