90-year-old San Franciscan Dorothy Lathan keeps Black history in the city

ByJobina Fortson Localish logo
Friday, March 10, 2023
Meet a 90-year-old San Francisco icon
SF icon Dorothy Lathan shares about her life and contributions to the city's Black community.

SAN FRANCISCO -- It makes sense why Dorothy Lathan knows a lot of people. She is someone who exudes kindness and joy. Over the years, she's gotten to know Senator Diane Feinstein, and meet visionaries like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Lathan has contributed to San Francisco in so many ways. However, you'd likely have no idea unless you sat down for a chat.

Dorothy Lathan was born in Forrest City, Arkansas, in 1932.

"I have to always tell people Forrest City, Arkansas was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan," Lathan said. "My city reflected everything that he would have wanted. It was very, very racist, very rigidly segregated."

Her family left Arkansas in hopes of a better life in St. Louis. Despite having little money and opportunities, she went on to college at Lincoln University. She met the love of her life at school.

"I met Arthur Lathan," she went on. "He was a big man on campus, very highly respected. He was a super nice guy."

Dorothy and Arthur Lathan were married from 1953 until his passing last year. The military moved them to San Francisco in 1954. While he fought overseas in the Korean War, Dorothy began building a life in the city.

"I was very politically active," Lathan said. "Even the teachers were segregated in terms of where you got your assignment. We were sent to Hunter's Point."

In 1963, Lathan fought the San Francisco Unified School District and became the first Black teacher at Columbus Elementary School. After 32 years, she retired as a principal in the district.

"Out of all the things I've done, what gave me the greatest joy and the greatest pleasure was being in the classroom," Lathan said. "I loved working with those kids."

Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was mayor at the time, appointed Lathan to the first rent control board, and brought her along to Abidjan when it became a sister city to San Francisco. Lathan was the first female president of Youth for Service, a city organization to help teens in need. One of her most impactful contributions can be spotted right downtown.

"We were just thinking that Africans are everywhere and not only that, everybody came from Africa," Lathan said. "That was the seed of humanity, of life and that we should have a museum that reflects that."

In 2000, Lathan, along with a team that included former Mayor Willie Brown, began developing San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora, or MOAD. It opened in 2005.

"It was intended to be a Black presence," Lathan replied. "To make sure there was a Black component attached to the redevelopment of the city after you've had urban renewal that displaced so many Black people. Can't you at least have one thing that gives some permanence?"

Kitsaun King has been working with the museum almost since its inception. She is a born and raised San Franciscan and knows Lathan well.

"I was very excited because we don't have anything like this in San Francisco and never have," King said.

"When I saw this place, I saw it was a serious exploration of the diaspora," King continued. "In 2015, we changed our focus to being a contemporary art museum. That really set us on the path we are now and where we want to go, which is to support and amplify contemporary artists from the African diaspora wherever they may be."

Lathan's involvement with MOAD is a dream of her ancestors' realized.

"I'm just so thrilled that is has survived because so many things die, but MOAD is very vibrant."

At 90, Lathan is still vibrant, too.