By Mary Rudge
Now known far and wide as Jack London Square, this great Oakland port area is famous for its charm and its history. This was the home port of Captain William Shorey, the first African American Captain on the West Coast. This remarkable sea captain became a mentor to Jack London when Jack was a child.
During the many years Shorey was cruising the Pacific Ocean, he had thrilling experiences that were often prominently mentioned in the daily press in several cities. Captain Shorey had a crew from many races and cultures, and all liked to tell of their homes and their travels. Some of the stories Jack heard from Captain Shorey and others on the ship inspired stories he later wrote.
Some of the adventures which Jack put into his book, “The Sea Wolf” were actually experiences recounted by Captain Shorey to Jack and his playmates, who were often invited on board because their families and Captain Shorey’s family were friends. The African American families in early Oakland had strong bonds wwith each other, and Jack’s African American foster family, Jennie and Alonzo Prentiss and their children, Will and Priscilla, were friends of the Shorey family.
Captain Shorey loved children, and loved to tell stories. He married Julia Ann Shelton, daughter of a prominent San Francisco family in 1887 and they settled in Oakland where their children were born. Their daughters, Zenobia Pearl (1888 -1908) and Victoria Grace (1898 -1971) , played aboard ship and also went with their parents to sea. On shore, their home in West Oakland, at 1782 8th Street, was a center of social life. They rejoiced when at last, a third child, William Jr (1902-1969) was born to them, there. (Members of the Shorey family are buried at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland. William, Sr, his wife, and oldest daughter Zenobia share a headstone).
Captain William T. Shorey was born on the island of Barbados, British West Indies. The ancestors of most of the Black population of Barbados had been brought from Africa to work in the sugar came fields. Shorey’s father was a sugar planter. His mother, a Creole, was said to be very beautiful. Their children received an education.
Shorey, the oldest of 8 children, was only 16 years old when he sailed as a seaman on a whaling ship, the Emma E Heriman. He learned so well, that he became a skilled sailor, navigator, and trader and a forceful leader. Within five years, he became a licensed officer, and in five more years, when only 26 years old, he became a ship’s captain. He proved himself to be a remarkable leader, to achieve the status that he held.
In 1891, Shorey commanded the brig Alexander. The sleek brig was not as large as his previous ship, but it was a graceful vessel. The Alexander survived a near sinking from ice damage in the Bering Straits and Captain Shorey made his way through storms and dangerous waters. Jack London, who was 15 years old, heard Shorey tell of his adventures, when he arrived back in the Port of Oakland. These adventures were set in his mind.
Jack resolved to someday have sea adventures of his own and follow Captain Shorey’s trails across the sea, and when the time came that it was possible for him to do this, he did.
In the 1880’s Jennie Prentiss, who was Jack’s foster mother, and a group of mothers, including Lucy Disard, Victoria Dewson, and Julia Shorey, Captain Shorey’s wife, worked diligently helping others, through the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Their families became fast friends. Their children played together and visited Captain Shorey’s ship. Some of Oakland’s African American residents living today can recall experiences that members of their family had as Jack London’s playmates.
These were some of Jack London’s childhood friends who shared his adventures. Many of their descendants still live in Oakland. At the time they knew Jack, and the Prentiss family, James L and Lucy Disard resided on Filbert Street. Their children Ida, Martha, Jane, Flora, Mary, Lucy, Charles and William, and the children of Alexander and Victoria Dewson, Evelyn, Ruth, Gussie, Lora, Edwin, Joe and Alexander , who lived on Myrtle Street, the Towns brothers, Lucy Ann Cauldwell, and others all became friends with Jack.
These families, and the children of Jennie and Alonzo Prentiss, Will and Priscilla, and Jack whom the Prentiss family had taken as their own, were known to be good-spirited, a strong community of loving people. Some of the descendants of these Oakland families, grand children and great grand children, know the history.
Note: References and sources include Negro Trailblazers, by Delilah Leontium Beasley; For Love of Jack London, His Life with Jennie Prentiss by Mary Rudge and Eugene Lasartemay; Steven Lavoie of the Oakland Library History Room; Larry Odoms of the Oakland Library Periodical Room; Shannon McQueen and Lavera Wilson, Library Assistants at the African American Museum and Library, Oakland.