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Untold Stories: William Tillman – the Union's First Black Hero

  • February 2, 2012

By Johanna Fassbender
Hayward Area Historical Society Education Director

Our first public program of 2012 is the story of William Tillman, a free African American, who is virtually unknown to Civil War specialists and history buffs alike. This illiterate ship’s cook and steward recaptured a Union vessel from Confederate privateers in 1861 and sailed it safely into New York City’s harbor.

Professor Gerald Henig, emeritus professor of history at CSUEB, will tell Tillman's story and give an analysis of how Northerners, Southern rebels, and observers across the Atlantic reacted to Tillman’s feat.

Last week, someone asked me how this program ties in with our area's history. Why is it relevant? Well, it is in so many ways!

Even though the Civil War was fought on the other side of the country, it affected California and the Hayward area because the war changed the future of the entire country. One of our goals at the Historical Society is to connect our audiences to important state and national events.

But what is even more important is that the story of William Tillman is representative of the stories of so many people in this country. It is a story that up until recently was little known. While Tillman’s actions were reported in the press at the time, the story was lost to history until recently. That may have happened because other stories of the Civil War, such as individual battles and the assassination of President Lincoln, overshadowed Tillman’s heroism. However, stories like Tillman’s illustrate the personal impact of war.

History is often seen as something that is said and done, even "dusty" and boring. But I would argue that history is never done and that there is always something else that can be uncovered or someone else's perspective that can be included to give us another view – which is very exciting.

So we invite you to discover a new old story with us on Saturday, Feb. 4, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Palma Ceia Baptist Church (28605 Ruus Road, Hayward). This program is presented by the Hayward Area Historical Society, the Women's Ministry of the Palma Ceia Baptist Church, and the South Bay Area Chapter of The Links, Inc. in honor of Black History Month. Admission is free.

For more information visit or call 510-581-0223.


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