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Whither Black San Francisco: A Story in Pictures 

Wednesday, Feb 25 2015
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Growing up in San Francisco, I never felt out of place or otherwise special for being a black native. That isn't the case any longer. As I've walked through the city of my birth over the past couple of decades, I've seen fewer residents and workers who look like me.

This is not just anecdotal. Between 1990 and 2010 San Francisco's African-American population decreased by more than 35 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Today, the black population is less than 6 percent of the city's total population of more than 805,000. By contrast, in 1970 blacks comprised 13.4 percent of the total population of almost 716,000 San Franciscans.

Much of the change is due to a radically evolving economy. I am not anti-progress or unmindful of the ways technological innovation drives political and policy trends that in turn affect migratory patterns in the grand sweep of American history. But I do worry about a strong form of amnesia (bordering on disregard) of black San Francisco that seems to have gripped the city.

If you live in San Francisco in 2015, you may have a limited view of black San Franciscans. You may be under the impression that large numbers of blacks first turned up during World War II to work in ship-building, or at the ports, or in the public transportation systems that flourished as part of the wartime industrial boom. And while it's true that the decades between 1941 and 1970 saw the largest continuous in-migration of blacks to the San Francisco Bay Area than any earlier period, that's not the whole story. Blacks have been here from the beginning.

For example, I was born in San Francisco in 1963 to a family of second-generation Westerners. My extended family and friends in the Bay Area descend from people who were here long before World War II. I can report first hand that San Franciscans (which is to say, natives) who are African-American have a complicated relationship with the city. Not bad, not perfect, but...complex.

I know from my family's trajectory, and from the California history lessons I absorbed during high school in the Sunset District and as an undergraduate at San Francisco State University, that long before Willie Mays and Willie Brown came to typify "black San Francisco," thousands of African-Americans had lived, worked, and raised families here. Since the 1800s, blacks like William T. Shorey, a celebrated whaling-ship captain, came to Northern California for the same reason people flock to San Francisco today — for employment. And like recent emigres who arrived here from Denver or Bangalore, New York or Shanghai, blacks for more than 100 years continued to pour into the Bay Area for economic opportunities, and they stayed to raise families.

By now, though, these stories are hidden history, due largely to the city's cyclical tendency to reinvent itself every generation or so, but also because blacks in San Francisco achieved critical population mass only in the early 1980s — followed immediately by a precipitous drop in population that continues. In 1963, the award-winning writer and cultural critic James Baldwin hosted a documentary produced by KQED that looked at the status of black San Franciscans, and interrogated the city's "liberal" political reputation during that period: It is a stunning artifact of San Francisco's cultural politics, and captures themes that are still relevant.

For a range of reasons — including America's history of legalized racial discrimination, and post-1863 Jim Crow segregation, as well as San Francisco's unique multiethnic population blend — the black population in San Francisco reached a peak of slightly more than 13 percent in the late 1970s.

These days, when people speak of the history of black San Francisco, they usually point to the Fillmore District, the compact area near downtown where thousands of blacks lived after Japanese-American residents were evicted by U.S. armed forces personnel during WWII and thrown into internment camps. This fixation on the Fillmore amuses me, since my family lived west of Twin Peaks, and also because African-Americans occupied Hayes Valley, Noe Valley, and the Castro District along with Irish and Italian families during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But drama tends to stick in the historic imagination: The controversial city and county "redevelopment" initiative that began in the late 1960s in the Fillmore, displacing blacks, is widely cited as the most pungent example of official exploitation of African-Americans in post-WWII San Francisco. Today, signs of gentrification are being seen even in one of the last African-American strongholds, Hunters Point and Bayview.  Among the photos on the following pages, you will see images of the Fillmore District in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as rare shots from Hunters Point in the 1970s, compiled in the 2010 anthology A Dangerously Curious Eye: The Edge of San Francisco: Photographs by Barry Shapiro, 1972-1982.

By now, visible evidence of blacks' historic contributions to San Francisco is limited: There are few public monuments to the contributions of black civic and business leaders over the years, or to the many famous writers, musicians, and artists, such as Maya Angelou, who lived and worked here. While locating photographic and written archival material of the experiences of black San Franciscans takes some effort, it is worth the time investment, if you're interested in more than the accepted "wisdom" about a community that helped shape San Francisco's global standing as an economic and cultural leader.

The photos that follow are just a sampling of historic data available at public and university libraries — and in anthologies such as the Shapiro collection — that explores the history of blacks in San Francisco. You can also see some of the city's black history in the San Francisco African American Freedom Trail, a new tour of historic sites and present-day establishments. And you can visit the San Francisco African-American Cultural & Historical Society. A good place to begin your journey is The Negro Trail Blazers of California by Delilah Leontium Beasley, a 1919 history book on blacks in San Francisco and statewide written by one of the first black female journalists at the Oakland Tribune.

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Amy Alexander

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