A brief history of Black San Francisco
This story originally aired on February 24, 2016 and it aired again most recently in the February 8, 2024 Crosscurrents episode.
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San Francisco's reputation as one of America's most ethnically diverse cities has been in question as its African Americans population has eroded. In 1990, 11 percent of city residents were Black. Now that number is just 6 percent.
Black San Francisco's numbers were low until the early 1940s, when workers began coming to work in the city's shipyards from places like Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. Before the 1940s surge, Black San Francisco's numbers were so low that there was a running joke that if you were Black, you probably knew all the Black folks in the city.
Newcomers from the South replaced Japanese Americans who were forcibly interned during World War II. After the war ended, the city's Black population continued to climb as workers remained in the city and developed roots. But the city's newcomers were limited in where they could live due to discriminatory housing policy and restrictive covenants written into property titles that did not allow African Americans the chance to live in other parts of the city.
The Fillmore District became Black San Francisco's cultural and economic heart. It became known as the "Harlem of the West," as all of the era's major artists performed in the neighborhood's venues. The list includes Count Basie, Etta James, Thelonious Monk, and Duke Ellington. But the Fillmore began changing after the war ended as federal redevelopment projects demolished many of the neighborhood's homes and businesses. Many residents relocated to Bayview and Hunters Point.
The people who live in Hunters Point, who have lived there for numerous years, at one time had lost all hope, all faith. But we do feel like with the construction of new houses that hope is began to come back up again.
Restrictive covenants were outlawed under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, but by this point there were few incentives for Black Americans to stick around San Francisco, and many moved out to Oakland where a Black middle class came to flourish.
Some of those who stayed in San Francisco fought for better living and employment standards. An important group of activists during this period was the Big Five: five women activists who demanded more resources for Bayview and Hunters Point from city officials. One member of the group was Eloise Westbrook.
"We do feel like we've been an island," she said in a 1969 interview. "In Hunters Point, we're not only trying to build better housing, we're also trying to build a better image."
Westbrook spoke of an optimistic vision of the future: "The people who live in Hunters Point, who have lived there for numerous years, at one time had lost all hope, all faith," she said. "But we do feel like with the construction of new houses that hope is began to come back up again."
Today's Black San Franciscans are still fighting for many of the things Eloise Westbrook and the Big Five battled for. But if demographic trends continue, San Francisco's Black population will soon start to resemble Salt Lake City, rather than more racially diverse cities like New York or Los Angeles.