San Francisco Noir

Part One
A History of African Americans in San Francisco

By Sidney Brinkley

Blacks have a long history is San Francisco, going back before there was a “San Francisco.” The first Black person arrived in Yerba Buena, as San Francisco was originally named, in 1841. “San Francisco.” When gold was discovered in 1848 the “Rush” was on and nearly a half-million SF Jazz Flamingo prospectors from around the world streamed into northern California. San Francisco became a rough-and-tumble frontier town of Whites, Blacks, Mexicans, Chinese and European immigrants.California joined the Union in 1850 as a non slave-holding state and when the state census was taken in 1852 there were 464 African Americans in the city, out of a population of 35,000. While San Francisco quickly grew into a metropolis with a population in the hundreds of thousands during the 1880's, the Black population remained relatively small. In the fifty-year period before the second World War, Blacks comprised less than one percent of the population. WW II would be catalyst for an unprecedented population shift in the city of San Francisco.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an Executive Order in February of 1942 sending Japanese Americans to interment camps, or “Relocation Centers,” as they were officially called. According to the census of 1940, prior to Pearl Harbor, there were 5,280 Japanese Americans in San Francisco, most of them living in the Western Addition, a run-down neighborhood of crumbling Victorian homes. Five months after Pearl Harbor virtually every Japanese American had been removed from San Francisco.

With the U.S. now at war, job opportunities appeared that hadn’t existed before. The all-powerful trade unions, that had barred non-Whites, temporarily relaxed their restrictions. African Americans, most from the South, headed for San Francisco by the thousands, for jobs at the Hunters Point Shipyards. Pre-war in 1940, San Francisco had fewer than 5,000 African American residents. By 1945 there were 32,000 in the city.

The one neighborhood open to the new arrivals was the recently vacated Western Addition. Blacks moved into what were formerly Japanese American homes, apartments and businesses, and quickly coalesced into San Francisco’s first true Black “community” which included the now legendary Fillmore - the “Harlem of the West.“

But war’s end would bring yet another epic change for the city’s Black population. Work at the shipyards came to a virtual halt. The trade unions again closed their doors to Blacks as White men took what jobs were available. After Roosevelt’s Executive Order was rescinded in 1945, Japanese Americans returned to San Francisco to find Blacks in their homes. That situation would not see a resolution for almost fifteen years.

By 1960, Black San Francisco had reached the double digits for the first time with 10 percent of the population and would peak at 13.4 percent in 1970. But it would go no higher.

In a decision that still resonates with many of the city’s longtime residents the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority designated the Western Addition a slum, declared Eminent Domain over huge parcels of land and ordered African Americans out to make way for urban renewal.

It sparked protests that had national figures such as James Baldwin walking picket lines, to no positive end. Japanese Americans were resettled in a section set aside for them called “Japan Town” and the Black community that had developed around the Fillmore dispersed, with only a fraction returning after redevelopment was completed.

That would begin the decline in the city’s Black population. Ten thousand left in the years between 1970 and 1980. Seven thousand more had left by 1990. In the last decade 12,000 left the city but the steepest decline occurred within the last five years: nearly 14,000 African Americans left the city. In a 2006 preliminary census, San Francisco’s Black population was estimated at 53,571 - 7.2 percent of a total population of 744,041. And in the two years since, the Black population has seen further decline and is now estimated at around 6 percent.

Though the exact figure won’t be known until the census of 2010, compared to its high of 96,078 in 1970, the city has lost nearly half its African American population – a situation unique to San Francisco among major cities in the U.S.


Part Two
Baview - Hunters Point: The Last Stand