Black minister calls for creation of Africa Town in San Francisco

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It's the first weekend of March. February's over, and Black History Month is over too. That's not so important for the Reverend Amos Brown, head of the San Francisco NAACP. He presides over one of the city's oldest African-American churches founded in the gold rush.

Last Sunday, Brown did note the final days of February in his sermon. But it really came to life, not when he talked about the end of Black History Month. His sermon came to life when he talked about the end of something else.

"You better march until black folk get back in San Francisco," he preached. "You better march until the jazz district really belongs to us!" At this point he was starting to shout. "You'd better march until we've really got Africa town!" At this point, he was gesticulating wildly, knocking over a chalice of wine at the pulpit. "Like there's Japantown, like there's Chinatown, like there's Italian town and the Mission and the Financial District. You better march!" The congregation was on its feet, cheering....

From the 1940s through the 1960s, San Francisco boasted a thriving black middle class. Thousands of families had come from the South during World War II, to work in the shipyards and other war-time jobs. A lot of them moved to the Fillmore. Black entrepreneurs started opening up shops, grocery stores and night clubs.

Marie Harrison lived in the Fillmore with her mom and eight siblings and remebers it well. "It makes a difference when you know everybody. I knew my neighbors, I could drop my coats and clothes at the cleaner and pick 'em up, and I'd tell them, 'Pay you next week, pay you on Friday when I get paid, but I need the coat now, or I need the dress.' You know what I mean? My mother, if she were alive, she would probably say it was like family."

Jazz clubs. like Jimbo's Bop City, Mini's Can Do club and the Texas Playhouse lined the streets. The stages had homegrown talent like Etta James, and visiting greats like John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon.

But by the 1960s, the buildings showed signs of wear. Pockets of crime had cropped up. The neighborhood was a perfect target for urban redevelopment. Or, as author James Baldwin put it sarcastically, "when you say 'redevelopment,' you mean, San Francisco is reclaiming this property, to build it up, which means Negroes have to go."

Sixty square blocks in the heart of the neighborhood were razed and 13,000 people, mostly black, had to move out. Some new housing and shopping centers were built. Other blocks stayed empty for decades.

Despite their good intentions, if city officials had purposely designed a plan to destroy a neighborhood, they could hardly have done a better job. Displaced families got gold certificates from the city, promising first dibs on new houses, once they were built. But Marie Harrison says that didn't help her mother. "She never got a notice to come back, to even see if she wanted to come back. So my mother ended up in public housing."...

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