Re(Collecting) - Curated by Kheven Lagrone

Part 1. I Am San Francisco:
(Re)Collecting the Home of Native Black San Franciscans

African American Center at the San Francisco Main Library
December 12, 2015 to March 10, 2016.

Created and curated by Kheven LaGrone, this exhibit captures the home and soul of native Black San Francisco. I AM SAN FRANCISCO collects the personal stories of several African Americans from San Francisco. Those stories were assigned to various artists, from various places, to interpret using various media.

“An African American born in San Francisco? I’ve never met one before.  You must have been one of the few,” a native Black San Franciscan often hears today.  For many, the questions conjure up the feelings of marginalization and the loss of home.  They remind us that African Americans are being written out of San Francisco’s past and present. 

Featured Storytellers include: Jarrel Phillips, Kheven LaGrone, Wanda Sabir, Jacqueline Chauhan, Julianne Malveaux, Charles Curtis Blackwell, Mark Johnson, Kristine Mays, and more.

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Growing Up Black

By Jarrel Phillips

To the Children of the Next Generation
I grew up in a household with both parents and two younger brothers. All of us are of African American descent. When I wasn’t at my predominantly Black school, church, or after-school program, I was thriving in one of San Francisco’s once predominantly Black neighborhoods—the Fillmore or Bayview Hunter’s Point.

I grew up within a very Black reality. I celebrated Kwanzaa, praised a Black Jesus, memorized all the countries of Africa, practiced an Afro-Brazilian martial art, and honored Black leaders not only during Black History Month but throughout the year. My interactions with non-Blacks were not non-existent but they weren’t that usual, outside of a teacher every now and then.

I have a strong memory of my life before racial identity and skin color intruded. I remember when younger, thinking that Blacks were the majority in San Francisco. I even remember when I was three or four years old, asking my Mom, as she carried me through Target, if she was white. I assumed that she was, because though her skin complexion was brown, she was definitely lighter than my father and I. Since I didn’t have much to do with whites, I assumed that lighter brown skin was what people referred to as being white.

Once upon a time there were people. There were good people, bad people, funny people, mad people, tall people, small people, and so forth… but, nonetheless, they were ALL people. I did see color, but the concept of race hadn’t fully introduced itself to me. Skin color wasn’t significant in my perception of reality. Looking at others, I saw two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. Appearance did not create assumptions as it does now.

My Experience of Blackness
It was not until I was 13 years old that I entered the San Francisco public schools and saw a more diverse crowd of people. Then I assumed that you were either African American, White (I believed White was simply White), Chinese, or Mexican (I didn’t understand the term Latino). This is important because of my reality now. My first 13 years of life, I was only surrounded by Blacks and African American culture. Thus, when I transferred to public school, I quickly took notice of the social stigmas placed on African Americans and the stereotypes that can come with Black racial identification. It was definitely an eye-opener and an experience that still manifests itself in different ways.

Being around so many different African Americans leading different lifestyles, I never thought of African Americans as being one particular way and I certainly didn’t think of Black in any negative way. In public school, I was told: “You’re not Black enough” or, “You talk white” (thus not Black), and rarely, “You’re acting ‘hella Black’.” I soon became used to such remarks; nonetheless, they initially puzzled me. Up until then, I had not given much thought to the idea of any particular behavior(s) being associated with having black skin or being African American. Growing up, all I had around me were Blacks/African Americans: businessmen and women, pastors, orphans, athletes, doctors, thugs, players, mothers, fathers, taxi drivers, artists, foster parents, community leaders, world travelers, teachers, ex-convicts, probation officers, activists, fire fighters, police officers, thieves, homosexuals, Muslims, Christians, and so on. I have had so many interactions and relationships with different types of Black people that the idea of accurately characterizing or defining Black people as a whole sounds absurd. It would be misleading, confining and an overgeneralization—also known as a stereotype.

My concept of self has always been strong and I must give due credit to all the positive affirmations in my upbringing. Whether being reminded that I was an “awesome leader,” singing the Black national anthem, or reciting some Maya Angelou, I was always taught to be proud and told that I matter. I grew up in an “Afrocentric” household with a Black Santa Claus for Christmas and the Nguzo Saba Kwanzaa principles for the holidays. My experience of self and Black people was so positive that society’s opinion of who I was, who I can be, and how I am supposed to act hardly dictated my life, actions and choices. I have always believed, regardless of unfortunate social prejudices, that I can do what I want if I do it with good intentions and ethics at heart. I have a strong will and cannot fathom any social construct blocking me from any goal I set my heart and mind to.

Breaking the Limits of Racism
Of course, racism is not some invisible social force that I have successfully eluded as a result of my upbringing because I deal with it to this day. I still face obstacles on a daily basis in one way or another and, to be honest, it’s not fun and definitely gets under my skin every now and then. No one likes being wrongly prejudged or limited because of superficial social constructs that determine your roles in society.  I still go into stores and get followed. I still get disregarded by some individuals who prefer not to interact with me. I still see women clutch their purses when they pass me. And, I still surprise people when they learn that I live a nice, productive life despite the fact that I am an African American San Francisco native and an inner-city kid who presumably should be at-risk and struggling to succeed.

I went through a phase where I was susceptible to messages from the media, alongside my own human ability to make bad decisions, and I tried to be cool and “hood.” From age 14 to 21, I tried my share of stealing, dealing and hanging out on the corner, not doing anything. But I always knew that I had bigger dreams and goals. My inner self knew that it was all an act that contradicted who I should be. My outer self was just distracted for a bit. It was not until I realized that I was potentially sacrificing my infinite possibilities for reckless behavior that I decided to make a change. Knowing who I am, or should be, caused me to leave such lifestyle choices in the dust.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I grew up in an environment where no matter where I went, everyone knew my family. Everybody knew everybody else and supported one another to some extent. I had positive friends and role models everywhere. That was my village. Those family ties that my parents kept up so well exposed me to so much—music and musical instruments, sports, hobbies, jobs. It allowed me to find the things that really interested me. I refocused my energy on photography, film and capoeira when I decided to cut out the reckless behavior. Capoeira still keeps me going. It is my work, my passion, my play, my health, my magic, and my ongoing goal. And it has allowed me to travel more than ever.

Being an American in Africa
My first trip to Africa was through capoeira in 2010 and I have visited and taught the art in multiple countries in East Africa each year since then. The first trip was a big eye-opener in regards to my concept of “blackness.” I had never thought of Black beyond an African American perspective. Now I cannot help but see that I am more American than I am African—both culturally and nationally. My lifestyle could not be African because I was not raised in Africa, nor do I live there. This realization originally disappointed me greatly, as I intended to find my roots and feel right at home. But although I love Africa, it’s not my home because home is the place I miss when in Africa.

I don’t mean to disregard my heritage and roots. I am of African descent and only wish that I could know more about that part of me. Going back and forth between the East African countries of Tanzania, Uganda and Ethiopia, where the overwhelming majority of people have Black skin, turned my world upside down. Think about it. What happens when skin color has no significance? Is there any sense in separating and creating an unfair hierarchy? Is there any sense in mentioning skin color for the purpose of identification if everyone “looks” the same? It would be like identifying and classifying a group of penguins by color—pointless and superficial.

I met countless individuals who were doctors, great swimmers, linguists, college graduates, business owners, architects—all contradicting many Black stereotypes from an international perspective. The coolest part is the peace of mind that comes from being in East Africa. There I do not have to stay guarded to protect myself from things like racial profiling and unfair treatment. Treating me differently because of my skin color just does not work in a predominantly Black continent. My trip to Africa made me aware of how much I think and act based on skin color and “race.” It’s a mentality instilled and reinforced by our society in the United States. My newfound awareness teaches me to try my best to think and act beyond concepts of race and skin color, including many peoples’ actions and statements which, unfortunately can be products of racism as well. I do my best to not let it have such a strong influence on me. Instead of trying to dress myself up or concern myself too heavily with appearances, I see that true quality and meaning is deeper. It is not how you look but what you do that makes a person. While our own sight often blinds us, a blind man sees this clearly.

When overlooked, race and its effects become an “unseen” force that can especially impede the lives of individuals of color. Thus, it’s necessary to be aware of it and even more aware of yourself outside of social constructs, labels and roles. Whether they realized it or not, I believe my parents did a great job of preparing me to thrive in a world where my experience and interactions could be predetermined or influenced by my appearance and social identity/background. My parents emphasized acknowledgement of self so that I never felt the need to compare myself against society’s expectations. No one, including my parents, could convince me that I was something or someone that I chose not to be. Unless I agreed, it was just someone else’s idea of me. Moreover, my dynamic exposure to Black culture outweighs all the negative portrayals and overgeneralizations within society. So when I hear things like “Black people don’t read,” or “Black people are all athletic,” or “All Black people can dance,” I do not feel pressured to agree or to ensure that I fit those depictions in solidarity with my “blackness,” which I love no more or less than the rest of me.

Let the Next Generation Define Itself
As for the next generation—let them try everything so that they get a feel for what they like and don’t like. Exposure is the key to having more power to shape your own choices and actions. Introduce them to all sorts of people from different social and economic backgrounds. That way they won’t associate any one attribute, behavior or characteristic to any one “race” or type of people. And when on the topic of blackness, do not sugarcoat or undermine the negativity that society associates with it, but at the same time, do not dwell on it. Instead, expose them to blackness beyond any boxes. Black is not just African American, it’s not only soul food or hip-hop, not only kente clothes or slave chambers in Ghana.

It is also important to be honest with youth so they don’t walk out of their homes  unprepared for the world. No matter what anyone does, the world will not always be fair. Teach them not to waste their life worrying about fairness because they, like others, will have to deal with their share of bias and unfair treatment. Show them instead how to recognize advantages and disadvantages in this society, so they can make more circumstances work to their benefit and will not be caught by surprise too often. Teach them that they don’t have to play if they don’t want to because they can choose and shape their level of involvement with the world’s social nuances. Tell them that they are not necessarily destined to do what “everyone” is doing. They can make their own games, their own world, their own lifestyle. Tell them especially not to feel obligated to build ties with those who are detrimental, just because they look the same. They don›t owe anyone anything. We need more people like that anyway, so we can follow suit and learn.

I truly believe that many people would not agree with some of what I have written. What has worked for me may not work for others, or for me in the future as I continue to try to figure myself out and how I fit into this scheme of things.

I know what did not work for me. I also have witnessed enough and work with enough youth of color to know that some of the current approaches to “racism” do not work for many others as well. More than anything, I believe that it’s extremely important not to dwell on racism too much—just enough to build and maintain an awareness of it. I see so many young Blacks busy trying to find themselves through African American studies, fraternities and sororities, through other individuals who share the same skin color and “struggle” as themselves. And although I understand this fully and don’t condemn it, I am concerned about the emphasis on individuality only through the lens of blackness as constructed by racism. Because that’s like a penguin in a crowd of penguins emphasizing its individuality based on fur color rather than its character, actions or achievements. Color is most relevant and most detrimental when you grab the baton and join the race, giving it more significance in your life. The problem is that the race is rigged with hurdles and no finish line. Yet people keep on jumping in and moving forward towards nothing.

If you want to teach youth about their blackness, teach them that struggle is inevitable but you don’t have to glorify it. You don’t have to get stuck in the past, or dwell on slavery. Recognizing these things is necessary, but knowing yourself is even more pertinent because you are not a victim and you do not have to compromise yourself for any system or society.

Yes, you are Black and have every right to decide your own reality. Blackness is not a solid state and comes in infinite forms of which, you are one. You are the ambassador of yourself first and foremost, beyond any social role or category. You are the future history: know that and be it. It does not even take much effort, just consciousness and getting to know yourself more every day. Create your own traditions if you are not satisfied with the ones you have. Remember to acknowledge and celebrate your triumphs more than your struggles. Do not limit yourself by shunning growth and change but learn to welcome it. You are the architect and creator of yourself and your world.

When I was about 22 years old, my uncle used to tell me that I struggle with who I am because the world tells me who I am supposed to be. When I did not fully understand him, he told me to look in the mirror and ask: “Who am I?” The question puzzled me but I realize, looking back now, that I generally identified myself with social labels and roles that come predefined, rather than with attributes and adjectives that describe me. I remember writing in a journal about this. I concluded:

 “Who am I? I’m still trying to figure that out. Until I do, I know what I’m not and I will act in accordance.”
Five years later here’s what I can add to that:

I am not who or what you say I am, unless I say I am. Like space I am black, vast, and contain multitudes. Do not confine me. I define me.  I am limitless. Infinite me. Free dimensional me—beyond three-dimensional to the depths of me. Finding me. Becoming me. Knowing me.  I am no one thing. I am no thing. Who I am is for me to decide.

Know Thyself.

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If you want to teach youth about their blackness, teach them that struggle is inevitable but you don’t have to glorify it. You don’t have to get stuck in the past, or dwell on slavery.

Living Black

By Kheven LaGrone

When I curated an art exhibit in Manhattan a few years ago, several artists asked me where I was from. “I am just a little country boy from San Francisco,” I replied. I was born in San Francisco, which felt like a small southern country town. It was family-friendly. I was always somebody’s son, brother, nephew, great-nephew, cousin… Even if I wasn’t related, they knew someone connected to me.

A lot of young African American families and migrants from the South started out in San Francisco’s housing projects. My earliest memory is of living in the North Beach projects near Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and Little Italy. We rode the cable cars and played in beautiful hilly parks and on the beaches.

My family moved up into a Victorian flat in the Fillmore neighborhood when I was about four. My father worked and studied for college. On Sundays, my mother took us to Lighthouse Full Gospel Church. Award-winning international gospel artist Danniebelle Hall played piano and sang for the church. My aunts sang in her gospel group, the Dannie Belles when she started touring.

My world was African American. Fillmore bustled. The stores sold Black hair care products. Soul music played at relatives’ homes and in cars driving down the street. At the Black barbershop I went to with my father, the barber gave me a nickel to sweep the hair. You saw Black people in all the old pictures on the walls.
One day, when I was about six, my older cousins told my sisters and me that we were Black. We argued that we were brown. We argued outside until sunset. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to be Black, but our skin was the color brown.

Becoming Fashionably Black
Black was “cool” and fashionable. It brought Black people together. I heard that Black style “liberated” me. People wore clothes with Black statements. Store advertisements used beautiful Black models. Stylish people wore bold colorful dashikis, Afros, necklaces with Africa or Black Power fists. Sometimes, they wore all black to express their Black pride. Clothes were often revealing and men and women flaunted their beautiful brown bodies, announcing: “Black is Beautiful.” They wore large, blown-out Afros with Afro-picks sticking out. We were told to be Black and proud. People talked about Black history, arts and literature; changed their names to African names. Black power songs—“Say It Out Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”— spoke of Black unity.

Blacks had “soul brother” handshakes, called each other “brother” and “sister.” When they passed each other on the streets, they’d nod or say: “Hey, brother!” (Ironically, Blacks today call each other “nigga,” “dawg,” and “bitch.”)

Was I Black, African American, Afro-American, or Negro?
Other cultures fascinated me. I watched Japanese cartoons on television. When my family drove through Chinatown, I tried to understand what the Chinese characters and symbols represented. I tried to follow the Spanish spoken in the Mission. I dreamed of traveling to different countries when I grew up.

My mother took my siblings and me to visit one of her friends in the Haight-Ashbury. We passed the beatniks and hippies. These white people were definitely different from the ones on television, like Lassie, Leave It to Beaver, and Ozzie and Harriet. They dressed and talked flamboyantly; tie-dyed everything. I thought incense made them stink, but they talked a lot about peace and love.

I heard that drugs inspired their beautiful psychedelic colors and designs and their loud, noisy music. One time, while we were playing outside, a white man took some LSD and jumped out of the third floor onto the concrete sidewalk. He thought he could fly.

Then my parents bought a house in East Oakland. It was a whole different world—more homogeneous, but also more family-oriented. I thought Oakland was the country. East Oakland got hot in the summer and we played outside, barefoot. We had a large backyard with fruit trees. My aunt even bought my siblings and me some baby chicks one Easter.

Blackness was fashionable in East Oakland, too and I became more aware of Black militant activism. Perhaps the Black Movement had become more militant after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Or I noticed the politics more. The Black Panthers met around the corner and had children’s programs. The Black Muslims were very visible because they were impeccably dressed and very well mannered. They had businesses and schools that catered to African Americans. Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals was the first African American comic strip that I saw. My father bought me a book on Malcolm X but I had not knowingly experienced too much racism. African American wrestlers beat up white wrestlers on television. I felt like a part of “the struggle.”

Encountering Racism in Daly City
My father had his office in San Francisco, so the family moved back just outside San Francisco—to the foggy bedroom town of Daly City. Our house looked out at San Francisco and the ocean. Decades later, I learned that in 1962, folk singer Malvina Reynolds had written a song about our neighborhood, called “Little Boxes”:

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky…
And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same...

When she wrote that song, she must have been writing about white people. Negroes or Coloreds were not allowed to live in that neighborhood until 1962.

An older relative warned me about living in a white neighborhood. Still, I was excited to move to a neighborhood like the one in Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and The Brady Bunch… only to soon find, those television shows were not reality. Daly City could be hostile. My siblings and I were in racial skirmishes from day one. We were constantly told to “Go back to Africa.” One of my teachers intentionally stoked racist comments in her class. As more African American families moved into the neighborhood, we stuck together and the bullying lessened, but it never really stopped. It could happen at any time if you weren’t paying attention—from a teacher or from other students. It made us more race-conscious and often, confrontational. We even had a couple of race riots. We formed our own little community and when we passed an unknown African American on the street or in the store, we often introduced ourselves.

Sadly, Daly City schools didn’t teach us anything about Black history and culture. There was almost no mention of slavery or the Civil Rights Movement in our American history classes. Our English teachers assigned no books written by African Americans.

Such ignorance led to negative stereotypes of African Americans. Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X were heroes who fought for my liberation, but a classmate called them “big-mouth troublemakers.” Another classmate argued that Egypt, because of its ancient history and developed civilization, could not have been in Africa. I had to show him a map. He believed Africans were just savage and primitive, like in the Tarzan movies.

I resisted the racial slights in the classrooms by either confronting them or tuning them out. In ninth grade, I complained about having to say “Nigger Jim” in Huckleberry Finn; my white English teacher angered me by saying that I should have been proud of him. To Kill a Mockingbird became just a blur of racial slurs in class. I never finished either book.

The white kids had a false sense of racial superiority, but they didn’t live up to the ideals shown on television. They knew it, and I reminded them often.

Staying Connected to the Black Movement
There were African American kids who tried desperately to fit in with the white kids. We called them “Uncle Toms” and “Oreo Cookies.” They seemed to be ashamed of their blackness and would not talk to the other African American students. They pretended to be entertained by racist jokes and comments. One boy had thick, nappy hair. He let it grow long, like the white boys and like them, carried a hairbrush in his back pocket. He tried to brush his hair to the side but it would look disheveled. He never said he was Black, instead, said he was “half-Indian.” Another dark-skinned girl wore the same makeup that her white friends wore. The color didn’t blend with her dark skin and looked stark and costume-like.

But most African American high school students stayed connected to Black San Francisco. I listened to the Black radio stations—KDIA, KSOL and KBLX. Each station had a different style, but they put out positive messages of Blacks and connected me to the Black communities in the Bay Area.

My siblings and I stayed connected to a larger proud Black America through magazines like Ebony, Jet, Black Star, and Soul Beat. I watched Soul Train every Saturday morning, and every Black movie and television show that I could. (I had little to talk about at school with my white classmates.)

Some of us became “Super Black.” Looking back, I think we were just being normal teenagers, trying to find ourselves, but too often, looking at the stereotypes we learned in school. “Super Black” was just a “blacklash.” African American students who spoke properly were teased for “talkin’ white;” those who took college prep classes were teased for “actin’ white.” Several times, African American boys teased me for going to the library or carrying books “like a white boy.” It was as if African Americans were only supposed to play sports, sing or dance.

I had fun competing in those college prep classes, but success didn’t shelter me from the stereotypes about African Americans. My white classmates just made excuses, like “You’re smart for a Black guy.” One time, a Chinese student said, “I’ve never met a Black guy smarter than me before.”

I expressed my Black militancy through academics. I had my solid foundation in Black culture and Black pride to fall back on. I understood Malcolm X’s militancy. The Black Power struggle became my own. But the Black Power movement was often anti-capitalist. Looking back, I really wish I had studied money and economics.

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Black was “cool” and fashionable. It brought Black people together. I heard that Black style “liberated” me.

Muhammad University No. 26

In Memory of El Hajjah Sabree Sharkir (1949-2015)
By Wanda Sabir

They were impressive, like the sisters in Terri McMillian’s Waiting to Exhale. Sister Nabeehah (Corliss), Sister Munira (Linda), Sister Marva, Sister Rashidah (Joyce 5X), Sister Sharifah, Sister Bayinna, Sister Aeeshah Clottey (Patsy), Sister Muhasin (Leslie)… and Sister Izola in the kitchen.

Their presence was a cool breeze, a breath of fresh air. I thought them giants, Amazons in a San Francisco jungle—guided by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam (NOI).

There were Lieutenants and Junior Lieutenants, of whom I was one. We worked directly under the Vanguard Lieutenant and Sister Captain, who were under the Minister. I remember wearing a hot pink, two-piece uniform and showing off our drill steps. We were hot in more ways than one!

We’d have drill competitions in front of the entire community. Sometimes Vanguards from other mosques would compete with us. I don’t remember losing. On Saturdays, we’d have bake sales and oratory contests where we’d memorize chapters from the Messenger’s books and see who had memorized the most. We would also share original work. I remember reciting an essay about the illusion of time. Both girls and boys were encouraged to show off academically and were praised by the ministers and other adults.  We’d have sleepovers at friends’ houses where we’d dance the latest dances and stay up all night talking. The next day, we’d get up early, put on our white uniforms, and go to the mosque where we’d serve as greeters or in the women’s security check room.

As a Junior Lieutenant, I supervised and would pat down the women and girls. I don’t ever remember finding any weapons, but when we trained, we planted weapons on each other—knife-like and gun-sized objects and other items. We were sharp and confident youth. I’d learned karate in the MGT&GCC (Muslim Girls Training & General Civilization Class—training units started by NOI founder W.D. Fard Muhammad). We also had a nursery for babies and mothers who wanted to nurse more comfortably.

I remember a family-friendly environment. We respected ourselves and each other. When I was 12, I wrote to the Hon. Elijah Muhammad in Chicago to request an X. When I got his response, the Minister welcomed me as Wanda 2X (Oliver). I was officially emancipated from the vestiges of plantation life. I might not know my ancestral family name, but “Oliver” was given back to the slave master.

I was in the first graduating class at Muhammad University No. 26 and class valedictorian at age 15. Our graduations were in February, to coincide with Savior’s Day (God’s birthday) on February 26.
After graduating, I was hired as a teacher. I wouldn’t say I was playing at teaching, but I didn’t have teacher training. In retrospect, my teaching—really as an intern—echoed post-slavery days on the plantation where one graduated, then shared what one knew. My mentor was just across the room from me, teaching pre-kindergarten. I supplemented what she demonstrated with what my mother was doing at home to teach my brother, using The Sound Way to Easy Reading. My job was a family affair. My parents supplemented my salary and helped me with purchases of flash cards, books and other teaching materials.

Phonetics, augmented with sight vocabulary, formed the basis of a curriculum that also included African and world history, mathematics and composition. Our textbooks were often the writings of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad. All I remember from my time as a student in biology is photosynthesis. The teacher used this process as a metaphor for Black consciousness: the light is Allah, Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala; the breath is spiritual life. The Messenger spoke of spiritual and physical death and how light or truth is what would awaken our people from slumber. He said we were “dead, dumb and blind to the knowledge of self.”

This Black child’s survival is directly related to the love received within the Nation of Islam. Though underprepared academically when I entered UC Berkeley, I quickly excelled because I had superior preparation in Black consciousness and knew I was capable. This self-knowledge allowed me to navigate an often hostile terrain, and later prepare my daughters for the battle inherent in this suspect space—America, a place which even today negates or denies Black greatness.

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This Black child’s survival is directly related to the love received within the Nation of Islam.

Remembering the Booker T. Washington Hotel

By Jaqueline Chauhan

The Booker T. Washington Hotel in San Francisco was a world unto itself for Black celebrities in the days of segregation, when Blacks were not allowed to stay at the city’s downtown hotels. It hosted some of the biggest names you could find, and I was right there with them, because my mother worked there. I still remember when James Brown and Hank Ballard sang Happy Birthday to me.

When Duke Ellington came to San Francisco, his band members stayed at the hotel. Dinah Washington, Earl Grant, Nat “King” Cole and his trio, and others in that generation of musicians would rehearse at the hotel during the day. I’d just watch and listen, especially when I was too young to go see them at the Fillmore Auditorium. Most were very friendly to me because I was “Ms. Sadie daughter.” They’d hang around the front desk or in the lobby just to talk.

Richard Berry was happy I liked his music so we started a fan club chapter. James Brown asked my opinion on how a suit looked before he had it tailored. Bobby “Blue” Bland tried to get on my good side. He wanted to marry my mother. I was the unofficial critic of new songs for many groups. Jackie Wilson and Little Richard were not so friendly to me but Earl Grant would play at mother’s friends’ parties.

From the time I was eight, until I was 18, I visited the Booker T. often while my mother, Sadie Williams, was working. She started as a desk clerk. Maya Angelou’s mother, Vivian Baxter, was also a clerk and they became good friends. Later, when I was in high school, my mother became the manager. To occupy my time, I gave out room keys and became a PBX operator. PBX was a telephone system with a switchboard—an electromagnetic device that required the operator to plug telephone lines into their destination wires by hand.

The cocktail lounge was called the Emperor and the dining room—which accommodated club events, parties and banquets—the Empress. Sam Mines was the cook. The soul food there was awesome. Mr. Mines’ menu included dishes like ox tails and red beans and rice, because he wanted people to come off the street and get home-style cooking. A woman named Marie Alexander was head of housekeeping, but only men were allowed to use the vacuum cleaner.

The hotel had six floors and 125 rooms, with suites in the front of the top floor. There were free radios in every room and television sets in each suite. Chartreuse drapes laced the windows and maroon carpets embellished with silver scrollwork covered the floors. Mirrors decorated in peach and silver lined the serving counter.
The hotel’s last owner, Willie Lee Young owned a rooming house before he bought the Booker. Mr. Young leased the cocktail lounge to Charles Sullivan, who pulled in standing-room-only crowds every night with live music. Mr. Sullivan also booked some of the biggest Black entertainers at the Fillmore (the Harlem of the West): James Brown, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, The Coasters. I saw opera star Marian Anderson, singer-dancer Josephine Baker, and singer-actor Paul Robeson in concert.

In 1952, San Francisco Mayor Elmer Robinson said it would be “a desecration and an insult” for Paul Robeson to perform at the San Francisco Opera House because of Robeson’s support for Communist ideology, so the great bass-baritone was barred from that venue. In response, Robeson held a press conference with the San Francisco Chronicle at the Booker T. Washington Hotel. He called Robinson “one of the principal fascists of the West Coast.”

It wasn’t just musicians who patronized the Booker T. Washington. Legendary San Francisco Giants’ homerun hitter Willie “Stretch” McCovey and boxer Archie Moore stayed there; also civil rights activist W. E. B. DuBois, the tap-dancing Step Brothers, and the Harlem Globetrotters. In 1960, the Ugandan ambassador to the United Nations changed from another hotel to the Booker T. Washington because, he said, “I wanted to see how my people live in your country.”

If you go to that once-famous area now, you will find shopkeepers from Italy, Australia and New Zealand. You’ll find eleven-dollar flip-flops and food from the Mediterranean. There is a Safeway store in its location now. It crosses two streets, but it uses a Webster Street address. Only a street sign indicates the possibility of the hotel’s address, which was 1540 Ellis Street.

My brother, many years later, was in BB King’s company and BB remembered [the hotel] well. When the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency stepped in, no community support mobilized, and this landmark hotel vanished. The city assessor’s office says the hotel’s address never existed. But living entertainers know, the former employees and their families know, and the folks at Marcus Books in San Francisco and Fillmore know about the hotel.

This is an excerpt from The Baobab Tree: Journal of African American Genealogical Society of Northern California, Inc., Fall 2011, and has been revised for Race, Poverty  & the Environment.

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Dinah Washington, Earl Grant, Nat “King” Cole and his trio, and others in that generation of musicians would rehearse at the hotel during the day. I’d just watch and listen, especially when I was too young to go see them at the Fillmore Auditorium.

Glimpse of the Point

By Johanna B.

Back when I was growing up in Bayview-Hunter’s Point in the 1960s and ’70s we could go out and play morning and night. Bayview-Hunter’s Point had fewer people and was less crowded. More space; more room to roam. There was a sense of connection and belonging.  You were called by your family’s last names—so you were a Brown or a Bridges or Sears.  Families had credit at the grocery stores and clothing stores that were lined up on Third Street. Kids were able to shop for their families and use their families’ credit.
Blacks owned the businesses on Third Street. Families worked on Third Street.

There were more activities for kids, and boys’ and girls’ clubs. We even had a neighborhood center where we could go and hang out. We’d play cards or pool. They’d give us lunch and took us to various activities and field trips. We visited Alcatraz, Playland and art museums around the city. It was fun and cultural.

By the time I became a teenager, the city started rebuilding the projects. The projects in Bayview went from looking like projects to looking like townhouses. It seemed like a lot of families had been feeling down and depressed, but then working-class families started moving in. Welfare families started living next door to working class families.

I remember exploring different neighborhoods. I took the bus everywhere. There was just MUNI, but it was cheap, less than 25 cents, and there was no BART. Cost of living was more affordable. Families could do more paid activities for their dollar.

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I took the bus everywhere. There was just MUNI, but it was cheap, less than 25 cents, and there was no BART.

Kaleidoscope Energy

By Julianne Malveaux

Growing up in San Francisco was an exciting, amazing experience. I’m grateful that my mom (who did not drive) made sure that my siblings and I spent time at the Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young Museum, Chinatown, and parts of the Mission. We explored the Avenues and spent time with people whose cultural diversity surprised us. Sometimes we asked questions. Mostly, we just listened and learned. And we took any opportunity to eat at restaurants near the beach.

There was a Fun House [at Playland, a seaside amusement park in the Richmond district which closed in 1972] and “Laughing Sal” a big old clown, ushered you in. Sometimes we had enough money to enter. Other times, we would just look and laugh at the clown from a distance. We laughed because we could not get into Playland and at least one of us, usually my brother, tried to sneak in.

Brother was a trip. One of the highlights of our week was going to the Farmers’ Markets, working with my Mom’s list, while trying to save enough to get ice cream squares at the dairy end of the market. We could often save a few pennies because Brother bargained and fussed at the merchants who offered samples the size of fingernails. He let them know that, with his four sisters, they had to do better. Generally, we got four apples for the price of three, three plums for the price of two, and smiles because we (really Brother) knew how to bargain.

My most indelible memory is the revolutionary spirit that took the power structure to task. Brother and I often cut school to go to [Black] Panther headquarters on Fillmore Street. We weren’t central to the work. We stuffed envelopes, answered telephones, and reveled in the fact that we were present. We cut school to attend the “Free Huey” rally on May 1, 1969. We chanted, like everybody else: “Black is beautiful! Free Huey! Set our warrior free!” Months later, Huey P. Newton walked down Fillmore Street, the center of the African American community. I was all of 15 and completely committed to the movement. The first point of the Panther 10-point program was: “We want freedom, we want the power to determine our destiny.” Where are we now?

My mom, Proteone Malveaux, worked with Rev. Cecil Williams to preserve the African American presence in the Fillmore area. Urban renewal meant ‘Negro removal.’ Too many politicians ignored the validity of an African American presence in the city. It is disappointing to see African Americans pushed out of a city that we have honored and nurtured. Even in my home neighborhood, Bernal Heights, the demographic turnover is a function of the myopic indifference to our city’s diversity. There should be a commitment to diversity, a push to keep African Americans and others with lower incomes in the city whose multicultural diversity defines its energy and adventure.


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My most indelible memory is the revolutionary spirit that took the power structure to task. Brother and I often cut school to go to [Black] Panther headquarters on Fillmore Street.


By Charles Curtis Blackwell

About 1954, I was real small and I went with a parent to Playland. We paid and went in. I walked in a hallway. I got on a moving floor with moving walls. I got scared.  It was like something you’d use in a Hollywood movie. I started crying.

A few years later, my grandfather visited from “backwoods” Mississippi. At that point, we lived in Sacramento, so we drove down to Playland.

We went to a diner. I remember my grandfather next to me. We sat on stools. I was about 12 or 13. We were looking at the menu. My grandfather asked me: “What is a hamburger?” I told him that it was bread with meat inside, with lettuce and tomato.

 “Like a sandwich?” he said.

“Yes,” I answered.

It took me awhile to understand why he didn’t know what a hamburger was. It was before the Civil Rights bill. In San Francisco, you could eat anywhere, but in Mississippi, you ate at home or at a relative’s house.  
I was honored that my grandfather asked me.  

Right now, Blacks are excluded (or they are at the bottom) from San Francisco. It’s sad because some of my hip white friends in the cultural arts say American arts started with African Americans—theater, music and dance. Even the hip white critics are tired of European standards.

The powerbrokers have a plan to push Blacks out of San Francisco—and Oakland.
I don’t know if we’re ready for the stress. The stress is taking us out.

I just have to trust and continue to use my talents. God will open doors and opportunities.

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In San Francisco, you could eat anywhere, but in Mississippi, you ate at home or at a relative’s house. I was honored that my grandfather asked me.

Geneva Towers

By Mark Johnson

The Geneva Towers Complex was a two-building, 22-story high-rise that sat at the center of the Sunnydale Projects, approximately four blocks from the Cow Palace.

I lived on the sixteenth floor of B Building in a two-bedroom apartment from about 1979 to 1988. At that time, my apartment offered me a beautiful view of the rolling green hills nestled in the backdrop of the Cow Palace and the Geneva Drive-in Theatre. I would crank up my stereo, put on some Rick James music, grab myself a joint, and step out on the balcony to enjoy an often breezy, but sunshiny day.

I would light the joint, take in a deep breath of the smoke and slowly release it, experiencing a pleasant high and thinking to myself: “What a beautiful place to live!” This was because I was 16 stories above the crazy drama that was playing out in the next complex or on the basketball court below me.

It had become a challenge to reside at Geneva Towers. Even walking from the parking lot to the lobby was sometimes as scary as walking in the surrounding areas after dark. You never knew when you might be bombed by a shitty diaper or a bottle filled with piss falling from one of the floors. You had to keep your head to the sky if you wanted those despicable items to miss you. People even threw mattresses off the balcony.
On one particular day, I walked out on the balcony to enjoy the sun with a joint and I glanced over at A Building and saw what appeared to be a large blue bundle falling from a balcony that was at a lower level than my apartment. The blue bundle finally made contact with the ground and splattered like a large watermelon. I stood stunned and in disbelief. I thought the joint was playing tricks with my mind.

I saw a crowd gather around the bundle. I had the urge to go over to the complex to see what was in the blue bundle that had made such a splatter, but thought again. After about 10 minutes, I saw police and ambulance personnel arrive and cover the bundle with a white sheet. I knew then that the Geneva Towers complex was no longer a place for me to reside.

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About 30 minutes later I was informed by a friend that a person had been thrown from the fourteenth floor of A Building. I began to break out in a cold sweat.

This Little Black Girl

By Kristine Mays

A little Black girl in San Francisco, that’s who I was. I was also a kid with a wild imagination, surrounded by a diverse community of people of all colors and cultures. I soaked it all in like a sponge and to this day, some of the experiences still nourish my soul.

I take great pride in saying I was born and raised here even though the city feels nothing like it did when I was a child. Yet, I find myself happy when I say I am here and from here, born in the middle of such a multifaceted place. The smell of incense, weed, patchouli… smells associated with hippies filled my nostrils before I was old enough to comprehend it all. You see, I was born in 1969 and lived with my family only one block over from Haight and Ashbury. My Mom tells stories of hippy neighbors and concerts in Golden Gate Park. Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were a big part of my soundtrack when I was a child, along with Sly and the Family Stone.

A little Black girl in San Francisco, that’s who I was. Wearing a pressed cotton dress, white ankle socks edged with lace, and patent leather Mary Jane shoes to church with family friends. Being told to sit up straight, be still and behave. Sitting in a Baptist church near Hayes and Octavia on wooden pews, I watched stone-faced older women in black-and-white uniforms (like nurses) giving out paper fans. These stern-looking women wore white gloves and walked with their hands behind their backs. They covered women with squares of burgundy fabric when they “fell out in the spirit”. They carried smelling salts to revive those who passed out. They ushered people in and had a way of looking at children that stopped them in their tracks—one glance, and the whispering, the fidgeting, the giggles, stopped. I was that little girl watching everyone and everything, wishing I could get one of those paper fans in that hot church. I watched the woman next to me swiping the air with Martin Luther King Jr.’s face looking at me from one side of the paper fan fastened to a popsicle stick. My face hot and sweaty, I stared at the stained glass windows and listened to the rise and fall of the preacher’s voice, waiting for it all to be over.

This little chubby Black girl wandering all over San Francisco—that was me—with my Mom and my two brothers in a green Electra 225, with brocade seats. San Francisco was my city and we explored far beyond the four corners of my block. I found myself in the Fillmore, staring in awe through the shop windows at colorful men’s suits with matching hats and handkerchiefs. I was a kid of the 70s, and even though many people say the Fillmore had changed by then, for me it still held a certain soulful flavor. There were businesses that sold church clothes—fancy women’s suits and hats that were fit for a long Easter service. The smell of food filled the air. It was a smell that made you hungry even if you’d already eaten.

The smell of fried chicken and the sound of James Brown. I thought of James Brown as a family member because he was always present in my childhood. His music filled most of my days. Adults told kids, “Go put on James.” You didn’t have to be old enough to read because his face was on the record label. You simply needed to focus on not scratching that record because you’d never hear the end of it if you scratched James.
I was a curious child, always reading, often hiding behind a book in silence. If I sat quietly in the corner with a book, adults either did not notice me, or thought I didn’t hear them. While they thought I was preoccupied, I listened to everything they said. They talked about Vietnam and phones being bugged. About President Nixon and Patty Hearst. I did not fully understand why free school breakfast and the Black Panthers were considered a threat, until I got older. I remember asking my Mom why they were talking about people coming home with lost limbs. She told me something ridiculous, like “We were talking about a movie. Why don’t you go play with your doll?”

If I was quiet, I could listen to the inflections of people’s voices and recognize gossip. I liked listening to my Mom debate with one of our family friends. Inevitably, he’d say she was “doin’ that feminist talk” and she’d call him a male chauvinist. And while I had no clue what a feminist was, I knew from watching my Mom that I wanted to be one.

I was a little Black girl with white friends and Filipino friends, Russian, Jewish, and Chinese friends. I learned about race and class when I didn’t get invited to a rich white girl’s birthday party even though we played together every day at recess. I had an awkward moment when a classmate invited me over for a play date but never told her Mom I was Black. Her mother and my mother stood looking at one another in shock. Her mother was shocked by the Black people at her door. My mother was shocked by the Confederate flag hanging in the entryway. And so, this education of being Black in America continued to unfold for me.
Most of my childhood was spent living in Geneva Towers, a pair of 22-story buildings in the Visitacion Valley neighborhood. These buildings took on a major stigma in the 1980s as drug-use and crime took over.

However, my memories include feeling a rich sense of community:  packing like sardines into old elevators that constantly broke down; helping old ladies with their groceries; eating egg sandwiches and drinking red Kool-Aid while waiting 20 minutes for the elevator on a school morning. The sounds of soul music, the tidbits of conversation, and the smell of beans and ham hocks cooking—all revealed when the elevator doors opened. This was my Black experience.

I remember: buying the Sun Reporter from a guy in front of the grocery store each week; checking eight books out of the local library at a time; seing my Mom run a daycare out of our apartment; braided hairstyles with lots of beads, hair bobbles and barrettes; loud-talking people; government cheese; Farina; the dreadful sound of gunshots; dead bodies on the street; Henry the mailman; the school bus program; weekends with family friends who drove station wagons with wood paneling on the sides; FM radio.

My life included bean pies and Final Call newspapers. It also included schools in a middle-class part of town, going to museums and the zoo, learning to play a musical instrument, the San Francisco Symphony, Ghirardelli Square, working (as a teenager) at Pier 39, graduating from Lowell High at a time when many of the girls in my neighborhood were walking around with big pregnant bellies and a toddler on their hips.
I am this Black girl, this girl-turned-woman with dark brown skin and kinky curly hair, with wide hips and eyes so brown you can barely see the pupils, still taking in what’s happening around me and holding onto one thing I know for sure—never judge a book by its cover.

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A little Black girl in San Francisco, that’s who I was. Wearing a pressed cotton dress, white ankle socks edged with lace, and patent leather Mary Jane shoes to church with family friends.