by The People’s Minister of Information M.O.I. JR Valrey
Bayview Hunters Point is one of the first places where masses of Black people, emigrating from Southern plantations in Louisiana and Texas were delegated to live in Northern California during World War II. Although it is one of the most beautiful Black communities in California, it is also one of the most toxic places in the country due to the radiation experiments that took place on the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in the ‘40s and many other generators of deadly toxins, most of them government owned.
Dr. Ray Tompkins, a historian and a scientific expert on the pollution in Bayview Hunters Point, gives an in-depth interview on the history of Black people living, working and being poisoned in a San Francisco neighborhood with over 400 toxic waste sites plus a federal and a state Superfund site. Check him out in his own words.
M.O.I. JR: Today we are going to be talking to our brother, the scientist, Dr. Ray Tompkins. We’re going to be talking about the history of pollution in Bayview Hunters Point.
Thank you for informing the community about this very important issue that rarely is spoken about in the media. First things first: Can you talk a little bit about the influence of World War II on the Black population in San Francisco and, in particular, in Bayview Hunters Point?
Dr. Tompkins: OK, basically, there weren’t that many Black folks in San Francisco. In 1911 there were about 1,300 – 1,300 for the total population! And the population stayed low up until 1940.
In Bayview, it was more Mediterranean people. Hunters Point – the name Hunters came from two brothers who were early developers around in 1849. They tried to develop that sector of San Francisco and develop the shipyard that was out there before the Navy and the military took it over. And it was a lot of farmland. Later, we had the slaughter house and the rest that developed out there with the farmers and etc.
The first Black person who was allowed to buy property in Bayview Hunters Point was in 1938, and that was Oscar James’ grandmother. She had moved from Texas and they had discovered oil on her property in Texas, so she moved to San Francisco and she wanted to buy the home out there in Bayview and they told her a price.
And they thought, this silly Black woman didn’t have the money. She went back to the bank and came back with cash and paid the house in cash. She was the first Black person they allowed to buy a home in Bayview Hunters Point, and Oscar James’ family is still living in BVHP and I just saw him yesterday on the advisory board to the Southeast Clinic.
So up until that time our numbers in San Francisco were very, very low. In 1940 there was under 5,000 African Americans living in San Francisco. Most of us were forced, because of segregation, to live over there in Bayview.
The first Black person who was allowed to buy property in Bayview Hunters Point was in 1938, and that was Oscar James’ grandmother.
How our numbers increased was behind World War II. In Bayview – you know San Francisco had a history of discrimination against the Chinese, used to be a phrase in the American language, “You don’t have a Chinaman’s chance,” meaning you’re going to get cheated and run over. That’s when they segregated the Chinese into Chinatown.
And they had the three or four shrimp fishing villages or camps out on Hunters Point. In 1939, the city declared them to be a health hazard and, using the same law they used to get rid of the people of Occupy on Market Street by the Federal Reserve Bank, they used that law to get rid of the Chinese. They burned their fishing villages down to the ground and ran them out of Hunters Point.
And Oscar played with the young girl that the white guy who bought the property for one dollar. He burned the Chinese out of Bayview Hunters Point, and one white landlord bought the property for 1 dollar. Similar to what Lennar paid for the shipyard, he gave one dollar to the city for the shipyard!
When Black folks came during the war, they were recruited by the Federal Manpower Commission. If you go to the San Francisco Library, you can look up the poster that they had, where you see Black workers along with white workers, in the library and you can look it up and see it. That’s when we started being recruited to work in the industrial complex.
In San Francisco, they had industries, they had Bethlehem Steel, they had everything supporting the expansion of the shipyards to build military ships. Most of the Black folk who were recruited to the Bay Area were recruited from Louisiana and Texas.
Understand, segregation was very prominent in the military. They didn’t want that, man – armed Black people having guns – so therefore they put them to work in the industrial complex over in Richmond, working in Oakland at the port, which used to be an army depot, over at San Francisco shipyard. They built in Richmond, the liberty ships. And they retrofitted all the ships that were damaged during World War II in the shipyards.
When Black folks came during the war, they were recruited by the Federal Manpower Commission. That’s when we started being recruited to work in the industrial complex.
Also, Hunters Point Shipyard was the national nuclear research center for the U.S. If you go on the shipyard now, you’ll see a white building right next to parcel E2 that is nine stories high and it has no windows. That’s where they did the experiments.
Where they wanted to put the 49ers’ football stadium over there on the shipyard was also where they used to radiate the animals and do the experiments on them. And then the 49ers found out they wanted to put the parking lot next to the Superfund site, which is 23 acres wide and it goes 36 feet deep in certain sections, and 20 percent of the total volume of soil there in that 23 acres is radioactive impacted.
That means that the half-lifespan of plutonium is 1,600 years. It’s what the Russians used to kill that spy in England with the needle injection. So they are going to have to monitor that Superfund site for 1,600 years – and they’re building homes around it.
Black folks were given the dirtiest jobs on the shipyards. Segregation was very prominent. And just like in Port Chicago – I’ll explain to you the significance of that. Port Chicago is where they used to have white officers and they’d have Black enlisted sailors unload the ships and there were racists, unsafe labor conditions all around – and two ships blew up.
The men, the Black sailors who survived – 350 were killed and 200 survived – they refused to go to work until the unsafe working conditions – not that they refused to work – but until the unsafe working conditions, until they cut out this practice.
Black folks were given the dirtiest jobs on the shipyards. Segregation was very prominent.
They were court marshaled – and even Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first Black Supreme Court justice, defended these men – but they were all found guilty, given prison sentences and dishonorable discharges. President Clinton refused to reverse the naval charge and these men died of old age without any military benefits.
What it did to the Black workforce, in the U.S., if you complain, we will fire you. You must understand the significance of A. Philip Randolph in ‘42, late ‘42, ’43. He threatened Roosevelt with a march on Washington, in a work stoppage of all Black workers working on federal contracts because they were getting unequal pay. A. Philip Randolph, for the first time, with this threat, forced Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the first time in American history to pay a Black male worker the same as a white worker working on a job.
So in ‘42 in San Francisco, when they incarcerated all the Japanese and put them in detention camps, as they called it – prison for all practical purposes – that’s what opened up the Fillmore so the Black workers who were recruited by the Manpower Commission were then allowed to buy for pennies on the dollar from the Japanese and the businesses that they had to abandon. And that’s how the Fillmore became Fillmo’ and some folks called it the Harlem of the West – because all the Japanese were in prison.
But initially all Blacks were forced by law to live in Bayview Hunters Point. They had housing, and you can go to the San Francisco public library and look it up, or at the library over there on Third Street, and you can see where they had them living in trailers right next to the Hunters Point Shipyard. They had them also living in temporary government housing that was built on stilts on the Bay, because when high tide came, it would flood.
We have pictures of this from the families that lived out there on the Bay in this flooded plain and, unfortunately, what makes you want to cry, some of these young men and women died because they were exposed to the pollution that was left over from World War II.
Initially all Blacks were forced by law to live in Bayview Hunters Point.
And they even built it next to a dump site; an old city dump is where the children played. This young man died at 44 years old. In 1990 the San Francisco Superior Court ruled. The judge said, “You people,” referring to African Americans, “you just die early” and ruled that they had no case standing with the court that environmental pollution caused this young man’s early death. Without any toxicology or anything else, the judge just ruled, “You people die young.”
If you look at the map that Golden Gate University Law Clinic made in ’99, you can see, out of the 23 square miles that comprise Bayview Hunters Point, at one point there were over 300 toxic waste sites in this area – 300! – plus 100 brownfields. A brownfield is an abandoned industrial work site.
So there were over 400 toxic waste sites, plus you had a federal Superfund site and you had a state Superfund site where they took industrial ore from 55 gallon drums and just dumped them, and the pollution leaked into the ground and into people’s homes and their backyards. The trees, the apple trees, the apples were so small and filled with arsenic and chemicals, they had to uproot and clean that out.
At one point there were over 300 toxic waste sites in this area – 300! – plus 100 brownfields. A brownfield is an abandoned industrial work site. So there were over 400 toxic waste sites.
And finally after years of fighting they had to clean house, but still there are rumors going around by some of the residents that they didn’t do a good job. And so some of us who sat on the Brownfield Advisory Committee asked for additional studies to be done to see if the state Superfund site was properly cleaned and the land is clean. We haven’t heard, yet, in terms of the findings of the study that they conducted. We made the request so we’re going to have to pursue that further.
M.O.I. JR: Can you speak to some of the other industries besides the shipyard that are in Hunters Point currently and the impact that it has on the health of the residents?
Dr. Tompkins: OK, it’s not just what is in Hunters Point, but right outside of Hunters Point. When you are driving down 101, if you look to your right, between 101 and 280, all the light industry of San Francisco, 90 percent of it, is all concentrated in that one area. OK? In that one area.
Out of the 38 known cancer causing chemicals in the air, under the state Proposition 65 that lists all of them, Dr. Grumbach stated that over 20 out of the 38 that are in the City and County of San Francisco are exclusively found in Bayview Hunters Point. That’s from the current industry that’s there right now.
Now you have other industry, a heavy metals recycling plant that’s been there since 1932; and there is no dust suppression system on that, no water sprinkling. If you put water on it – like you see if you go to the grocery store and they spray water, a little mist, to keep the vegetables looking nice and crisp – that’s what they are supposed to do for controlling dust. They have none of that on the heavy metals.
Out of the 38 known cancer causing chemicals in the air, Dr. Grumbach stated that over 20 out of the 38 that are in the City and County of San Francisco are exclusively found in Bayview Hunters Point. That’s from the current industry that’s there right now.
Right next to the heavy metals factory is the City asphalt plant. All the City’s asphalt is produced in one site that happens to be in BVHP. With the heat being generated from the asphalt, it then lifts the heavy metals into fine particles and spreads it further out into the Black community.
Right across the street from the asphalt plant is the sewage plant, which generates heat as well, which then expands the fallout zone for the heavy metals. Heavy metals cause retardation, depending on the type of metal that is being recycled, such as lead.
And we know copper, for example, we know that in the studies, African Americans are more susceptible to copper. This is documented in their literature. And the reason, one of the things they found out about our susceptibility, is the Black workers at the Old Mint on Market Street, the Old Mint that used to print out pennies, Black workers were getting sick and poisoned from copper. Their risk factor and exposure – and our threshold is much lower than whites.
As to why, we have theories about it, but unfortunately because of the prejudices within science, we’re not allowed to explore. We believe melanin, the color of our skin, plays a factor in terms of attracting heavy metals. As to the validity of how much it is, we have not been funded to do that type of research in none of the institutions; that’s part of the problem.
Black workers were getting sick and poisoned from copper. Their risk factor and exposure – and our threshold is much lower than whites.
In terms of risk assessment, since the medical model is a 35-year-old white male, it has nothing to do with people of color. To show you how ignorant some of the studies are, the original breast cancer studies that were done in the U.S. were done on white males, not even on women.
So you’ve got to take a second look at this stuff when they tell you, “Oh, you’re not at risk.” We were not included in the analysis.
Our genetic susceptibility – we’re familiar with sickle cell anemia, but they have another disease that is very prominent for Africans. It’s called G6PD (glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase) deficiency. It’s where the brain cell doesn’t metabolize sugar as quick, and it affects 16 percent African American males, 12-13 percent Filipinos, and what the literature refers to as Mediterranean Jews. Judaism is a faith, it is not a race, so I just say Mediterranean people because I’m not going to participate in racism. If I’m fighting it, I’m not going to classify people in that category, and it affects males.
Plus you have the sickle cell screen. When I did that in San Francisco, I found 4 percent had heterozygous and 4 percent had homozygous, meaning that 4 percent had the trait and 4 percent had the disease, so that’s 20 percent of your class if you are a teacher. Twenty percent are susceptible to heavy metal exposure.
Lead is absorbed in the brain and the bone and, if a baby is in a bad condition taking low levels of lead with a susceptible population, you have behavioral problems that mimic crack babies. But yet it’s an environmentally induced disease from the years and years of metals since 1932 being still dumped to this day in the community along with the chemicals and waste from World War II that have not been cleaned up yet – not all of it.
Some of it has, but a significant portion of it has not, and those are part of the contributing factors in terms of disease and our susceptibility. There are other factors as well we can go into, such as dust, cardiovascular disease, asthma, which we have an astronomical rate of currently.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’” and “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2” and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe” and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch for Part 2, coming soon.