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Breaking historical silence to heal from historical wounds: Remembering the 1966 Hunters Point Uprising

August 31, 2016

by Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin

A man faces off with police after shots were fired into a crowd of unarmed youth. The police and National Guard began shooting on word of a sniper. Neither a sniper nor a gun was ever found. This photo and news of the uprising made headlines around the world. – Photo: UPI (United Press International)

A man faces off with police after shots were fired into a crowd of unarmed youth. The police and National Guard began shooting on word of a sniper. Neither a sniper nor a gun was ever found. This photo and news of the uprising made headlines around the world. – Photo: UPI (United Press International)

We all have an origin. Even when we may not be physically grounded, we are still rooted in place. Bayview Hunters Point is a special corner of the city, one that capsules the Black experience in San Francisco. The smells of foods from familiar restaurants, the warm feeling when you smile at the neighbor who you pass every day in the same spot, the after school program, the swings you used to be small enough to fit. Our experiences create the memories and feelings that keep us rooted in place.

San Francisco is a city that both catches the imagination and is known as a cosmopolitan city, a “Paris of the West,” that prides itself on ideals of diversity, inclusion and progressive politics. It’s a tourist attraction for many, but it has always been my home. My family migrated from Kilgore, Texas, taking the longest of the migration routes out of the South to plant seeds in the fertile ground of the Bay Area.

Yet, while African-Americans, like my family, migrating to the SF Bay Area, were able to make economic gains as a result of the war industry, build vibrant communities, and claim a place and space, they found another form of Jim Crow in the North. This Jim Crow was less visible and equally as oppressive.

The young descendants would find it hard to maintain hope and envision a future worth having. Unlike their grandparents, these new generations of young people did not have the option to leave. Decades later, they would be forced to navigate the urban landscape the young people of today find themselves in, facing the same struggles as their parents and grandparents.

Protesters, laying claim to Third Street, “main street” in Bayview Hunters Point, bravely walk past National Guard troops, described at the time as young, white and terrified, the kind of fear that can make an officer trigger-happy. – Photo: The Hunters Point Bayview Spokesman

Protesters, laying claim to Third Street, “main street” in Bayview Hunters Point, bravely walk past National Guard troops, described at the time as young, white and terrified, the kind of fear that can make an officer trigger-happy. – Photo: The Hunters Point Bayview Spokesman

Protesters call for help for a fallen comrade on Third Street. Heavy fire power was aimed at protesters by SFPD, the CHP and the National Guard, presaging today’s militarization of police. – Photo courtesy SF Public Library History Center

Protesters call for help for a fallen comrade on Third Street. Heavy fire power was aimed at protesters by SFPD, the CHP and the National Guard, presaging today’s militarization of police. – Photo courtesy SF Public Library History Center

My family was able to go from sharecroppers to home and business owners. Bayview Hunters Point was an example of our resiliency and strength. I am proud to remember the stories of my ancestors.

Yet beneath the veneer and the initial benefits of employment opportunity provided by the World War II industry, there was hardship and struggle, stories sewn into the fabric of space and time with threads of silence. I don’t remember my grandmother talking to me much about the past, so as an adult when I found out that in 1966 there was a violent conflict between police and Hunters Point residents, I was floored.

The building marked “Community Center” at Third and Newcomb, later demolished, was an extension of the Bayview Opera House, considered a sanctuary by children and youth – it’s where Danny Glover learned to be an actor. To community outrage, police, knowing children were there, fired on it heavily, blaming rumors of a sniper. – Photo courtesy Shaping SF

The building marked “Community Center” at Third and Newcomb, later demolished, was an extension of the Bayview Opera House, considered a sanctuary by children and youth – it’s where Danny Glover learned to be an actor. To community outrage, police, knowing children were there, fired on it heavily, blaming rumors of a sniper. – Photo courtesy Shaping SF

Cops far outgunned the community. “We didn’t have much more than .22s,” says an eyewitness who called the Bay View to say they chased protesters up Newcomb and for hours that night he could hear people calling out, “I’m shot!” – Photo courtesy SF Public Library History Center

Cops far outgunned the community. “We didn’t have much more than .22s,” says an eyewitness who called the Bay View to say they chased protesters up Newcomb and for hours that night he could hear people calling out, “I’m shot!” – Photo courtesy SF Public Library History Center

During the fall of 1966, racial and economic disparity exploded into a violent three-day conflict between local and state law enforcement, the National Guard and the Black community of Bayview Hunters Point after the fatal killing of 16 year-old African-American youth Matthew Johnson by white police officer Alvin Johnson. This left a deep wound adding to the historical trauma experienced by African-Americans.

Now more than ever it is time for us to tell our stories. We must explore our past if we hope to heal and move forward as a community.

Standing on Newcomb with two fallen comrades, protesters express outrage. The iconic entrance to the Bayview Opera House can be seen at the upper right in this photo from what was then the nation’s leading Black newspaper, published daily. – Photo: Chicago Daily Defender

Standing on Newcomb with two fallen comrades, protesters express outrage. The iconic entrance to the Bayview Opera House can be seen at the upper right in this photo from what was then the nation’s leading Black newspaper, published daily. – Photo: Chicago Daily Defender

The community turned out in force for the funeral of Matthew “Peanut” Johnson, 16, whose murder by SFPD on Sept. 27, 1966, 50 years ago, caused an explosion of protest known as the Hunters Point Uprising, the second major “riot” in the U.S. of the turbulent ‘60s. Note that, unlike in many other cities, protesters did not destroy their own, then mostly Black-owned neighborhood. – Photo courtesy SF Public Library History Center

The community turned out in force for the funeral of Matthew “Peanut” Johnson, 16, whose murder by SFPD on Sept. 27, 1966, 50 years ago, caused an explosion of protest known as the Hunters Point Uprising, the second major “riot” in the U.S. of the turbulent ‘60s. Note that, unlike in many other cities, protesters did not destroy their own, then mostly Black-owned neighborhood. – Photo courtesy SF Public Library History Center

Our present days have brought many tragedies, but they have not broken our spirit. Our memories, while painful, are the bridge needed in order for the next generation to go forward. Fifty years later, we still struggle to find unity, identity and protect our roots as they are torn from the soil we call home.

Join the conversation at the Linda Brooks Burton Library on the 50th anniversary of the BVHP Uprising. Find yourself in this history that is integral to our mutual progress.

Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin, African American Studies Department chair at City College of San Francisco, can be reached at adunn@ccsf.edu.

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