by Michael Chase and Ragina Johnson
San Francisco’s African American population is shrinking – and fast. As a consequence of high unemployment among the Black population and gentrification and the mortgage crisis in housing, the city’s African American population has dropped to 6 percent.
Dr. Willie Ratcliff is publisher of the San Francisco Bay View, one of the leading Black newspapers in the U.S. and a treasured source of left news in the Bay Area. In an interview with Michael Chase and Ragina Johnson, Ratcliff, a longtime resident of the city, reflected on the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard and its closure, environmental racism and the changes in the Fillmore neighborhood, a historically Black area known as “Harlem West.”
Q: Can you give us a brief introduction about yourself?
A: Actually, I first came to San Francisco in 1950, and I was just a kid. My oldest brother came here during the Second World War. After the War, he came back and stayed in the South for a year or two, and then he came back out here. I followed him, and then everybody followed me.
But then in 1951, I went to Alaska and stayed up there for 34 years. I came back to San Francisco often because my brother lived here, and I had some kids here. But it was good work up there. Here, I was making $1 an hour, and up there, I was making $2.93 an hour. That’s quite a jump for a youngster.
I had always wanted to come to San Francisco, from the time I was 7 or 8 years old and read about it or had seen pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge. And then, at the theaters, we had to sit way up in the balcony to watch movies, and of course, they’d show San Francisco, and it just made me love it even more. So it had always been in my mind to come here. If my brother hadn’t come, I would have wound up here anyway.
Dr. Willie Ratcliff is publisher of the San Francisco Bay View, one of the leading Black newspapers in the U.S. and a treasured source of left news in the Bay Area.
I was born down in Shelby County in East Texas. That runs along Louisiana and the river separating Louisiana and Texas. We were right across from Shreveport, Mansfield and different places in Louisiana. My family has been there for over 200 years. My ancestors came there before the Louisiana Purchase – at the time, Texas wasn’t a state.
At a certain point, I felt it was best for me to get out of there, and I came to San Francisco. I stayed here a year and worked at the shipyard a little while. That was when things were good – people had good jobs. That made the difference.
People had jobs at the shipyards and the rope factory, and you could work for Southern Pacific, and it was great. You didn’t have to make a whole bunch of money. If you could pay the $150 or $200 for an apartment, usually, you were living at the top of the chain. I mean, look at the difference in rental prices now.
Q: A lot of African Americans were attracted to the Bay Area during the Great Migration from the Southern states. What were the conditions for the Black working class in the shipyards?
A: They had a need for you here. The war was going on, and they had a need. They had Black women out there welding in the shipyard. They were going down there to the South, asking people to come out here. We had a big shipyard in Orange, Texas, so a whole lot of people were working there. My Dad went to Orange instead of coming out here. They would pay your way out here. It was great. There were no problems getting jobs during the war.
Q: How many people were working at the shipyard when you were working there?
A: Around 22,000 people. The Korean War was going on in 1950, and they [the U.S. government] were redoing the aircraft carrier, the USS Boxer, right here. They spent a lot of money on the Korean War. When Truman sent troops to North Korea, my brother volunteered. My mother wouldn’t sign for me. I’m so glad she didn’t.
There were 10,000 people from here and the Western Addition working in the shipyard. When I first moved out here, I lived in the Western Addition. We called it the Fillmore then.
I started as a rigger helper, meaning we loaded everything on the ship – all of the cargo, the big guns, and we also tied it down. As a matter of fact, they put together the bomb they dropped on Japan here. One of the largest nuclear facilities in the country was right here. They had nuclear research going on down in New Mexico and other places, but out here, they were doing all kinds of radioactive testing.
Q: What were the conditions for Black people socially within San Francisco at the time?
A: When times were good, they were just great. Not only did Blacks own quite a bit, but especially over in the Fillmore area, the white nightlife was happening, and musicians came from around the country. They called it Harlem West. People had jobs. Black people still had to fight because in the city, Blacks and Chinese people couldn’t buy land.
Jewish women were the ones who broke the covenant that allowed Blacks to move in, which in turn allowed the Chinese to break the covenant. Then the war came along, and a whole lot of houses owned by Japanese people had be gotten rid of.
After the war, the government put out a bunch of money so the whites could move to the suburbs. And of course, they didn’t want to be around the Blacks. Now the whites are coming back.
Q: You were talking about the Fillmore in its heyday, when it was the center of jazz and nightlife. Can you talk about the demise of Fillmore?
A: That’s when they looked around and saw what they had done. Blacks were able to take over cities because of white flight, without firing a shot. Whites just got scared and ran. They looked back and said, “What did we give up?”
There was always a lot of racism. But they needed people. When you need help from people, it’s a different ball game. But when you don’t need help, you start treating people like nothing.
Blacks had been here for the longest time. When more people starting coming to San Francisco, at first, the exclusion was against Chinese. Even Black people didn’t want Chinese people here and said, “We were doing fine until the Chinese got here.” Which didn’t help anybody. These attitudes finally turned around.
Blacks were able to take over cities because of white flight, without firing a shot. Whites just got scared and ran. They looked back and said, “What did we give up?”
If you don’t have enough people to be a threat of turning the system around, the government doesn’t pay you much attention. But when it looks like you want to get something for yourselves, for your own people, then you’ve become a threat. At that point, the City conspired to gentrify us out of here.
At one point, we were very political. We made demands and voted as a block. We were 17 percent of the population. They got scared, and they’ve been trying to run Blacks out of here since. Now we only have somewhere around 5 to 6 percent of the city.
Q: Given the demographic change in San Francisco with the population decreasing and high unemployment rate, what do you see as the future of the Black community within San Francisco?
A: What I see is getting Blacks invested in their own future. We create our own jobs and we put our own people to work. Because you can talk affordable housing all you want and if you don’t have jobs, you’re just blowing smoke.
Nobody’s going to change things for us, but us. We can sit and wait until hell freezes over and nothing’s going to happen unless we stop acting like a bunch of cats going in 50 directions. We got to put our money together, we got to put our heads together, and make sure our kids are educated and they have jobs.
We aren’t the only ones suffering. Latinos are suffering. Chinese people are suffering. There are a few Blacks doing pretty well because they have nice jobs, but not that many. So I see a beautiful future, with us doing it for ourselves.
Q: What caused the shifts in Black employment? Was it the closing of the shipyard?
A: They claim that when they closed the shipyard, they were going to make sure that Blacks were able to get into construction. If you look closely now, you see some Brown folks who look almost Black, but they aren’t Black.
But if you don’t say anything, it’s like those squeaky wheels: If you don’t squeak, nobody pays you any mind. We aren’t squeaking – we’re doing everything but that.
Nobody’s going to change things for us, but us.
I think people coming together, staying professional and going after what you need to do is the solution. What can we do for ourselves? It starts with economics. You’ve got to educate people. If you haven’t got money for your family to start with, the first thing they say is there’s a brick wall I can’t get through. I’m not even going to try.
There are a lot of prisoners coming out of jail. Our project is going to be loaded with jobs and other opportunities for them. Our newspaper has really been pushing how they treat the prisoners. Not only the fact that the government railroads them, but they put them in solitary confinement. Some of the prisoners have been in there for 30 and 40 years. Of course, they accuse us of starting the strike – but that’s a badge of honor for us.
I’m talking about the strikes in the California prisons, which have spread all over the world. We started to get about 10 or 15 letters a day [from prisoners]. We run the letters from the prisoners. You don’t take nobody else’s word. And as a matter of fact, there’s a lawsuit because sometimes the prisons won’t take our paper. They try to call it contraband.
Q: Can you discuss the 1966 rebellion that occurred after the killing of a 16-year-old African American teenager who was supposedly on a joy ride? What happened in the aftermath of the rebellion?
A: I wasn’t here. I was in Alaska. I know that when I came back everybody was scared to death to even talk about it.
We started talking about it 30 years later – talking and writing about it. We put on some shows over at the Opera House, and it livened up to where people could talk about it. They had been afraid to open their mouths. It was really a shock that the government had put tanks up and down Third Street, and they shot into the Opera House.
Those people on the hill, I was proud of them – they stood up. They were shooting down and the cops didn’t go up there. That’s really what happened. And people are just now getting their courage back. It scared the hell out of folks.
Q: After the closure of the shipyard and the clean-up, there was a noticeable spike in cancer and other illnesses in Hunters Point. Can you talk about the activism against environmental racism that followed the closure of the shipyard?
A: The reason they didn’t do anything out there is because we rose up, plus supposedly the government don’t have any money. They have money. They just don’t want to clean it up. They still played the old divide-and-conquer game. They had a preacher going around and saying he isn’t sick. But he was just going along with their crap. They had Lennar Homes that was going to build 10,000 homes in the area, and now that’s dead, and they’re talking about 200 houses.
The land still isn’t clean. If you build a house, you have to sign something saying you can’t grow anything [edible] in your garden.
Q: Because it’s toxic?
A: Of course it’s toxic. You can’t grow anything, but they also haven’t been able to build anything.
Q: And they still claim the shipyard has nothing to do with the illnesses?
A: They just aren’t talking because they know that’s a lie. It’s on record in the health statistics, which tells it all, and of course, the health department has sold out.
It was quite a fight, but to tell the truth, we won it. They haven’t built anything up there, and we wanted to make sure the people out there – potential homebuyers – knew about the contamination. Are you ready to knock 30 or 35 years off your children’s life and your own life, and pay the price for it at the same time? I don’t think so.
People aren’t stupid, and we made sure that they knew about the contamination out there. The Navy still owns most of the land. We said that if you can’t clean it, don’t develop it. We ran something in the paper every week and we went to the meetings and advisory meetings.
They put that atomic bomb together here. They carried the bomb out of here and dropped it. And later all those ships exposed to atomic bomb tests came back here to be cleaned up. The sand they used to sandblast those ships would light up, and they called it black beauty sand.
I didn’t know all this when I was working out there. But they had guys carrying barrels weighting 600 or 700 pounds, and they used them to bury all the radioactive material.
That’s what they were doing across the country. Every time you see a power plant or anything that was dangerous, where did they put it? They’d either find a Black or Latino community, or a poor white one.
Q: We noticed a march going through here about gun violence, and as they were marching by, somebody shouted that they needed to go to the police department and tell them to stop the violence. Can you talk about the recent police activity and police-involved shootings?
A: The police-involved shootings – they’re going on all over the country. San Francisco is no exception. The protesters are also supporting the gun law that they’re trying to get changed back in Washington, D.C. People are marching everywhere to get them to do background checks and to get rid of some of these magazines and things to cut down on the violence.
Dianne Feinstein was the one who changed the law on these weapons, but then she had to sunset it in order to get it passed. So it’s back before us again. So people are marching for that, and they’re also marching to stop local violence, too. We have a lot of power if we come together and use it. That’s what it’s going to take. Nobody out there can stop us, but us.
We’re demanding to become part of the economic solution that needs to change in this country. We call it the San Francisco Plan. But we intend for it to go to Oakland, San Jose and Houston, with people coming together, putting their money together and putting their political power together and making demands. Because if you don’t make demands, you don’t get anything.
We’re demanding to become part of the economic solution that needs to change in this country. We call it the San Francisco Plan.
Q: Power concedes nothing without a demand.
Michael Chase and Ragina Johnson write for SocialistWorker.org, where this story first appeared. Michael can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Ragina at email@example.com. The Bay View thanks them for this interview.