Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment

Funeral is Friday, Feb. 13, 11 a.m., at Third Baptist Church, 1399 McAllister, the repast 4-7 p.m. at West Bay Conference Center, 1290 Fillmore St., San Francisco

by Lance Burton

Leola-King, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
Leola King

Leola King Wilson, born Jan. 20, 1919, passed away on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015, in Palm Springs, California. She is survived by her son, Tony, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“Goldie,” as she was known to friends, was born in Seminole County, Oklahoma, and spent her youth in Los Angeles. She moved to San Francisco in 1946 and lived in the Fillmore District until 2010. She owned and operated several businesses, including Oklahoma King’s Bar-B-Q, The Blue Mirror, The Bird Cage Tavern and Goldie’s Supper Club.

In 1953, she opened the Blue Mirror, a successful and hugely popular night club, which played a major part in the Fillmore District’s documented blues and jazz history. The Blue Mirror featured both local artists such as Bobby Webb, Saunders King, Frank Jackson, Earl Grant and Lowell Fulson and world renowned performers such as Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, The Mills Brothers, Sarah Vaughn, Flip Wilson’s first onstage audition and many more.

Mrs. King, “the Queen of Fillmore,” as she was often called, was host to many celebrities both at her clubs and her home at 711 Scott St. A visit to San Francisco was not complete without a stop in at the Blue Mirror. On any given evening, you might find the likes of Lena Horne, Joe Louis, Edward G. Robinson, Ernie Kovacs, Ray Charles, Charles Brown, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway and many other sports, music, film and entertainment celebrities.

Mrs. King’s legacy will be one of having brought memorable class and dignity to every business she operated during a 50-year business career in San Francisco.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 13, at Third Baptist Church, 1399 McAllister St., San Francisco. A repast will follow from 4 to 7 p.m. at the West Bay Conference Center, 1290 Fillmore St., San Francisco. Sign her guest book, provided by the Chronicle until March 9, 2015, at http://www.legacy.com/guestbooks/sfgate/leola-king-wilson-condolences/174087902?cid=full#sthash.LvonajBY.dpbs.

Black people here now know nothing positive of what it was like to walk and live amongst the greatness we had created on Fillmore Street

Edward-G.-Robinson-signs-autographs-at-Leola-Kings-Blue-Mirror-on-Fillmore, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
Edward G. Robinson signs autographs at Leola King’s Blue Mirror on Fillmore. Asked why a web search finds almost no photos of Mrs. King or her businesses, Lance Burton writes: “Most of Mrs. King’s mementos were destroyed by the Redevelopment Agency, both at her house and at the Bird Cage, where she also had items from the Blue Mirror. They were brutal, as you know, about shutting her down. Then, what they did keep to archive was virtually ransacked at the Redevelopment offices. I spent a month going through boxes at the SFR and found nothing. I have a few pix from the club but terrible quality – water stained, blotched and low quality.” This is one of them.

Mrs. King was hit hard by Redevelopment when the agency took aim at the Fillmore, then known worldwide as “Harlem of the West.” I think it was in her blood to fight and come back, having come from the region of Oklahoma where the natives were warriors and the movement of American Black people was long, cast over the previous 60 or 70 years in that area of the western South.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, saw Blacks rise up and create Black Wall Street, until it was wiped off the map on June 1, 1921, when the Ku Klux Klan slaughtered as many as 3,000 while city officials called for firebombing the district from the air, the first aerial bombing in history. Redevelopment’s destruction of the Fillmore was just another continuation of government exercising its treacherous dominion over the lives of colored people.

We like to talk about the greatness of Mrs. King without diving into the horrific consequence of racism that wounded her so deeply. We know what happened and how it happened. But Mrs. King was like a big movie star to many of us, a star who brought some very bright moments to our community – maybe the most golden period of years ever to have been seen in San Francisco by Black folks before or since.

Most had never experienced much of anything that resembled an American dream. Mrs. King gave our people a chance to dress up and shine in a Sunday evening of glory. That’s the image we ought to remember, because everyone else wants to obliterate any image of greatness among Black people.

Leola King gave our people a chance to dress up and shine in a Sunday evening of glory. That’s the image we ought to remember, because everyone else wants to obliterate any image of greatness among Black people.

The City’s narrative doesn’t like to talk about that era. I believe they fear the corruption will ultimately be uncovered, and the names and images of people who walk the streets today, serve in office today and yesteryear will come up tainted.

They like to declare the Fillmore was blighted and needed to be destroyed. There was nothing here of value or worth saving. And that seems to be the legacy etched in the vision left for our young people to struggle over.

There’s no exaltation of Black people who made Fillmore a defiantly socially successful moment for 25 years of some semblance of civil liberty. A precursor to what should have been the doorstep to equality for Blacks in San Francisco turned into a fate no different from Allensworth, Tulsa or any of the other Black townships knocked off the map as Blacks moved away from the South.

Leola-Kings-Blue-Mirror-on-Fillmore, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
The Blue Mirror “was fantastic, a beautiful club. San Francisco nightlife was Fillmore Street. It was 110 bars on Fillmore Street,” Leola King recalled. The Blue Mirror was the most elegant.

Even someone like current Fillmore District 5 Supervisor London Breed has no reasonable understanding of what it meant to have the streets teaming with well-groomed Black men and women; storefronts filled with thriving enterprise. She has no good sense of what it meant and felt like, in the hearts and minds of many, to have Black military men crowd the streets of Fillmore after the war, exuding a sense of bravery and resolve.

Even as I grew into childhood, I was able to witness this vision of community, as my dad had a military uniform – Black men feeling good about themselves. They’d shown themselves well during the most pivotal challenge the Western world had known. They were feeling like heroes. They’d earned an extra step in their stride. Ready to take on “what’s next?” they were finding that life could be good and certainly much better than when they left the South.

No matter what people say about blight in the Fillmore, these were exciting times for Black people to be in business on Fillmore. Mrs. King was perhaps the most exciting of them all. This was a new day with work on the waterfront, starting families and bringing good old Southern family values to a segregated neighborhood where Black people were in charge of buildings that weren’t sitting like shacks down an old dusty road. The Blue Mirror was legendary for raising the bar of aspiration for our people to be at their best.

These were exciting times for Black people to be in business on Fillmore. This was a new day, bringing good old Southern family values to a segregated neighborhood where Black people were in charge of buildings that weren’t sitting like shacks down an old dusty road. The Blue Mirror was legendary for raising the bar of aspiration for our people to be at their best.

The people looked successful by comparative standards set to those in big mid-Western and Eastern cities where colored people had begun to realize opportunity and some upward mobility. Mrs. King, Mr. Sullivan, Mr. and Mrs. Gilmore, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard and a number of other prosperous looking colored people represented what the future for Black people in San Francisco could continue to grow and look like. We didn’t need to stay in the South and do dirty, laborious agricultural work, sweating under the hot sun, stooping to whites ordained as privileged through Jim Crow and share cropping.

Sadly, most of the Black people here now know nothing positive of what it was like to walk and live amongst the greatness we had created there on Fillmore Street. Even I was truly too young to totally appreciate what we had, since just as I was becoming aware of life in Fillmore at 6 or 7 or 8 years old, it was just as quickly being manipulated away from us.

Living at Fillmore and O’Farrell streets, I had only a small piece of concrete to lose; still I find myself today becoming emotionally tearful at times over that episode. Mrs. King had everything to lose. She and Mr. Wilson had covered the fabric and textures of the Fillmore with bright colors and beautiful gems by way of the Blue Mirror. Her ventures in real estate were unprecedented. Her vivid sense of glamour and business moxey made a statement we could all share. One could only imagine the depth of pain and scars she’s endured over more than half century of her life watching as people come and go on Fillmore.

Leola-King-2nd-from-left-in-her-Blue-Mirror-on-Fillmore, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
Leola King is second from left in this damaged photo from her Blue Mirror on Fillmore.

We don’t want to keep talking about the City’s nasty victory over Black people in the Fillmore. Lessons should be learned but unfortunately they haven’t been. Yes, Redevelopment politically smiled, organized old government tricks and viciously undermined and ripped Mrs. King’s fortune away. To make it to the age of 95, with grace, is a testimony to the strength and power of the native stock she’d come from out of Seminole County, Oklahoma, where many Blacks and Native Americans found one another, beautifully.

I was fortunate to be counted as one of the few who spent time recounting the good years of the ‘50s with her during the last five years of her life – both here and in Palm Springs. We liked to talk about those great years. It kept a smile on her face and, I believe, hope in her heart.

She always expressed a sentiment to get back to that vision of life in Fillmore. She also knew it would never happen again because too many of our people are easily bought. They sell out to their own dire personal interest while under extreme pressures of “pop culture” insignificance. Mrs. King was an amazing woman. I want to remember her in victory, not in defeat under the skin of snakes.

Lance Burton, founder of Planet Fillmore Communications, can be reached at planet.fillmore@gmail.com. He submitted the obituary to the SF Chronicle and invites readers to sign the guest book for Mrs. King, which will be available until March 9 .

Queen Leola King in her own words

Following are excerpts from a long interview with Leola King by several high school students at the  Urban School of San Francisco where students record interviews with elders who witnessed key events of the 20th century. Readers are strongly encouraged to read the entire interview and watch the video at http://tellingstories.org/fillmore/leola_king/index.html.

Oklahoma King’s Barbeque

I moved here (to San Francisco) when I was 17 years old, and I opened my first business, which was called the Oklahoma Barbeque. I specialized in a lot of wild game, smoked all kinds of delicious meats that I laced with different kinds of fresh fruits.

So it was a very interesting business, because there was nothing here like that, so I was an immediate success. I would open my business about 10 o’clock in the morning and I closed about 4:00. I was busy all day, all night, lines outside.

It was a unique little business because I built the log cabin on the site, and I put in this enormous smoke pit that could be seen from the outside. And on Cathedral Hill, coming down the hill, I had a tall, about a 50-foot smoke stack that put the aroma in the air that was just terrific, and people would drive around trying to find the place where this beautiful smell was coming from.

So that was an experience and it was an immediate success because most of Nob Hill and Pacific Heights and areas like that who would chauffeur limousines were some of my regular customers. We had a lot of takeout service, and we had lots of people that come from the tourist areas to dine and eat this nice tasting food. So, it was a pleasure to prepare it, because I really like cooking anyway. …

I was in business in San Francisco 55 years. And my business was always in the Fillmore area. …

Redevelopment takes Oklahoma King’s Barbeque

It ended very, very rude, very bad. I had worked so hard and made so many sacrifices, and I had worked around the clock almost, so it was really a very sad thing for me to lose a business that I had started at a very young age and was relying on the income for my keep …

Fillmore-Blacks-stop-Redevelopment-bulldozers-by-SF-Examiner, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
Redevelopment, as Leola King explains, was sneaky – bulldozers appearing with little or no notice. Nevertheless, people fought back the best they could. – Photo: SF Examiner

I had heard rumors that the eminent domain (method) of taking your property was in process, but nobody made me that familiar with it. So when I did all the construction, opened up and was doing good, then here comes the Redevelopment Agency. At the time, the Redevelopment Agency was not strong; it was just people going around talking. When you work all the time you don’t have much time to listen to a lot of talk, so I wasn’t really aware what they were doing. …

Then someone would come in – these people didn’t seem like they were local people – and say, “Well we want to buy this location.” I say, “I don’t want to sell,” so they say, “OK,” and they leave. This happened about three or four times. About a year later, I go one day to work, and they got bulldozers all in the street tearing down the houses around me. …

They told me I couldn’t come in the area, because it was going to be equipment there, and they didn’t want me to walk in the area because they were afraid that I might have an accident. And they wanted to inform me that I couldn’t come in the area anymore. So I go home and I have to go to the doctor because I’m just so upset about this. I think even now and I get quite upset, because it was a surprise. …

So I go one day and the building’s gone. They bulldozed it down. So that made me have to go to the hospital. I just was so upset. …

They just come in and bulldoze it to the ground, took all my equipment, stuff that I’d paid for, and all of my foods and everything. I don’t know what happened to anything. When I go there, the lot is clear; there’s nothing on it. So, that set me back about, I imagine, six months.

The Blue Mirror

So then I started the process of trying to find another business. So I went to several of my friends that I was doing business with, and they tried to console me, tried to tell me, “You know, it’s not the end of the world. You have to try. You have to keep going.” So I took the advice. I found a new location.

And I wanted to know if, should the city, if they were going to come in that area, and they said they didn’t think so. So I opened up. I changed my pattern of business, because I had noticed that the food business was very hard, and I had worked long hours.

So I said, “Well, I’m going to open myself a nice, intimate bar – a piano bar.” So I got a location at McAllister and Fillmore, between Fulton, and it was a thriving area …

Fillmore-street-scene-by-David-Johnson-web, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
On Fillmore Street in its heyday, Blacks owned hundreds of businesses. – Photo: David Johnson

And it was heavily business area. There was Bank of America, there was Wells Fargo, there was all the banks, about three or four banks in that area. And there was a big hotel across the street from me, 200 rooms with 200 baths, a very nice hotel called the Uptown Hotel. … But, the Redevelopment comes there after about seven or eight years; they showed up at the Blue Mirror – I named the club the Blue Mirror.

It was fantastic, a beautiful club. San Francisco nightlife was Fillmore Street. It was 110 bars on Fillmore Street from one end of Fillmore to the other. So it was very heavily populated, because part of Cathedral Hill was almost all gone, and Cathedral Hill was an area where the people from the South – they brought them here to work in the shipyards, and they lived in that area of San Francisco, all of Cathedral Hill area, into Fillmore, and all the way to Divisadero. So it was still very, very busy. …

It became highly concentrated with people of color. It was all nationalities, every nationality, gypsies, everybody lived in that area, worked in the area, shopped in the area. Fillmore Street had great shopping; you could find anything at Fillmore. …

So that started the Blue Mirror, and it was hot, hot, hot. And we had a lot of beautiful people that’d come from all over the United States on the tours, and I didn’t have a combination – my kitchen wasn’t really the way I wanted it – so I didn’t put in a lot of food. I just decided that I would do something that was very unique.

I served chicken in a basket. And at first the tours would come and I charged practically nothing, just what the chicken cost and the food to prepare it. … And that just went crazy. I couldn’t fry enough chickens. So everything I touched was like the barbeque pit: It just mushroomed into big business. …

I served chicken in a basket, and that just went crazy. I couldn’t fry enough chickens. So everything I touched just mushroomed into a big business.

Then I got well known, and I loved sport cars. I bought Italian sport cars and American sport cars. I walk into Don Lee Cadillac one day – and my business was thriving, and I was very popular, and all the people downtown, like Cyril Magnin, they were friends of mine. They brought in beautiful designer clothes for me, and I just was real popular.

Everywhere I go it was the press following you. I was in the Examiner, Chronicle, all the first class papers – I was in them with my activities. Always something to write about, OK? So I walked into Don Lee Cadillac one day with a violet pantsuit on, leather pantsuit on, very chic. The compliment was: “We have a car the color of the suit that you wearing. Would you purchase it?”

I said: “If it’s the same color, I’ll purchase it. I’ll only purchase it for one reason: that I can drive it out now.” It was on the turntable; it was turning around. And I walked over and they got three or four of the salesmen, the managers, and they took my coat off and laid it on the car: exactly the same.

So I said, “OK, gas it up.” So they got on the phone; they called the press. The press came and took pictures of it, and it went newsreel around the world. So that was really something. It was something that I don’t think anyone in business had experienced: being a young person and just going in business – this kind of action.

And then people start coming from Europe and visiting the club. I decided, “Well, I’ve got to have some really good entertainment.” So I’m going to go on the road and I’m going to bring in top entertainment. And that’s what I did. … And then I said, “Well, I’ve got to do something else different.” I love organ music, so I’m going to have jazz organ. … And that went crazy.

Then I was able to find the guy. I went in the South looking for entertainment. I went all over Kansas City, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then I went into Texas. On the road, I would have a driver to drive me, and I was driving one evening, late, and it was getting dark, and it start storming and we were coming between Oklahoma and Texas. It was thundering and lightning, and I was so excited because I’m scared of lightning, you see, and I said, “We’ve got to find a cover.” …

So we saw these lights and we turned off into a road and it took us several miles off of the main freeway. The closer we get, it looks like a lot of lights, so I did not know what it was. So we get there, and it’s a party outside. They got all these lights strung around and they got a great big dance floor, and here sits this little fella playing the piano and the organ.

Earl Grant. I brought him to California …. He was an immediate success. Nat King Cole was a friend of mine and he passed away. (Earl) sounded like Nat King Cole. His first record came out and went like hot, hot fire. So that was just one thing after another with me that was successful. …

Redevelopment takes the Blue Mirror

Fillmore-redevelopment-by-SF-Redevelopment-Agency-web, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
In effect, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency declared war on the Black community, leaving the Fillmore looking like a World War II war-ravaged city. – Photo: SF Redevelopment Agency

Well, the same thing happened at the Blue Mirror that happened at the restaurant, the barbeque house. … At that time the Redevelopment was just beginning to get power in the area. They began to organize their way of getting the property. We still weren’t really aware of what they were doing. …

I went to one meeting where they were trying to set up the Redevelopment in the whole area. That’s when I was aware that they had passed a law for eminent domain. …

They were talking about the relocation of the businesses. But they weren’t speaking as though they were getting ready to take it at that time. The police came to me and told me, said, “Be aware. They are closing up a lot of bars up in the next two, three blocks. Because what they are doing is getting violations against you to take it.” …

I didn’t know that they had targeted me and the Blue Mirror. I guess I’d been in the Blue Mirror maybe seven or eight years. So the target was to close me down because I had such a tremendous business. I was told by the business people, the Jewish people, that my business would go for a big price and that’s why they’re trying to eliminate you – by putting police in the area, undercover people, to give you violations to close you up. That’s one way they were getting rid of us. This is exactly what they did to me.

They try to eliminate you by putting police in the area, undercover people, to give you violations to close you up. That’s one way they were getting rid of us. This is exactly what they did to me.

They had a man come in and buy a drink and stash a young kid all the way in the back, where you couldn’t see. And he went and handed the kid a drink. Well, we didn’t even know the kid was in the place. He got in, I don’t know how he got in by the door, because we always had someone on the door. The bouncer said to me that he asked if the child could use the bathroom.

So that’s how they took my license. They came in and padlocked my door and completely put me out of business. … I couldn’t open, they’d padlocked the door with all my belongings, my alcohol, my money, my clothes, lots of things, all the lovely furnishings, antiques, padlocked. … The same thing happened to me in the restaurant happened there. They never even contacted me. They didn’t contact me at the barbeque pit. …

When it closed down, it was devastating. Again I go through the same thing. So, I get a lawyer, and I put together money that I’d saved, just like I did at the barbeque pit. I lost all that from attorneys and trying to live with no income. So, the same thing happened at the Blue Mirror. …

So they got the Blue Mirror. I didn’t negotiate with them. They knew all about me, because I had organized the community people that was in business, business people. We had got a little organization going, and we had Willie Brown as our lawyer, just to kind of stop them, you know. So they kind of frowned on me because I was the only business person of color that was out there struggling and trying to pull the people together, keep them from losing their business. So they took the Blue Mirror, fully aware of who I was, …

The Bird Cage

So now I got to go back in business again. And my friends would tell me keep on, just keep moving, … go open somewhere else, and I did. I went on Fillmore, upper Fillmore where they weren’t going to ever go and I took over a place and called it the Bird Cage. …

Instead of having a huge place where I could have a lot of music, I didn’t have that at the Bird Cage, like I had at the Blue Mirror. I had laid out where it was mostly a daytime bar. I still maintained the chicken in the basket, only I added fish to it; I had fish in the basket, chicken in the basket. That’s all I served. And I opened up 10 o’clock in the morning and I closed 10 o’clock at night. I wasn’t open all night. And then that business was very good …

Fillmore-Redevelopment-leveled-land-Laguna-Golden-Gate-still-vacant-1170-cy-SF-Library-History-Center, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
Just as Michael Brown’s body was left in the street for four hours to show the Black community in Ferguson, Missouri, who’s boss, Redevelopment not only laid waste to the Black Fillmore but left large swaths of it vacant for decades. – Photo courtesy of SF Library History Center

This was a very lucrative area, I mean lots and lots of people, lots of traffic, lots of everything. By this time Fillmore Street had gotten to where it had a lot of the Black population; they were being let out of the jobs at the shipyards. They weren’t doing as much work, so the people on Fillmore Street, mostly Jewish people, were hiring them to work. Several businesses had people from the South working for them. So I was there probably seven, eight years, and they come and take that. …

And this place I set it up different than the Blue Mirror because I wanted a different atmosphere, and I set it up like a, the name is the Bird Cage, and then I had a couple of beautiful birds singing in the bar. And it was located in a sunny area. I had bright colors. I had a lot of stained glass – stained glass because when you have a lot of light and sun, the stained glass has an effect on people; they just love it. So I did a lot of stained glass and I did this place different.

I had hanging from the ceilings, I had beautiful stuffed birds and in the window singing were these beautiful birds singing, and I only had two of them. But the place was unique, it was set up real nice. It had like a little lunch counter in there where I could serve people their lunch and work behind the bar at the same time. …

And I served lunch every day, and I would have standing room only. I even had people sitting outside eating. …

Redevelopment takes the Bird Cage – and Mrs. King’s home

I was in there trying to operate, and they came and closed me down. The city came and closed me down. They could have stopped them but they didn’t. They, the city, they could have called the mayor and told the mayor not to close me down. They closed me down, padlocked me again. …

All the bills that I’ve mortgaged on my property were coming due. … I have no more money. I can’t borrow any because they took all my property out of my name. … I filed bankruptcy in ‘94, ‘95. … The Redevelopment went to the bankruptcy court. They got in touch with them. They signed an affidavit to take me out of (Chapter) 11 (allowing me to redo my business and then open up), put me in (Chapter) 7, dispose of everything I had. They did that. And that’s on record. I’ve got copies of it. …

711-Scott-St.-Fillmore-house-on-right-was-Leola-Kings-0814, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
The house on the right, at 711 Scott St., in a photo taken in August 2014, is the former home of Leola King. – Photo: Google Earth

Then they took everything – sold my house. I’d lived there 55 years – 55 years I’d lived in my house, single. They took my house. They sold it to one of their friends for $600,000. And I had a mansion. A 29-room mansion – eight bathrooms, eight fireplaces, four floors. I had added a penthouse to my house. I had only three floors. I had started building a penthouse on the top. I got an all framed in penthouse, everything. Bathrooms, everything. They sold it for $600,000, to their friends. And they were up there partying in my house. They come out and change the locks on my house, change the locks on the bar. …

The way they took everything is criminal. The way they took everything – they gave away Fillmore – is criminal. … The Justice Department needs to have this on file. They need the whole story so that it don’t happen round the world to other poor people and the young people that’s coming along now. It’s criminal, the things that they were doing to people like me that worked hard. …

The good times

(In this interview), you didn’t get everything. You didn’t get the good times. I didn’t tell you nothing about all the nice people. We had Josephine Baker, all of the fine, fine artists. Count Basie, Lena Horne. All those people were my friends. I come along in a time where I had an opportunity. Elizabeth Taylor. My sister and Elizabeth was like this.

My sister married a man I introduced her to – the champion of the world, Sugar Ray Robinson. I introduced my sister to him. They married for 25 years. I traveled with them. I traveled with Josephine Baker. I traveled with a lot of nice people. That’s what you’ve got to hear about – the good times.

Well, I’ve lived a very full life. I was busy. The public kept me busy. If I wasn’t in the social activities going on, I was with somebody helping them to get the kids over here, have a party for the kids. I’d do costumes for them. I’d prepare beautiful lunches for children, on me. Every year I had a promotion for college kids. I’d raise money in my business and give them money to go to college.

A half century of lies

Historical essay by G.W. Schultz, San Francisco Bay Guardian

Originally published March 21, 2007 – Thousands of Fillmore residents lost homes and businesses to redevelopment – and were promised a chance to return. Fifty years later, Leola King is still waiting

Leola King has lived your life, the lives of three friends and then some.

She’s traveled to Africa with the legendary entertainer Josephine Baker. She’s featured jazz great Louis Armstrong at a popular Fillmore nightclub she helmed in the 1950s called the Blue Mirror, where she also once convinced a roomful of patrons to drink sweet champagne from the heel of her shoe.

She’s played host to the crusading television journalist Edward R. Murrow.

Most of all, Leola King has come as close as anyone possibly can to experiencing bureaucratic hell on earth. For half a century, she’s been fighting with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which has taken four pieces of her property, wiped out a restaurant and two nightclubs she owned, and left her with a string of broken promises.

Her story is evidence that the ugly local chapter of Western Addition redevelopment history still isn’t over – and it’s a demonstration of why so many African Americans in this town will never trust the Redevelopment Agency. [The Redevelopment Agency renamed the Fillmore “Western Addition” to help erase its memory. – ed.]

Beginning in the 1940s, King – a native of Oklahoma – successfully operated a series of restaurants and nightclubs in the city, remarkable enough in an era that imposed a double-paned glass ceiling on Black female entrepreneurs.

“Back when I first moved onto Fillmore, it was very popular,” King told the Guardian. “Market Street didn’t have shit.”

Redevelopments-Fillmore-demolition-Divisadero-Ellis-030360-cy-SF-Library-History-Center, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
Redevelopment demolished buildings owned and/or occupied by Blacks, leaving adjacent structures standing. – Photo courtesy of SF Library History Center

During the height of King’s accomplishments, the Redevelopment Agency infamously launched an ambitious project to clear out “blight” in the neighborhood. It was part of a nationwide urban-renewal trend, and while the project here still won’t be finished until 2009, it’s widely regarded as one of America’s worst urban-planning disasters.

In theory, Western Addition residents who were forced to give up their homes or businesses were given a “certificate of preference,” a promise that when the sometimes decaying buildings were turned to kindling and new ones built, the former occupants could return.

In practice, it didn’t work out that way. An estimated 5,500 certificates were issued to families and business owners shortly before the second phase of Western Addition redevelopment began in 1964. Only a fraction of the certificates have benefited anyone. The agency has lost contact information for more than half of the holders, and Redevelopment commissioners now openly admit the program is a joke.

King obtained two certificates, and later attempts to redeem them both devolved into costly legal wrangling with the agency that lasted more than two decades. She has never regained what she lost.

King insists that she’s just 39 years old, but public records put her closer to 84. She first landed in San Francisco in 1946 and eventually started a barbecue pit at 1601 Geary near Buchanan, building inspection records show. She called it Oklahoma King’s, and hungry San Franciscans were lured to the smell of exotic buffalo, deer and quail meat.

By 1949, however, Congress had made urban renewal federal law with the goal of leveling slums – and cities had the right to seize property by eminent domain if necessary.

The first Western Addition redevelopment zone was known as A-1 and included Oklahoma King’s. King was paid approximately $25,000 for the property, but offered no relocation assistance or other compensation for the revenue she lost as a result of ceasing her day-to-day business.

Forging ahead, in 1953 she opened the Blue Mirror, at 935 Fillmore Street. Decorated with molded Greek figurines on the walls, a circular bar and velvet festoons, it became a hub of jazz and blues entertainment. King spent a year hopping onto buses full of tourists and begging the driver to drop them by her nightclub for a drink. Before long, her brassy personality had attracted world-class performers, each of them adding electricity to the club’s reputation.

Bobbie Webb backed up B.B. King, Little Willie John, T-Bone Walker and others as a young saxophonist at the Blue Mirror with his band, the Rhythm Rockers.

“[King] didn’t only have a personality” said Webb, who now airs a show Tuesdays on 89.5 KPOO. “She was a beautiful lady. Personality just spoke for itself. All she had to do was stand there.”

Fillmore-ra_low_rise_projects-1, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
Eventually, some housing was built, but very few of the thousands of Black families displaced were able to move back to the Fillmore.

But like virtually everyone in the neighborhood at that time, King rented the place where the Blue Mirror operated. Redevelopment again reached her business in the early 1960s, and she was kicked out with no compensation.

Again she pressed on, encouraged by Jewish business owners in the area she’d befriended, including liquor wholesaler Max Sobel and Fairmont Hotel operator Benjamin Swig.

“Whenever I’d lose something, they’d say, ‘Keep on moving. Don’t stop, because you’ll lose your customers. When you open back up, they won’t know who you are.’”

Two more commercial and residential properties she owned on Post and Webster streets were also eventually taken by Redevelopment.

King opened the Bird Cage Tavern at 1505 Fillmore St. in 1964 near O’Farrell, complete with a jukebox, 30-foot mahogany bar, a piano and a gilded birdcage. Then-police chief Thomas J. Cahill tried to block her liquor license renewal by complaining to the state about “winos” and “prostitutes” in the neighborhood, records show, but regulators dismissed the claims.

Despite a triumphant resettlement, the Redevelopment Agency arrived yet again and bought her building before evicting all the tenants in 1974 during the expansion of its A-2 redevelopment phase. This time King stood fast and had to be forced out by the sheriff.

She spent the next 25 years quarreling with the agency over relocation terms. The Bird Cage’s furnishings were destroyed when the agency amazingly chose to store them on an outdoor lot off Third Street during King’s move, a fact later confirmed by an agency employee in an affidavit.

Her battle, laid out in hundreds of pages of documents reviewed by the Guardian, was frustrating – and ultimately useless. Each step of the transition involved a new round of negotiations, letters, legal threats and bureaucratic backbiting.

By 1997 King had defaulted on several loans and fallen behind on her taxes. Except for an apartment building of 12 mostly low-income units where she lives today, she lost all that she owned, including an Edwardian landmark home on Scott Street near Alamo Square and a half-completed bar she called Goldie’s.

“The thing took on a life of its own,” said Gary Cohen, who worked as an attorney for King during the bankruptcy periods and now lives in Washington state. “It’s like an onion. Layer and layer after layer … it just kept going from bad to worse.”

Fillmore-Hamilton-Gym-reunion-Earl-Sanders-Abe-Landry-Bunny-Simon-Leola-King-Bobbie-‘Spider’-Webb-2010-by-Lance-Burton, Legendary ‘Queen of Fillmore’ Leola King leaves proud legacy of struggle against Redevelopment, Culture Currents
Former Police Chief Earl Sanders, Fillmore Resident from the 40s to now, Abe Landry, entrepreneur Bunny Simon, Mrs. Leola King and local, award-winning saxophonist Bobbie “Spider” Webb gathered at Hamilton Gymnasium in 2010. Lance Burton writes: “Bunny and I had put together a reunion of the kids who’d played at Hamilton when it was just an earthquake refugee shack during the late ‘40s. Hamilton was only outdoor field area where Black kids could play in the Fillmore until the mid-’50s.” – Photo: Lance Burton

With such a sordid history, it’s no wonder residents of Bayview Hunters Point, many of whom escaped Western Addition “renewal” in the first place, are leery of a pending years-long plan to redevelop nearly 1,500 acres in the southeast neighborhoods.

San Francisco Bay View newspaper publisher Willie Ratcliff led a petition drive last year in an effort to put the plan before voters. Over 20,000 petition signatures were certified by elections officials, but City Attorney Dennis Herrera ruled the petitions were technically invalid because circulators hadn’t presented the full text of the redevelopment plan to signers. Redevelopment foes have since sued to have Herrera’s decision tossed.

“The misuse by these people is just unbelievable,” King said. “They were fighting me every inch.”

This story was condensed and republished by Found SF. Read the original version (no illustrations) on the website of the now-shuttered SF Bay Guardian.