“I Am San Francisco: (Re)Collecting the Home of Native Black San Franciscans,” an exhibit that captures the home and soul of native Black San Francisco, comes to the African American Center of the San Francisco Main Library at 100 Larkin St. in San Francisco this week. The show exhibits from Dec. 12, 2015, through March 10, 2016.
You are invited to the opening reception and artist talk on Saturday, Dec. 12, from 2 to 4 p.m., at the Library in the African American Center. Created and curated by Kheven LaGrone, “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.
In fact, San Francisco was once home to a significant and vibrant African American population. San Francisco State University started the nation’s first Black Studies Program in 1968. San Francisco’s Fillmore District was often called the Harlem of the West. San Francisco had an African American mayor.
But according to the U. S. Census, San Francisco has had one of the largest declines in Black population of any large city. In the 1970s, Black made up 13.4 percent of San Francisco. By 2013, the Black population was less than half of that. It had declined visibly since then—the African American middle class has almost disappeared.
San Francisco’s public schools reflect the continuing decline in the African American population. According to the San Francisco Unified School District, its African American student population plummeted almost 60 percent from 2001 to 2015.
“Growing up,” says curator LaGrone, “it was not unusual for a family to own more than one home.” But since then, new money has flooded San Francisco. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, African Americans are the only racial group to see its median household income drop. San Francisco has the largest African-American/white income gap in the Bay Area.
“I Am San Francisco” was inspired by a conversation with LaGrone and family members about growing up in San Francisco. It was also inspired by an essay by his nephew Jarrel Phillips about being an African American born and raised in San Francisco. Later, LaGrone and Phillips, who is also a member of 3.9 Art Collective, debated what it meant to be from or native to San Francisco.
In a conversation about this exhibit, William Rhodes, co-founder of 3.9 Art Collective, expressed his surprise to learn that San Francisco ever had a significant Black presence. Rhodes moved to San Francisco in 2005. Based on that conversation, LaGrone asked Rhodes to reach out to 3.9 Art Collective to participate in the exhibit since most of them were also not from San Francisco.
The 3.9 Art Collective was created to support a creative African American presence in San Francisco. “I Am San Francisco” connects the collective, as well as other artists, to native Black San Francisco.
“I was lucky to be born in San Francisco,” says curator Kheven LaGrone.
After contributing her story, economist, author and national television commentator Dr. Julianne Malveaux expressed “joy for taking this trip down memory lane and writing a few paragraphs for the project.”
Storytellers and artists include Jarrel Phillips, Wanda Sabir, Karen Oyekanmi, Orlonda Uffre, William Rhodes, Courageous C, San Francisco Bay View, Michael Ross, Jackie Chauhan, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Nyame Brown, 100 percent College Prep Institute, Malik Seneferu, Tomye, Kristine Mays, Jian Giannini, Jim Dennis, Johanna B., Mark Johnson, Charles Curtis Blackwell, Stetson Hines, Michole “Micholiano” Forks, Javon Phillips, Saphire Blu, Rhonda and Alfred Scott, Pastor Lane Hawkins and Kheven LaGrone.
Part II of the exhibit, curated and created by Jarrel Phillips, will be shown at the Rosenberg Library at City College of San Francisco. Titled “I Am San Francisco: Black Past and Presence,” it will exhibit from February through October 2016. It was inspired by statement, “We are the San Francisco no one talks about,” taken from James Baldwin’s documentary, “Take This Hammer.”
Kheven LaGrone has created and curated several shows at the library including “I Am America: Black Genealogy Through the Eyes of an Artist”; “Coloring Outside the Lines: Black Cartoonists as Social Commentators”; “BABA: Black Artists’ Expressions of Father”; “ASPIRE! Black Teen Artists’ Interpretations of Success”; and “The Morrie Movement: The Influence of Wee Pals Cartoonist Morrie Turner.” He has curated shows for the AfroSolo Arts Festival, including “Resilience” and “Morrie Turner, Creator of Wee Pals Cartoon: A 45-Year Retrospective.” LaGrone’s shows have exhibited in New York City (Manhattan), San Francisco, Atlanta, Oakland and Richmond. For more information, contact Kheven LaGrone at Kheven@aol.com.
SF Bay View: Despite nearly two centuries of hostility, Blacks resolve to stay in San Francisco
This introduction will be mounted with a display of historic Bay View papers in the “I Am San Francisco” exhibit.
The first Black exodus from San Francisco, in 1858, was prompted by retaliation after Archy Lee’s dramatic escape from slavery, the exclusion of Black children from the schools and the introduction of legislation to ban Black immigration to California. Blacks numbered only about 2,500 in the city until World War II, when Henry J. Kaiser recruited them from the South to work in the shipyards.
“Around 1947,” Thomas Fleming, long time editor of the Sun Reporter, then San Francisco’s premiere Black newspaper, recalls, “Mayor Roger Lapham called a press conference down in City Hall, so I went down there. After I met him, he said, ‘Mr. Fleming, how long you think these colored people gonna be here?’ I said, ‘Mr. Mayor, you know how permanent the Golden Gate out there is?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Well, the Black population is just as permanent as the Golden Gate.’”
By 1970, Black San Franciscans, numbering nearly 100,000 – 13.4 percent of the population – controlled three major neighborhoods: the Fillmore, known worldwide as Harlem of the West; Bayview Hunters Point, where the September 1966 rebellion made world headlines, inspiring the founding of the Black Panther Party two weeks later; and the smaller Lakeview.
So a hostile city leadership invented “redevelopment” – urban renewal or Negro removal, as Blacks called it – and with bulldozers leveled the Fillmore to the dusty wasteland it remained until the 1990s. Their determination to push Blacks out never ceased and has only intensified as Blacks’ share of San Francisco has dwindled to its current 3.9 percent.
In 1992, with the goal of regaining Black power in the city, Willie and Mary Ratcliff began publishing the Bay View newspaper, founded in 1976 by Muhammad al-Kareem. “We Shall Not Be Moved” was the banner headline on March 4, 1994, when the Redevelopment Agency tried to take over Bayview Hunters Point, where Blacks had achieved the highest home ownership rate in the city.
Today, after decades of pressure on the powers that be over the city’s lockout of Blacks from economic opportunity; police occupation, profiling and murder; Blacks at 56 percent of the jail population even today; privatization of public housing; and the Black infant mortality rate one of the world’s highest largely due to environmental racism and poverty, the Bay View shouts louder than ever that Black people belong in San Francisco.