Chronicler of Black life Rochelle Metcalfe: ‘I Heard That!’

After retiring from writing newspaper columns, Rochelle in her 80s started a new career, radio DJ, hosting a three-hour show on Black-owned KPOO every Wednesday morning, from 9:00 to noon. She played the best music on the planet and spun tales about the musicians; she knew many of them personally. This photo was taken in 2017. – Photo: KPOO General Manager Jerome “JJ” Parson, known on the air as JJ on D Radio

A testimony about our cousin and family matriarch

by Mell Monroe

It is impossible to describe, depict and articulate the amazing journey of Rochelle Metcalfe in a few pages, which is why a more elaborate narrative is required for the extraordinary life she lived to its fullest. Always in red, this popular lady earned a reputation as a San Francisco icon with lots to say politically, socially, economically and much more. 

Rochelle was beloved throughout her city and among her peers and colleagues in the media business because of her expertise in a wide variety of subject matters. She was a profound writer, jazz and blues historian, community activist, political critic and activist, social enterprise expert, entrepreneur, African American cultural spokesperson, San Francisco tour guide, music historian, newspaper and radio reporter and one of the most outgoing and independent trailblazers one will ever meet. Rochelle’s drive was to contribute more than the ordinary confines of womanhood in the late 1950s. 

Having spent 30 years as a public servant for the government, Rochelle committed a great deal of her life to raising a young boy as a single parent, buying her first home in one of the most expensive cities in the country and reinventing herself as one of San Francisco’s most bountiful and legendary writers. 

This Women’s History Month, we commemorate the passing of the widely loved and extraordinary socialite, critic, writer and music historian Rochelle Metcalfe, the spirit of San Francisco. Sunrise: Dec. 7, 1935; Sunset: Jan. 24, 2021. Here she holds forth at the Bay View’s 40th anniversary celebration at the SF Main Library. – Photo: Harrison Chastang

Rochelle was always “in the know” and wanted others to get hip, too. She would insist on being treated as a proud African American woman, never to be pushed into classifications depicted as a minority, but quite the contrary, as empowered. Rochelle never wore her accomplishments on her sleeves because she operated with self-assurance, confidence, style and meaning in everything she did. 

Arriving in San Francisco at the youthful age of 24, with a husband and a life that only she could create, Rochelle took to San Francisco like a cool hand in a glove. Rochelle was determined to be relevant, purposeful and direct about her plan in life. It was clear to everybody from the beginning to the very end of her glorious life.

In 1959, anyone who met Rochelle would describe her as a unique lady who was determined but also very private. She never wanted to look back with regrets about her past life on the East Coast. Her classmates in high school made it plain – Rochelle was crystal clear about making a difference and expressing herself. 

The attraction to the color red itself describes someone who will take action on a new goal or project.

Rochelle made her debut in a city that obviously needed her natural energy and passion to hear it and say it. Even when her health began to wane later in life, and when friends or family members wanted to talk her into moving in together with them, she would flat-out refuse. She loved her place and private space. If anything, she belonged to the city she truly loved for over 60 years. 

Rochelle would not hesitate to tell you the facts. San Francisco’s success as a great American city had nothing to do with the recent emergence of Silicon Valley, with its technology attractiveness, as it might often be observed today. In fact, Rochelle would be first to recall and remind folks in her writing that the Silicon Valley was and still is the “desert” of San Francisco. She would quickly assert that her city, San Francisco, is where it all happens – no more, no less. 

Leaving her childhood home in Asbury Park, N.J., where she was raised by her mother Ella Elizabeth Monroe Hudson Downs among many cousins and uncles, was not difficult at all for Rochelle. She often ventured off to spend nights with her first cousins Louise, Beverly and Cynthia. In her mid-teens, Rochelle would hang out with friends and sneak over to Atlantic City for a party or cool getaway. Rochelle loved a good party. 

Then newly elected Board of Supervisors President London Breed stops by Rochelle’s table at the Giants’ home opener VIP reception on April 13, 2015. Rochelle proudly held season tickets and tried never to miss that home opener party. The VIPs knew her and she knew all of them. – Photo: Harrison Chastang

Rochelle had her sights set on seeing the world with few limitations as a kid. She was a free-thinking teenager, independent and ready to face the world. No one talked Rochelle into making the decision to look into the armed forces. She knew she could get an education, see the world and likely meet men – lots of them. 

If you were lucky enough to hear many of Rochelle’s lifelong stories, she would explain that she was a beautiful woman with a smile that could light up a room. No doubt at an early age Rochelle knew she had a convincing personality with lots of positive personal traits. 

Just like her mother, nothing would get in the way when she really wanted something very badly. Rochelle wanted to join the Air Force but her Uncle Ned didn’t think it was safe for a young lady in the 1950s. Over time, she eventually convinced her mother to help her enlist. She felt it was the best thing her mother could have ever done for her. 

Getting accepted to join the Air Force was one of Rochelle’s most exciting memories because it established her mature plan to see the world and look beyond the clouds. Even at her tender young age, Rochelle was convinced about having a chance to move on, leaving the state and perhaps the country as well. 

She trained in Cheyenne, Wyoming for Communications and was later stationed at Hamilton AFB in Novato, California, near San Francisco. Rochelle met Joe Metcalfe while serving in the Air Force, and after receiving an honorable discharge, she married Joe in 1959 and they settled down in San Francisco in a predominantly African American community. 

She absolutely adored living in the big city. The area was filled with many fun things to do, especially for Black folks, including live music, great places to eat, Black-owned businesses and a unique jazz and blues history just beginning to blossom. Rochelle thrived and took a keen interest in the local history and its impact on African American art and culture. 

Over time, she began to volunteer writing. Jay, the couple’s only son, was born Dec. 12, 1963, and he was the love of her life. Shortly after Jay’s birth, Joe and Rochelle divorced but remained friends until Joe’s death in 2013.

Once the game got underway, Rochelle assumed her seat in the press box. Here she is enjoying the game on April 13, 2015, at the Giants’ home opener. – Photo: Harrison Chastang

Rochelle continued to work for the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA) for 30 years and took an early retirement in 1986. During her single mother period, she raised her Jay mostly alone and was a season ticket holder because of her love of sports. 

Jay recalls attending numerous 49ers football and Giants baseball games. Rochelle taught her son to be independent, responsible and hard-working. He should lead by example. She bought her own home and diligently saved money. 

Jay says she never wanted to depend on a man to be the providence of her destiny. She insisted on taking care of them both while also demonstrating the importance of being adventurous and willing to seek one’s own journey. 

Two of the most influential Black media-makers in San Francisco are KPOO News Director Harrison Chastang and Rochelle, shown here at the Giants’ 2016 Opening Day on April 7, 2016. Both loved to attend major league sports events and both were lovers of and recognized experts on Black music history. – Photo: Harrison Chastang

As the years progressed, Rochelle could recognize her son was changing. She allowed Jay the opportunity to spread his own independent wings at the age of 17 years when he chose to live with his dad in LA. Rochelle approved, encouraged and supported her son’s wishes and in 1981 they both sought new environments. 

Jay stayed with his dad for some time and eventually moved to Florida and Texas. Rochelle often talked about how proud she was of her son because she felt he had been a passionate caregiver working in the health care field. Rochelle never hesitated to explain the fact that they both had relished in each other’s independence. 

Rochelle was now alone in the mid 1980s, facing a world of uncertainty, without child. More importantly, Rochelle could now immerse herself in finally doing what she did best – writing! She would not be harnessed to writing about life in San Francisco – she also wanted to completely experience it too. 

From the early 1980s until 2017, Rochelle had repurposed herself, becoming an inexhaustible writer for almost 40 years. She also agreed to become a radio DJ for three years as a senior citizen well into her early 80s. She never ever stopped using words to explain her great city and the many vibrant people and places within it, according to friends and family, for the rest of her life in San Francisco. 

At the African American Historical and Cultural Society Black History Month reception on Feb. 20, 2015, AAHCS President Al Williams and Rochelle check out a yellowed copy of her “I Heard That” column, which ran for decades in the Sun Reporter newspaper. This photo was part of Rochelle’s “Third Street Stroll” column in the Bay View, a love letter to Bayview Hunters Point’s Black Main Street. Read her March 2015 column here:https://sfbayview.com/2015/03/third-street-stroll-15/.

There are over 100 articles written by Rochelle as a columnist for several national Black newspapers including the San Francisco Bay View, with a column sometimes called Third Street Stroll, the Sun Reporter, Beyond Chron and Jazz Now. She has always maintained the well-known and popular column called “I Heard That.” 

Rochelle always provided the hip, cool, insightful and often humorous perspective about everything and she did it with elaborate detail and historic content. She could always draw on her first-hand experiences upon arriving in San Francisco at 24 years of age in the 1950s when jazz, blues and Black life in the city was bustling, vibrant and the place to be. 

She could pull down testimony one after another. She could discuss details about actually seeing James Brown, Muddy Waters, Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Miles Davis and numerous other famous people who have either performed or strolled through her San Francisco streets. She reveled in the joy of writing about it all. 

Rochelle is flanked by Toye Moses, longtime director of the Southeast Community Center at 1800 Oakdale and Fred Jordan, world renowned engineer and president of the San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce. – Photo: Lance Burton, Planet Fillmore Communications

Rochelle had a hand in everything good about San Francisco. When trying to get the first African American mayor elected, Rochelle was front and center to engage and promote the importance of Willie Brown. She was also instrumental in recognizing and conveying to the African American news colleagues around the country in early 2000s that there was a young political star emerging by the name of Kamala Harris as state’s attorney – well before most of the country ever heard of her.

Rochelle met far too many African American VIPs to count. She would explain that the biggest highlight of her life was meeting Sen. Barack Obama in person. Rochelle said she wanted so badly to kiss him on the lips. Little did Sen. Obama know that he just met the most interesting person in the San Francisco world, and, indeed, that he was in VIP company. 

Should you decide to google Rochelle Metcalfe and learn about her expansive writing career, social explorations and adventures – mostly as a volunteer and public servant – you will read about a rare yet humble human being. She has been a powerful force in the San Francisco who’s who while asking for nothing in return: because she was doing what she loved. 

Rochelle was an accomplished photojournalist who illustrated her columns with her photos. Here, percussionist Pete Escovedo and Maestro Curtis of the Curtis Family Singers check a playlist. – Photo: Rochelle Metcalfe

When cousin Alfred Edmond from New Jersey landed a role as managing editor of Black Enterprise Magazine in NYC, Rochelle was first to call to offer encouragement and support. Rochelle cared about family despite distances and kept in touch as often as possible. 

Rochelle’s innate and curious interest in people would serve her well in so many ways – not only at an early age, but throughout her life. Despite the absence of Rochelle’s fatherhood experience, her journey to eventually meet, interview, discover and write about men became another exciting chapter in her everlasting memory. 

Rochelle enjoyed writing about interesting women, but it was obvious she truly loved talking to interesting men with profound and memorable backgrounds and especially telling it on paper. Among such notables, many of whom she met, are President Barack Obama, Mayor Willie Brown and numerous jazz and blues greats who visited San Francisco.

Another example of Rochelle’s talent as a photojournalist is this picture of Al Norman, prominent Black contractor and past president of the Bayview Merchants Association, picking up lunch at Two Jacks. – Photo: Rochelle Metcalfe

Rochelle branded herself by always wearing something red very early in her career. This bright and noticeable color matched extremely well with her social ambitions too. She exuded the spiritual representation of red as power, energy, vitality, dominance, action, assertion, creation, survival and passion. 

The attraction to the color red itself describes someone who will take action on a new goal or project, including something someone wants to do but has been putting off. It is clear that Rochelle was never one dimensional and had many professional and personal interests. 

Red is Rochelle. She exuded the spiritual representation of red as power, energy, vitality, dominance, action, assertion, creation, survival and passion.

Rochelle has always been an extrovert and unafraid to tell people what to do and when to do it. According to her social running buddy and good friend Dorothy Hill, Rochelle would never admit being a commanding spirit, but after knowing her well, few people could seriously argue with this. 

Her romance with the color red says it all. Rochelle was always well-kept and well-prepared to interact with the public. She had relentless independence, determination and capacity to live life fully. She could be brutally honest but fair. Everything affiliated with her speaks of vivacity. 

Red is Rochelle – and everybody she met loved her and her words. She will be sorely missed but not forgotten. While San Francisco may have lost a passionate soldier and a promoter of their great city, her family has our unforgettable memory filled with an extraordinary spirit and an everlasting, loving legacy.

“Red” sunset on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, and she will surely be missed but forever remembered by her first cousins and family.

Legendary columnist Rochelle Metcalfe

Rochelle attended Whitesville Grammar School in Neptune, N.J., where she performed as a pianist, improvising her own music composition: classic, boogie woogie and Latin rhythms. She was very talented but never had mentoring to further her skills. She graduated from Asbury Park High School in 1954 where she was a cheerleader, played in the band and wrote the fashion column for the school newspaper. 

When she was all grown up in San Francisco, in addition to her full-time job at serving the government, Rochelle returned to her first love of writing and joined the ranks of journalism and became a mainstay of African American media starting in 1975.

She was mostly a volunteer and covered the news for free, mostly because she loved the artistic requirements of it all. Her social qualities and love of people was evident. She attracted many people in the San Francisco area from all walks of life and would have them gather around her initiatives – which usually consisted of change and progress. Her entire world began to blossom and flourish. 

Her first gig was when she was asked to become a reporter for the Sun Reporter newspaper, owned by Dr Carlton Goodlett. Her passion for writing and photography was fully unleashed to cover the news with emphasis on the African American experiences in San Francisco and Oakland. 

Rochelle carried a press pass, allowing her to enter into several “need to know” environments including but not limited to sports, politics, social, business, cultural, arts, real estate, history, tourism, music and a plethora of other fields. She was often asked to do a talk or speak on the radio or TV as it pertains to San Francisco’s history, particularly from an African American perspective. 

Rochelle Metcalfe devoted her career to championing the Black community. A fastidious dresser, she always looked good and she always made all the Black folks she wrote about look good too. 

She raised her son as a single parent taking charge of his early destiny by taking him to many sporting events and attending numerous activities educationally and socially too. Rochelle insisted on not being dependent on any man and she instilled in Jay to work hard and take responsibility to become independent, encouraging him to choose his own road in life. Rochelle and Jay maintained a very close relationship despite living in different areas of the country. 

Rochelle met many celebrities and VIPs throughout the years – far too many to list. She has personally met, interviewed or written about: President Barack Obama, James Brown, Rev. Jesse Jackson, OJ Simpson, Chris Darden, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Mayor Willie Brown, Kamala Harris and numerous others throughout her tenure. 

She covered the news for over a half century, always with enthusiastic vigor, and was well known throughout San Francisco and the country for her infamous signature column “I Heard That.”

By 2016, Rochelle had retired from journalism and participation in the social and related activities in San Francisco. However, she did keep in close contact with good friends, such as Dorothy Hill and Lynnette White, whom she had known since the early 1980s with close family ties. 

After reuniting with her mother’s family, the Monroes in the late 1980s, she stayed in close contact with her first cousins across the miles in over a dozen states. She attended several Monroe family reunions and of course wrote about her warm and loving experiences with family connections. 

Despite being located far away from her New Jersey roots and most immediate family members, Rochelle was supported and nurtured by their San Jose, Calif., cousins Phil and Leticia Simms and their kids for the past five years. Rochelle once said she has been overjoyed by the care and attention of visits by the young and energetic family, especially 14-year-old Teresa and 10-year-old Elias. 

Without a single complaint, Rochelle said Phil had been the surrogate son who worked closely with Jay to see that she was comfortable and taken care of over the past two years. The Simms family – her closest geographical relatives – spent their invaluable time visiting cousin Rochelle often and making sure she was able to get her favorite wonton soup. 

Rochelle will always be remembered as a loving legacy, and a true beacon to all of her family. 

May she rest now in peace.

Mell Monroe is a cousin of Rochelle Metcalfe who can be reached at angmell@aol.com.