Dr. Caesar Churchwell, a leader who made a difference

by Lin Robertson for the San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce 

Dr. Caesar Churchwell passed away Sunday morning, Feb. 7, 2021, at 2:00 a.m. He was with his family at home when he said goodbye. Even in his last hours, he was not thinking of himself but rather trying to comfort those around him, reassuring them that everything would be all right. 

As his family remembers their father, husband and brother, we too mourn the loss of this legend who always sought to make a difference throughout his life. He served in the elite Special Forces of the U.S. Army Rangers. 

After Dr. Churchwell graduated from Howard University, he would go on to grow a business practicing dentistry, where he would serve many patients in the outer Mission District of San Francisco. As a California state commissioner and as vice chair on the board of the San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce (SFAACC), he impacted numerous Black businesses in San Francisco by giving them a voice in the development of the city. 

To know the extent of Dr. Churchwell’s contribution, you would also need to know about the story that follows.

In 2014, Dr. Churchwell helped organize a travel boycott called by SFAAC: African American business and civic organization leaders around the country pledged not to hold their conventions or other events in San Francisco, thus removing tens of thousands of visitors from the most visited city in the country. As vice chair of the chamber board, Dr. Churchwell’s leadership proved most effective. 

City Hall heard loud and clear that if no action was taken to make sure Black businesses benefit equitably from the tourism industry in San Francisco, Black visitors would stay away and the city would continue to bleed revenue. As a result of his campaign, the city lost almost $32 million in annual revenues normally generated from tourism. 

It was no longer acceptable to exclude images of Black neighborhoods when advertising for tourists and welcoming them to San Francisco. Until then, commercials to attract travelers to the Bay seemed to cater only to white audiences. Tours and attractions were being centered in more gentrified neighborhoods. 

African American voices were continually being excluded. They demanded inclusion so they could prosper from tourism as well. 

San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce Vice Chair Dr. Caesar Churchwell attends the annual Black History Month Awards on Feb. 23, 2014. – Photo: Lance Burton, Planet Fillmore Communications

Make no mistake, Dr. Churchwell’s message that Black lives and Black businesses matter was clear:

“Residents of Bayview Hunters Point have a life expectancy that is 14 years less than residents of Pacific Heights, and just 50 percent of our children are graduating from San Francisco high schools. The Mayor’s Office and the Board of Supervisors need to take action and pay more than lip service to these issues. When it comes to being progressive, talk is cheap … 

“The San Francisco African American Chamber called the boycott, and only the chamber can call it off. We have a responsibility to our members and our community to ensure that they have access to the same opportunities as other businesses in San Francisco.”

City Hall got the message. And for the next six years, Dr. Churchwell continued to advocate for us until he died. He never forgot us. In his tribute to his vice chairman emeritus, Dr. Caesar Churchwell, DDS, SFAACC Chairman of the Board Fred Jordan reminds us about who this man was:

“It was customary to find Dr. Churchwell in his African attire, speaking up for justice and against inequality. Dr. Churchwell was well respected in the city of San Francisco and throughout the state. As a dentist by trade, he also found time to serve as a San Francisco commissioner and California state commissioner. 

“He opened many doors for young entrepreneurs and he strongly advocated for African American participation on city and state contracts. He was a family man who lived up to what was right. He was steadfast in his beliefs and demanded fairness and justice for all. 

“He taught excellent business skills and he was an expert negotiator. As a founding member of the Mentoring Men’s Movement and member of the NAACP Board of Directors, Dr. Churchwell sought to reduce recidivism in the criminal justice system among Black men. The impact of Dr. Churchwell’s legacy will be felt by many for years to come.”

Rest in peace, Dr. Churchwell. Thank you for your service. We will remember.

Lin Robertson began her career by launching the Aruba Foreign Investment Agency in her native Aruba, a Caribbean island nation off the coast of Venezuela. Coming to California in 1998, she worked with the San Jose Office of Equality Assurance and in 2005 founded The Labor Compliance Managers, where she is managing director. She is also senior producer for International Media TV. Lin can be reached at lin.tlcm@gmail.com.