by Malik Washington
“My mother, Yolanda Jones, was a proud mother, daughter, wife, aunt, cousin, sister, friend and business owner. For a long time, she was about the only Black contractor doing enough business to keep crews working in the Bayview. She was a bold pioneer in a very competitive construction industry.
“She had a heart full of gold and joyfully cooked for everyone who came in her presence. She was the life of the party with her larger-than-life personality. No matter the cost or the effort, she made sure that everyone and everything was taken care of to the best of her ability.
“Everyone knew my mom to be bold and unapologetically Black and she never folded in her fight for equity concerning her beloved Bayview Hunters Point community. My mom was a true giant in all of our lives and made a lasting impression on everyone she met. She will be sorely missed but forever beautifully cherished in our hearts.” – Lyn-Tise Jones, daughter of Yolanda Jones
‘We gonna do this!’
I felt it was only fitting to begin this celebration with a quote from one of Sister Yolanda’s beloved daughters. On Friday, Feb. 19, filmmaker Kevin Epps called with the news that Yolanda Jones, affectionately known as “Londi” to her close friends and family, had gone on to join the ancestors Feb. 18, 2021.
As Kevin described the life and legacy of Yolanda, he said: “Malik, Londi was a boss! I mean she did it legit and was respected for what she did for our community.” Kevin Epps inspired me to seek out more information about this phenomenal Black Queen who gave all she had for the good of this community.
One thing that really stuck out for me as I conducted my research was that Yolanda was the owner of a company that was prominent in the field of construction and she fought hard to put Black people in this community to work. I reached out to her cousin Crystal Timms as well as her best friend and cousin, Debra Holloway, who both worked side by side with Yolanda in order to build Yolanda’s Construction Administration and Traffic Control (YCAT-C).
‘If my truck is not running, ain’t nobody running. You gonna put my people to work!’ She fought for us to the end.
I listened intently as both Crystal and Debra described Yolanda’s rise in the field of construction. Yolanda is the daughter of the legendary Charlie Walker. Yolanda started out working with her father in the trucking business, but eventually she wanted to pave her own path and establish her own credentials.
Nevertheless, both Crystal and Debra admitted – you couldn’t help but see the family resemblance in Yolanda. Crystal said: “It was as if you were looking at a female version of Mr. Walker. Yolanda had her own presence and fierce will to succeed that certainly defined her.”
I asked Crystal and Debra: Exactly how did Yolanda start her business? The story they told me was remarkable.
In 2009, Yolanda’s son Leonard Bradley Jr. was murdered by the San Pablo Police Department. After burying her son, Yolanda had $200 left over. Debra recalled what Yolanda said to her: “Ain’t you tired of working for white folks?”
Debra was working in the contract compliance department for Muni. Debra said: “I had special skills that Yolanda knew would be needed in our new business venture. One of her favorite sayings was ‘We gonna do this!’”
Crystal tells a different story in respect to how she got involved with the business: “I was going to nursing school and Yolanda came in the classroom and tapped me on the shoulder. Yolanda said: ‘Come on with me, we gonna start a business.’” Crystal immediately packed up her things and left with Yolanda. That is how much confidence she had in her cousin.
Debra went into detail about how Yolanda literally broke into the construction business. Debra said: “We learned as we went. Much of this was all new to us. Yolanda got her start with the Third Street Light Rail Project. Yolanda knew that every project had a ‘goal’: In order to get a contract, construction companies had to meet specific goals in respect to who they hired on the job site. They needed women, minorities and disadvantaged folks. In order to get the contract, you must meet those goals, and Yolanda was very savvy. Yolanda would attend these pre-bid meetings and she would walk right up to these white men and say, ‘You need me! I can help you win!’ And before you knew it, we had a contract.”
There were certain strategies and tactics that Yolanda learned from her father, Charlie Walker. Debra said: “Yolanda knew her father was a powerful man, but she also knew she could be a powerful woman in her own right.” Crystal went on to explain in detail Yolanda’s philosophy as it related to large companies coming into Bayview Hunters Point and not employing the people who live here.
Crystal said: “The main contractor on a project is called the ‘prime.’ Some of these white owned construction companies treat Black workers horribly and Yolanda knew this. Londi didn’t give a damn about how big or powerful these companies were. She told them point blank: ‘You ain’t coming into the Bayview to feed your family and not feed the people who live here.’ That was her philosophy, She would always speak up when she saw injustice, and it wasn’t always for Black folks.
“I remember one time this prime contractor was mistreating Mexican laborers. This specific company was taking half the pay of their Latinx worker because they may have been undocumented. You see, a laborer can earn about $30 an hour. When these laborers would get paid, the foremen on this particular job would have his people go to the check cashing place with the Latinx workers and take half their check so in reality they only got $15 an hour!
“When Yolanda found out, she went down to the job and told the lead man to his face that if he didn’t pay those workers the prevailing wage that they earned she was going to the city and to the union in order to report them and they wouldn’t ever work in this town anymore.”
Crystal continued: “Yolanda was pro-Black, but most of all she was for the underdog. Another favorite saying of Yolanda’s was ‘Don’t worry about it; we’ll figure it out.’ Yolanda was always optimistic; she believed in me more than I believed in myself. She made me feel as if I could accomplish anything. I was much younger than Yolanda but I never felt as if I couldn’t ask her for advice or help about anything.”
As the conversation progressed, Crystal, Debra and I discussed putting our people to work in the construction field. Debra said: “It is hard to place our people in the construction trades. Local 261 [San Francisco’s local laborers union] makes it really hard on Black people. It is very disheartening and discouraging. Hispanics are willing to work for less and basically they run the union and lock us out of jobs.”
As a coworker of Dr. Willie and Mrs. Mary Ratcliff, I am intimately familiar with the 23-year-long lockout of Black contractors in the city of San Francisco. It’s not just Black laborers who are being locked out of construction projects.
Debra and Crystal told me about an incident that happened just three months ago, reminding me that Yolanda was definitely sick and suffering but was determined to put her people to work.
“We drove up on a job site in the Bayview, but our water truck was not working or being used. Yolanda told [Crystal] to go get one of our trucks and drive it up here because we was shutting this job site down. At first, I was hesitant; but Yolanda was determined. Yolanda told all of those men: ‘If my truck is not running, ain’t nobody running. You gonna put my people to work!’ She fought for us to the end.”
One aspect of YCAT-C was the opportunities Yolanda extended to those who were incarcerated and about to return to society. Debra told me about a letter Yolanda would send in to prisons promising prisoners a good paying construction job when they got out.
This began to bring tears to my eyes and touched my heart because this is something that Mary Ratcliff and I talk about often. It is our dream to resurrect Liberty Builders in order to bring back job opportunities to our community. It would be an honor to continue the legacy and the work of Yolanda Jones and Dr. Willie Ratcliff.
I can’t make it any plainer to y’all what my intentions are as I seek to serve this community of Bayview Hunters Point.
I spoke to many people about the life and legacy of Yolanda Jones. I would like to take this time to share some of the beautiful words and feelings of love from specific members of our community who knew Yolanda Jones.
Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton had this to say: “Yolanda was the epitome of community. Her heart was as big as the ocean and she never felt anyone couldn’t be successful. I truly believe she started a business mainly to make sure that Black people would always have a job. She was a strong person who would always fight against injustice and inequity, especially when it came to the people.
“She was a staunch advocate for Bayview Hunters Point and even through sickness remained concerned about others. She remained faithful to supporting others and was always concerned about their wellbeing. I will truly miss her as she was a warrior for US and an example to everyone. Her passing truly puts a void in our community and I want the entire family to know that we love and support them. Rest in perfect peace, Londi!”
Gwendolyn Westbrook, CEO of the United Council of Human Services, said: “Yolanda was one of the main supporters of Mother Brown’s. Even when she was sick, she barbecued for everybody that was in the tents at MLK Park.
“After we got the trailers at Pier 94, she set up outside the fence and barbecued and made sure everybody got a healthy plate. She loved Bayview and I loved her dearly. She was one of the first people to recognize the work we do down here at Mother Brown’s.”
Maestro Curtis of the Curtis Family C-notes added these heartfelt words: “They say behind every great man, there is a good or a great woman. Well, Sister Yolanda was not only behind her father, the well known community activist and entrepreneur Charlie Walker, but Yolanda took her rightful place by his side in the pursuit of Black excellence, fair treatment and the rights of Black human beings.
“Like her father, Yolanda was a doer who never shunned her responsibility, her commitment or duty to Black humanity. She spearheaded as well as rolled up her sleeves to do the work that was needed to help create humane and better conditions for the Black people of Bayview Hunters Point and all of San Francisco. Rest well, dear sister, you did your due. You are well beloved and well missed. The imprint that you left in our community is beyond measure and will never be forgotten. One love, one mind, one spirit.”
As I said earlier, YCAT-C got their start in the business on the Third Street Light Rail project. Yolanda locked down the contract which provided jobs for pedestrian monitors, also known as “flaggers.” Her next big project was with William P. Young Construction on a BART contract, according to Crystal Timms.
I often wonder who will be the next Yolanda Jones? Will it be Michael Gregory of the newly formed African American Construction Collective? Or perhaps another remarkable woman of color who, like Sister Yolanda, has a dream of exceeding all expectations in a male dominated field?
Crystal said: “Anything that you thought was impossible, Yolanda would make happen.”
I want to end this piece in the same manner that I started with a quote from one of Yolanda’s daughters. Geoffrea Morris, community leader and eldest child of Yolanda Jones, had this to say about her beloved mother: “Growing up, I wanted to be selfish with my mother. I wanted her to bake cookies, wear long skirts and drive a minivan. I wanted her to be a ‘normal’ mother.
“Nothing about my mother was normal or average. She was always larger than life, always helping out the community. Since her passing, I have truly been exposed to her greatness. My mother saved and changed the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands. She was a community giant. My mother, fondly known as ‘Londi,’ was the epitome of a selfless community steward.”
With that, I leave you all in the spirit of peace and joy – because somewhere in our community there is another Yolanda Jones just waiting to make their appearance.
We have the most beautiful community in San Francisco, and we are going to have to fight for what is rightfully ours. We all must be good stewards of the blessings that we have. Think about that and meditate on the love, life and service exhibited by Yolanda Jones, a true Black Queen and boss!
Dare to struggle, dare to win! All power to the people!
Bay View Editor Malik Washington can be reached at Malik@sfbayview.com. Contact him whenever you see news happening. Please visit our website, sfbayview.com, read and share the knowledge, wisdom, understanding and Black culture contained in our one-of-a-kind national Black newspaper and sfbayview on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
An eloquent comment
This comment was received via email by the Bay View on Saturday, March 6:
Thank you for your article on Yolanda Jones.
I was saddened to find out that she had passed. I would not have known if it wasn’t for the Bay View. As a child, my dad, Jimmie Wilson Jr., who is now deceased, would bring a copy home when I was growing up in Bayview. I am so thankful to continue reading the articles via Twitter since I no longer reside in San Francisco.
During my 20 years serving on the City of Richmond, Calif., Revolving Loan Fund, I sincerely believe that our investment in Yolanda Jones’ YCAT-C was the smartest and most worthwhile decision that we made as board members. It isn’t easy for women in construction, but Londi was a boss.
She won major contracts in San Francisco and Richmond and hired people from underserved communities and gave them jobs and skills. One of the nicest persons ever, she lived next door to my parents, for a while, in Bayview-Hunters Point. Londi was so proud I worked for Congressman George Miller. She told everyone that she knew me from kindergarten. Well, at least she thought that she did, and I never told her otherwise because her belief was so genuine. More importantly, I was proud of her.
Rest in Peace, Queen!
Latressa L. Wilson Alford
Senior Campaign Advisor, Hon. Barbara Lee for Congress