African Americans of San Francisco
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African Americans of San Francisco documents the contributions made by both pioneers of the 1800 and present individuals who helped to establish viable African American communities in the far west city of San Francisco, California. It is an overview of black pioneers of the 19th century who had over come great odds of slavery, racial discrimination, and economic struggle to develop communities in San Francisco and documents the work of 20th-century leaders who protected the rights of San Francisco’s black residents. African Americans of San Francisco examines aspects of life and conditions for black residents, as well as chronicles the social, political, and cultural contributions of the city’s African American community.
The theme of traveling to the land’s end in search of new opportunities is prevalent in the lives of many people throughout San Francisco’s history. For African Americans in the 19th century, many slaves who came to the city with their owners sought and found freedom in the free state of California. Many free men and women came in search of gold and opportunities for business and land for the family home. These early African American settlers developed churches, businesses, schools, newspapers, and social and cultural organizations within San Francisco that continue to serve as the foundation for viable, ever-changing communities that exist in the city today. Throughout the history of African Americans in San Francisco, some black residents left San Francisco in search of better opportunities in cities of the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and in southern and eastern regions of California. Some black migrants became disillusioned and left San Francisco to go back home. But as many moved on to other places, many more African Americans continued to migrate to San Francisco from as far as Barbados, West Indies, in search for new opportunities in the city on the bay. The early black pioneers faced discriminatory laws prohibiting blacks from testifying against white citizens of San Francisco. Many face employment biases limiting African Americans to work as servants and labors. Many black children could not attend school with white children, forcing the community to develop the first schools for black children known as “colored schools.” Many church members who were black could not worship in the same seating areas as whites in churches and therefore sought out to build their own churches. Even though segregation took root in San Francisco and continued into the 20th century, many African Americans continued the westward movement to California in search of a better life. With this steady growth in population from 425 in 1850 to 1,654 in the early 19th century, neighborhoods and businesses were established. For African Americans, San Francisco was a place of hope.
By the early 20th century, African Americans continued traveling to San Francisco from the south in search of jobs and new opportunities. The black population grew from 1,654 to 4,846 by 1940. African Americans came to San Francisco in the early wave of the great American migration. According to Isabel Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, “Over-time, this mass relocation would come to dwarf the California Gold Rush of the 1850s with its 100,000 people from Oklahoma and Arkansas to California in the 1930s.”
By the end of World War II, the African American population continued to explode from 4,846 to over 21,000. Many came to San Francisco to work in the shipyards and in other wartime industries. This new influx of African American citizens expanded the African American communities into new neighborhoods of San Francisco. In many cases, it resulted in newly established black businesses that served the needs of residents of black neighborhoods. After the war, African Americans confronted racism in labor, education, housing, and economic opportunities. In some cases, African Americans had to address issues of segregation practices in the beautiful city on the bay. San Francisco was unprepared for the influx of African Americans during this time.
By 1970, the African American population reached a high of 96,000, which was 13.4 percent of the population. But since then, the population of black residents has witnessed a steady decrease ever since. In spite of the challenges of rapid population growth, people from all over the world continue to travel to San Francisco seeking new beginnings, fortunes, and a chance to realize dreams. This was the case for the ever-increasing black population of the 1950s–1970s. With the influx of workers since the 19th century, African Americans contributed to San Francisco in areas of business, entertainment, sports, civic responsibilities, community service, and public services.
Documenting the narrative of African Americans of San Francisco required oral interviews of many existing leaders and community residents. All of the photographs were acquired from local residents, museums, libraries, government agencies, churches, universities, and social organizations. Reviewing historical records and documents were necessary for understanding the evolution of the black communities of San Francisco. The references stated in the bibliography were essential for examining and understanding the early history of San Francisco’s African American community.
Over the last 165 years since the first early black settlers, African Americans in San Francisco have confronted and overcame tremendous obstacles in order to establish communities in the city where black residents could live in safety and raise families. A conversation about the efforts of the early pioneers can inspire new ideas. Hopefully, African Americans of San Francisco will inspire conversations within black communities of the city that focus on the continued economic, social, and cultural contributions of African Americans to the overall history, cohesion, and livability of San Francisco. This is only a start. African Americans of San Francisco is a survey that does not attempt to include all contributions but will hopefully stimulate future researchers to continue documenting the local history of African American residents of San Francisco.