History of Fillmore: Disparities & Activism

Historical Forces

A Senior Citizens Program At Hamilton Recreation Center For People Who Lived In Western Addition In 1956

Throughout history African Americans relocated to the Western Addition due to unfortunate circumstances, to improve their social, political and economic welfare or because they were discriminated against by white real estate owners. Although black San Franciscan blacks did not experience the overt racism present in the

Jim Crow South, whites still viewed them as lesser beings and barred them from certain housing and employment opportunities. According to the African Citywide Historic Context Statement, “Entire swaths of San Francisco’s West Side and Twin Peaks were basically off-limits to African Americans unless they were live-in domestic help”. Since there was a high concentration of blacks in Western Addition due to housing discrimination, compared to other areas, this allowed blacks to come together as a community and plant their roots in the once racially mixed neighborhood. This would be heightened during World War II, which brought several changes to Western Addition.

The United States’ involvement in the second World War would not only change the landscape of San Francisco, but what has become known as the Fillmore. The war brought economic opportunities, which had been few and far between before 1940.  Having nothing to lose and everything to gain, Southern blacks migrated in great numbers to San Francisco leaving behind the corrupt systems of sharecropping or tenant farming. Furthermore, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 in February 1942, which forced 5,000 Japanese out of their homes in the Western Addition. Roosevelt’s signing of the executive order allowed blacks to move into the recently abandoned houses and apartments in Japantown. In addition, the abandoned shops left behind by the Japanese proved to be lucrative investments and this brought in a community of enterprising black businessmen. As a result, the forced removal of Japanese residents from the neighborhood allowed the black population to rise from 2,144 to 14,888 from 1940 to 1950.

After World War II,  most of the defense industry jobs ended and shipyards laid off a large amount of workers. Moreover, the return of the Japanese and GI’s provided more competition in a job market that already could not support San Francisco’s current population. If unemployment was not bad enough, the living conditions for blacks in the Western significantly worsened after the war. Addressing the housing situation of the black community The African American Historic Context Statement states, “by 1950, the Fillmore District’s 26 blocks, originally designed to accommodate 50-to-75 people per acre, were reportedly housing upwards of 200 people per acre”. As the conditions in the Fillmore worsened, the city viewed the black community as a “blight” that needed to be removed in order for the city to prosper. Powerless economically and politically, African Americans watched as their neighborhood was demolished by urban renewal plans that began with project A-1 in the late 1950’s.

Housing & Urban Renewal

Homes being destroyed during “urban renewal.”

“One of the most diverse neighborhoods in the country” may have been a memorable experience to its residents but, because of its large population of black people and people of color it was rated as ‘less desirable’ by redevelopers. The downgrading of neighborhoods through rating these systems was only part of the city’s way of stereotyping the community; the ‘dilapidated, dangerous, black Fillmore’. Urban renewalists did little to fix or address these systematic problems as to benefit the community and, more to make money for wealthy whites.

1956 became the year that the Western Addition A-1 Redevelopment Project Area was established, surrounding the areas of the Geary and Fillmore Streets. The project would later expand through the A-2 Project and other projects along the San Francisco area, creating some of the largest executions of urban renewal the United States had ever seen. Although private corporations and government funding seem to be scarce when it come to uplifting the black community and reversing these plaguing disparities, they have done much to promote gentrification and the downfall of African American through initiatives meant to ‘help’.

Homes being demolished in the Fillmore neighborhood.

According to Carol Cuenod, author of the SF archival collection, “The dislocated families and businesses were scattered with no foreseeable ability to return for the cleared land lay fallow for several years.” Researchers have shown that not only has the urban renewal process of the Western Addition, made it extremely unlikely for black people to get back to their standard of living in the same neighborhood but, also forced them into places “as far as Oakland.” Although commercialized as something that would benefit black residents, urban renewal meant that homes and businesses, passed down for years were now being sold from under them, protected by the laws of Eminent Domain. They were kicked out of their homes, their neighborhoods, forced to start a new life with no place to go.

By 1967, residents had had enough of the wrongful treatment; the Western Addition Community Organization was born(WACO). The community organization sued, making it the first time in U.S. history that a community won the right to be included in an Urban Renewal process. After the lawsuit, many black people were given jobs involving the Renewal Project. However, for those who wanted the complete ceasing of the renewal process this was a mere strategies for covering up the racist actions and systematic oppression seen through the process of gentrification. Nevertheless deconstruction would continue and the Western Addition would struggle to recover its former historical status within the community.

Black owned businesses as well as the vibrant black culture the Fillmore was once known for, is hanging on by a thread. Due to the forced out-migration of African Americans, black people in San Francisco have suffered from disparities regarding “Housing, Education, Jobs and Economic Development, Public Safety and Quality of Life and Art and Cultural Life.” Decreasing numbers of middle and upper middle class households, specifically black household have created extreme distributions of wealth in the Fillmore and San Francisco community. We now see clear redlining between upper class white neighborhoods and lower class black neighborhoods. The city might not be segregated on paper but, the difference between Fillmore’s large, financially stable white community and its, dwindling, struggling black population is extremely prevalent. As far as housing is concerned “Nearly a quarter of San Francisco African-Americans are living in homes in need of severe or moderate repairs.” Furthermore, home ownership has been an issue disproportionately attacking black communities in the past few decades, “one and every three applications by African Americans in San Francisco is rejected”.

In order to fix the disparities regarding housing and other economic and social injustices that plague the black community in San Francisco, the city’s government has proposed expanding homeownership opportunities, improving the conditions of public housing, including affordability and, supporting politics that attack African Americans back to the neighborhoods they are migrating out of. Politicians hope that the betterment of  health and educational opportunities for African Americans will not only improve economic status and combat the oppressive, discriminatory system but, bring them back to the Fillmore and San Francisco, preserving the city’s history of black culture.  

Income Disparities

Through a combination of the city’s historically biased social, political and economic forces, black people have lead to not only the severe displacement and relocation of its black population but also, to a lack of resources health and mental alike. A quick look into the history of black people in San Francisco, will show that they faced discriminatory policies that barred them from housing, banking and employment. The lack of those resources forced black residents to reside within their own concentrated communities throughout SF, such as in the Fillmore. By the time urban renewal came about in the 1960s and 70s, the city had deemed the community as a problem, sighting it as “blighted” and this sentiment paired with the overall rising prices across the city caused the collapse for many black owned businesses and homes. This loss of financial capital paired with unemployment created lacks in health services, and education which combined to sustain income inequalities widening as the years have gone on.

Limited Access to Health Services for African Americans

The lack of proper health services for African Americans in the Fillmore has been attributed to unequal socioeconomic opportunities paired with the notion of environmental hardship. Within the issue of health services, there are underlying factors that also contribute to why residents of the Fillmore have and or are dealing with premature deaths, hearts disease, breast cancer, and chlamydia; just to name a few. One major factor such as redevelopment, which caused the displacement of black people within the community in addition to an increase in housing, can be tied to why medical attention with regard to the health conditions aforementioned was unobtainable.

In order to understand how African Americans in the Fillmore suffer from a variety of health issues, we need to see the connection between all the forces that led up to having little to no health services. When analyzing the factors aforementioned, we see how redevelopment caused displacement which then caused for there to be a rise in unemployment and, that ultimately led to black people no longer seeking services pertaining to their health. They simply could not afford to do so because of the initial idea of ethnic cleansing. “ It is now clear that any community faced with these socioeconomic disparities would also have health disparities,” since they have overlapping principles. Over time, these root causes started to create long term consequences which most members of the community still face till this day. For example, all the socioeconomic factors that affected African Americans during the urban renewal period caused for there to be an increase in unhealthy physical and psychological behaviors within the community. “Blacks who live in highly segregated and isolated neighborhoods have lower housing quality, higher concentrations of poverty, and less access to good jobs and education. As a consequence, they experience greater stress and have a higher risk of illness and death”. The system was essentially set up against them from the initial proposal of redevelopment and the health of the community along with their access to health services saw a steady decline that still affects African Americans in the predominantly black neighborhoods of San Francisco till this day.

Challenges Within The Education System

Disparities in black income not only made it difficult to finance health services, but engages in a complex relationship between education and economic status. Before the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which abolished segregated public schools across the country, the San Francisco Board of Education had already outlawed segregated schools, 1875.

Education was a focal point in San Francisco’s early black community, but the arrival of Southern blacks during and after WWII shifted the focus towards economic opportunities, especially blue collar work. Newcomers saw San Francisco’s public schools as an upgrade to the non-existent presence of schools in the South; this mentality would significantly affect the Fillmore community. In addition, the San Francisco Board of Education did not push for more African Americans to attend predominantly white public schools because of white backlash. White parents pulled their children out of public schools in masses, either sending them to private schools or leaving the City altogether.

Today, a majority of white students attend schools accompanied by primarily white staff and student body while; “77 percent of his or her peers are also white.” Continuously, a majority of black and Hispanic students attend schools where over “90 percent of students are non-white.” The separation of racial communities, as well as disparaging income levels, have exposed public schools in black neighborhoods to a lack of resources, property funding, classroom supplies, and low teacher’s salveries, which have The National Education Association has stated that “School funding structures that lead to under-funding and under-resourcing our neediest schools have furthered the achievement gaps.”

Due to the economic and political charges taken to destroy educational opportunities of black people in the United States, African American students have been subjected to lower graduation rates. According to the NEA, blacks age 25 and higher with a high school diploma was around 72 percent while whites came in at 85.5 percent. Reports have show disparities as early as infancy, with black and brown babies unable to retain information and prove proficiency, in comparison to their white counterparts. Black students are far more at risk of being suspended, expelled, and held back, studies seeing patterns as early as kindergarten.These disproportionate expulsions and suspensions have resulted in disciplinary actions taken by law enforcement. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has stated the following. “African-American boys, account for an overwhelming number of school-enforced punishments, as well as the majority of arrests for school-related incidents around the country[…]  studies show that students of color receive harsher punishments for engaging in the same conduct as white students.”

The lack of mentorship and ‘tough of crime’ attitude towards young black students encourages the world to view them as criminals. The wrongful funneling of school children into correctional facilities puts black people at lower economic and job contingency, having detrimental effects on their status, area of housing and the opportunities afforded to them following life in prison. “Oakland police are arresting school-age African American youth at shockingly high rates, contributing to a burgeoning education crisis for students of color(ACLU).”

Action has been taken to correct and create awareness of these disparities such as The Affirmative Action Policy and, The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, which forces schools to disclose their spending records in order to balance out inequalities in accordance to race, and has been criticized for its effectiveness. Unfortunately, the problem still remains prevalent, a result of other systematic, economic inequalities working in contingency as a threat against the black community.


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