James Thigpen, one of the many notable community leaders depicted upon the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center Wall, was a man who thrived against the odds to become a well known and successful entrepreneur, restaurateur, and local San Francisco philanthropist. Born in Chicago on March 8, 1940, James Thigpen found himself in an era wrought with racism and prejudice. However, he never doubted his potential and was eventually able to attend Cornell University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management. Thigpen’s degree reflects the passion that he held for taking care of others.
Thigpen did not want his newfound skills to go to waste and became an avid member in the hotel, restaurant, and educational aid industries. He was a participant on numerous boards: S.R. Martin College Preparatory School, the California Lutheran University Board of Regents, the Golden Gate University Committee on Hotel Restaurant Tourism Management, the San Francisco Black Chamber of Commerce, and the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center. His participation demonstrated his eagerness to better his community. Restaurants and hotels ensured that a large sector of the economy brought continuous business into the area. Thigpen’s interest in education was spurred by his wish to better the future of the community through its youth. He was able to fund his contributions to the community through the money that he made with the various hotels and restaurants that he owned such as the Blue Diamond, The Terrace Restaurant at San Francisco International Airport, Thiggy’s at Lincoln Park Golf Course and Thiggy’s in Golden Gate Park. As one of Thigpen’s most well-known restaurants, Thiggy’s in the Richmond was even host to events like mayoral debates.
Sandra Crumpler, a business associate and friend of Thigpen explained: “He was always going to annual conferences for disadvantaged businesses who wanted to get into airports…He was always talking about the new international airport (plans) and he was very excited about getting more contracts for minorities. [James Thigpen] was a leader and a motivator and many people were encouraged by what he had done” (Sun–Reporter).
James Thigpen was a highly regarded and successful entrepreneur, restaurateur, and local San Francisco philanthropist.
Born during trying times, Thigpen was able to achieve his goals through perseverance. Despite any prejudices or labels that were placed upon black businessmen at the time, he stayed true to his passions and showed the community that he truly had a great message: that black entrepreneurs are no different than any other. Fred Jordan, a close friend of Thigpen’s, remarked “that although many other African American businessmen are victimized by the media and the establishment for grand achievements, Thigpen managed to rise above it all” (Sun–Reporter). Using his own restaurants, James Thigpen would generously fund different events to better his community. For example, in 1992 Thiggy’s donated a percentage of its gross receipts at the annual Candlelight Again fundraiser to help the San Francisco Unified School District’s after school programs with 29 other local restaurants.
According to a Sun–Reporter article from 1999, Thigpen was also an economic guru of the African American community and often gave his fellow community members financial advice. Thigpen was a founding member and chapter president of 100 Black Men of the Bay Area which was an organization whose purpose was “To improve the quality of life in African American communities by improving the educational, economic and social status of African Americans across the entire nation” (100 Black Men of the Bay Area, Inc).
More than 100 African American businessmen and women attended the Wholesale Food Industry Workshop sponsored by the Black Business Listings/ Northern California Black Pages according to California Voice. This was in an effort to educate those who were given an unfair start in life. Joe Bell, a close friend of Thigpen, explained that he believed that “once you get it you must always share with others. His biggest thing was helping educate kids where they could have a better start in life” (Examiner). James Thigpen died on June 8th, 1999, in Houston and is still remembered for his passion, thoughtfulness and dedication to his community. His place on the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center wall serves as a symbol of entrepreneurial and community spirit for all those in the Western Addition.
— Chase Nakayama; additional research by Zachary James
California Voice Oakland. 15 Jan 1993.
“James Thigpen.” The Sun-Reporter. 10 Jun 1999. [Available at SF Public Library History Center.] SF Chronicle. 14 Oct 1992.
“Our History.” 100 Black Men of the Bay Area.
King, John. “2 Forums for Mayoral Candidates- Four S.F. Contenders Sparin Pair of Venues.” SF Chronicle. 25 Jul 1995.
Wagner, Venise. “James Thigpen.” SFGate. 23 Jun 1999.