This book, written entirely by students at the University of San Francisco from 2015-2019, seeks to inclusively celebrate black excellence and to honor the legacies of the 95 inspiring people whose images appear on the murals of the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center in the heart of the Western Addition in San Francisco.

Commissioned in 1999 by Leonard “Lefty” Gordon and Wendy Nelder in conjunction with the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Inspiration murals, painted by Anthony Josef Norris, consist of five panels depicting San Francisco-based African Americans who made a difference. The people represented on the walls include educators, community activists, politicians, sports figures, pastors, doctors, entertainers, artists, parents, and more—highlighting the key roles African Americans from all walks of life have played in the development and betterment of life in San Francisco.  

As students worked on these biographies, they rapidly realized that each and every person depicted on the murals absolutely deserves her or his own entire book. Students also realized that we can only hope to offer here a glimpse into the triumphs and struggles of people who helped make San Francisco a better, more inclusive place.

As Historian Gerald D. Nash wrote: “the story of black Americans . . . still needs to be told” (qtd. in Broussard). We could not agree more. Given the decreasing numbers of African Americans living in San Francisco and the increasing gentrification of historically African American communities, preserving this history has become increasingly important. It is our hope that this work will in some way spark interest not just in preserving the Inspiration murals, but also in generating new murals that honor people who are currently working to make San Francisco a place where equality and social justice will thrive. To be clear, we tend to view social justice at the University of San Francisco as both a process and a goal.

Everyone who worked on this book has felt not just the importance of recognizing and celebrating the African American leaders of our city’s past, we also felt compelled to address “the fierce urgency of now,” as Dr. King famously declared in 1967. As we consider the tides and undercurrents at work in the United States in 2019, we are as heartened by certain positive changes in San Francisco as we are dismayed by certain national trends. But we who’ve worked on this project would like to hold up what we’ve learned as an example of the incredible spirit of progress in this city—particularly during difficult times. The incredible lives of the people in this book, by their example and accomplishments, speak volumes. We hope this one volume will be just the beginning of others.

Some Back Story About How This Book Was Created . . .  
and Effusive Praise for Its Supporters

Conversations about this project began in 2015 when University of San Francisco alumna and educator Brenda Harris approached Karin Cotterman of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good and Engage San Francisco with a big idea—what if we could inspire USF students working in community-engaged classes to collect all the stories of those community members represented on the Inspiration murals? To achieve this goal, folks at USF, including Andrea Wise and Star Moore, began collaborating with long-time Western Addition community activists Altheda Kennedy Carrie, Lynnette White, and Eugene E. White. Giving generously of their time on numerous occasions, these community leaders came into classrooms and met students in the Western Addition to inspire—and indeed inform—students about the troubled history of San Francisco.

In 2015–16, a living-learning community of students at USF, the Esther Madríz Diversity Scholars program, led by Sociology Professor Stephanie Sears, took up this research as part of their community-engaged learning project for the year. Over the course of the academic year, the students researched and worked on roughly a third of the biographies, also conducting many interviews with the folks you’ll find in this book. In 2016–17, a second cohort of the Esther Madríz Scholars contributed their biographies as well. (You’ll find all the names of these thirty-three students proudly displayed on our title pages.)

Also starting in 2016, a second living-learning community, the Martín-Baró Scholars joined the project. The Martín-Baró Scholars, led by Professor David Holler, continued to research and work on the layouts that make up this book through 2019. (All in all, fifty students in this program are also listed on our title pages.)

We also invited several research assistants to help work on this book as well: Samantha Young, who really got us started, Ya’qub Elmi, who also did excellent work in the classroom, and Marcelo Swofford, who did outstanding work in many regards. Finally, thanks to a generous grant from the College of Arts and Sciences Dean Marcelo Camperi and the guidance of Professor Rachel Brahinsky, we were able to invite three graduate students from our Masters in Urban and Public Affairs Program to help out: Matt Chiodo, Zachary James, and Elijah Williams, all bringing their alacrity, energy, and research skills to the project.

We also connected with the good people of the San Francisco Public Library, particularly City Archivist Susan Goldstein, who helped our classes find material that was not available online. Other librarians at the History Center aided us immensely as we searched through faded clippings, microfilms, and photographs. We are truly grateful for their help. We are particularly indebted to Tom Carey, Katherine Ets–Hokin, Andrea Grimes, Christina Moretta, Yael Schwartz, Tami Suzuki, Jeff Thomas, and others at SFPL.

We also owe profound thanks to Alfred W. Williams, President of the African American Historical and Cultural Society, for reviewing all of the biographies before we went to press. He offered valuable suggestions which we will also take to heart as we prepare this online companion to the print volume.

As we neared completion of this book, we were grateful for the advice and counsel of Wendy Nelder, former President of the Board of Supervisors, and one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Inspiration murals.

All told, it took 87 students and many semesters’ work to arrive at this book, but all of the contributors, editors, and supporters bear in mind that this effort pales in comparison to the monumental achievements of the people featured in the murals and in these pages.

We are more than grateful for the logistical support of Karin Cotterman of Engage San Francisco, as well as Leslie Lombre, David Donahue, Andrea Wise, Nolizwe Nondabula, Star Moore, and Fernando Enciso-Márquez of the Leo T. McCarthy Center for Public Service and the Common Good for their generous support in innumerable ways. This project simply would not exist without their guidance. In addition to the many ways they supported this project, these folks also very kindly connected us with the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, without whose generosity, this book could not have been printed, and the events associated with this work could not have the public reach we aimed for. To the Walter and Elise Haas Fund in particular we are enormously grateful.

We are also extremely grateful for the professional pro bono copyediting provided by veteran journalist Jeannine Yeomans, who took on a capacious binder full of biographies in spring 2019 to edit with her eagle eyes. Also, as part of our efforts to preserve the images of the murals, we are indebted to artist Josef Norris, whose original works remain the inspiration for this book.

The book cover, you surely noticed, features a simply stunning portrait of Ella Hill Hutch, painted by Eugene E. White in 1992. We could not be more grateful to Eugene and Lynnette White for granting us permission to use this image to grace our cover. Very sadly to all who were involved in this project, we lost Mr. Eugene E. White just months before the release of this book. We humbly dedicate our work to him, to his life partner and huge supporter of this project Mrs. Lynnette White, to Mrs. Altheda Carrie who lent so many hours of counsel to our students, and to Dr. Brenda Harris, who helped start so many people on this amazing journey. We know, too, there are many tough journeys yet ahead, but we hope you will find some hope and examples of courage, fortitude, and triumph over tough odds in the biographies that follow.

David Holler and Stephanie Sears, University of San Francisco, 2019

Works Cited

Broussard, Albert. Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West, 1900–1954. University Press of Kansas. 1993.  

Ness, Carol. “Faces of Black Success.” SFGate. 6 Jul 1999.

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