Segregation and the Civil Rights Movement in San Francisco

"I was there..."

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Sheraton Palace Hotel, picket line March 7, 1964.

Photo: Phiz Mezey

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Sheraton Palace Hotel sit-in March 7, 1964.

Photo: Phiz Mezey


The following text is from an interview with Thomas Fleming, at the time 91 years old, former editor of the Sun-Reporter newspaper in San Francisco from 1944-1994. Interviewed on Saturday, January 9, 1999 at his home on Fillmore Street in San Francisco by Chris Carlsson, with assistance from Caitlin Manning, Joe Caffentzis and Max Millard.

Thomas Fleming shares his experiences and memories in the context of broader historical events and changes in the social landscape around San Francisco and the Bay Area, from segregation in the 1930s; World War II and the emigration of Blacks into San Francisco; to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He also addresses the state of the black population in the United States today. His anecdotes, perspectives and first-hand accounts of events speak the Civil Rights Movement in San Francisco and the relation of Black folks to the larger Bay Area community.

Segregation in 1930s San Francisco

Blacks were welcome mostly over in the North Beach area. You could eat in most places over there, you could go in places where there was live entertainment, because some of the entertainment was black also. I guess there were more cosmopolitans living in the North Beach area than other parts of San Francisco. But for the most part the nightlife entertainment in San Francisco--you were barred. It was just like the hotels over here. You couldn't eat in the first class restaurants, if I can use that term. You were discriminated against in Chinatown. They would just tell you when you came in. There were some places that had the gall to put a sign in the window "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone." Well, we understood what they meant. The Empress of China wouldn't serve people like Marion Anderson even. They'd flatly tell you. Paul Robeson or Roland Hayes couldn't go in there and eat.

There were two blacks working for the City and County of San Francisco then. One was the receptionist in the Mayor's Office Walter Sanford. The other was Floyd Green who was a woman. She was a psychiatric social worker at San Francisco General Hospital. You find quite a few blacks working in the United States Post Office over here, federal jobs, and a few working in the customs service, but there weren't any blacks working for the City and County of San Francisco then, in contrast to what you found over in Oakland. There was one black teacher working at that time and she didn't teach in the public schools, she taught in parochial schools. She's still alive, name was Josephine Farmer then, her name is Josephine Cole now. But she's still alive and very active.

The artist Sargent Johnson lived in Berkeley with his wife and daughter. They stayed over there most of the time. But he spent most of his time over here at Izzy Gomez's place down in North Beach. Izzy operated a pub down there, even through the prohibition. He always saw that somebody got a drink, a bowl of soup if they came in, whether you had money or not, so it was very popular pub down on Pacific Street I think it was. Claude [Sargent Johnson's middle name] used to spent a lot of time over here and then he'd come over and have a burst of inspiration and stay over there in Berkeley. John Pittman was still living in Berkeley in those days. Some nights we'd come by Claude's studio with a gallon jug of wine and go back there in the studio and sit there until 4 or 5 in the morning till Mrs. Johnson became so mad, she'd come out there and chase us out, saying "You drunken bums, don't you have a home to go to?"

I thought Johnson was a liberal. I never did try to test him on it, because we talked primarily about The Problem. When I say The Problem I mean racial issues in America, that's what we talked about most of the time. What we fighting for then was equality of opportunity. That's all we've ever asked for. Equality of opportunity, and he was a very strong advocate of that. Now whether he was a Democrat or a Republican I never did try to find out.

Whether there were any other black artists in San Francisco, I don't know because San Francisco's black population at that time was only about 2,500. The bulk of the black population lived in the East Bay and Oakland. Oakland had about 12,000. Berkeley had about 4,000. Even Berkeley had a larger black population than San Francisco. Because you could walk up and down Market Street all day and the only black face you'd see down there in those days was looking in those big plate glass windows and seeing your own reflection! The Asian presence was far more prominent over here and most of that was centered up there in Chinatown.

World War 2 and Black Emigration into SF

The Reporter was founded in 1944. I started writing editorials protesting the removal of the Japanese. My editorials said this: "The Germans and the Italians were not being rounded up. The only reason they were rounding up the Japanese was because they're not white." I maintained that, because I continued editorially with the paper until the Army took me in 1945.

The Key System, which was the transit system over in Oakland, would not hire black operators. The City and County of San Francisco had broke down and hired black operators on the streetcars over here, but the Key System wouldn't. So I started writing editorials over there saying if blacks can drive those big Army rigs they can drive buses.

So blacks started demonstrating in front of the Key System offices over there in Oakland. Pretty soon I got "greetings" from the Army. I was 37 then, and they said they didn't want anybody past 35. Plus I was supporting my mother. I went over there to see why, because I'd been exempted, and one of the clerks said "Well, they don't like those editorials you've been writing in that paper over there in San Francisco." She thought that was the reason why I was sent the "greetings."

We were fighting to see that we got into the Armed Forces. You know, before the war, everything was segregated, in both the Navy and the Army. What we were fighting for was to end segregation in the Armed Forces. We thought we were American citizens like everyone else. That was brought to Franklin D. Roosevelt's attention when Phillip Randolph, who was the head of the Pullman Porters Union, Sleeping Car Union was what they called it, and Bayard Rustin who worked with the Quakers, threatened Roosevelt that they were going to bring 250,000 blacks to march down Pennsylvania Avenue if blacks weren't admitted into the Armed Forces and also as war workers.

Because at the beginning, you couldn't get a job in the shipyards! Or other war industries. It was a conspiracy among the operators of the shipyards out here and the unions. They wanted it all to remain lily white. Roosevelt started thinking that at this time it would be bad propaganda to have 250,000 blacks marching on Pennsylvania Avenue protesting discrimination. So that's when that FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission] order came out of Washington, because he didn't want all those blacks coming in there from all over the United States, protesting like that.

I know in the shipyards, the only ones that would take you in right away were Mare Island [in Vallejo] and the other installations that the federals had over here. Others wouldn't take you, in some category. You always could come in as laborers. If you had credentials and went there to apply for a job, the first thing they'd ask at the shipyards, "are you a member of the union?" You said "no." They said "you got to be a member of the union." Come back to the union, and ask them, and they'd say "well, do you have a job?" And of course you'd have to come in as a laborer then. That FEPC stopped all that nonsense then. That was round about '44, yeah.

Henry Kaiser started sending labor contractors going down there in the deep South to get workers to come out here and operate the shipyards here. There was quite a few that came in here directly after Pearl Harbor, because even though they couldn't get the jobs as skilled workers in the union, they were hiring a lot of laborers, too, particularly over in Moore shipyard, that was the first shipyard over on the estuary in Oakland. And then of course in the Navy yard too, at Mare Island, because there wasn't Hunter's Point yet, until after Pearl Harbor, I don't think there was. But at Mare Island, they had hired a lot of blacks even during WWI, so they knew they could get jobs up there. And then Kaiser started building those yards over there in Richmond. They needed hands to work in those places.

I would hear every once in a while from some blacks, "These people coming in here, they have different lifestyles than we have." I said, 'but they're people just like we are. They need work.' That was always my argument. And I said 'if you get more blacks here you get more political power. You don't have any political power here.' I say 'Who can you elect to office?' I said 'The more blacks here, the more people you can elect to public office.'

I've heard that [Mayor] Rossi made the statement that he was going to investigate why all these black people were coming to San Francisco. There was a lot of hostility here among white people about all these newcomers coming in here. Their ways were different than blacks who had lived out here a long time, because most of them came from rural areas in the South. They were just like rural white folks who came here, no difference. Their social patterns were much different than people who live in a big city.

Joseph James, who was head of the NAACP at that time, said he saw [the Mayor's plan to investigate] in the Call-Bulletin. That was the Hearst afternoon paper here then. You know there were four papers here then.

I think it must have been around 1947, Roger Lapham was mayor, he called a press conference down in City Hall, so I went down there. After I met him, he said "Mr. Fleming, how long you think these colored people gonna be here?" I said, "Mr. Mayor, you know how permanent the Golden Gate out there is?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Well, the black population is just as permanent as the Golden Gate, because we are American citizens like you." I said "We don't need no passport to come here like others who come here from other lands." I said, "You and the city of San Francisco may as well make up its mind right now that you're gonna find jobs for these people. Either they're going to get on welfare..." I said "Because they ain't going back down south. They can make more money on welfare out here than they can pickin' cotton down south!" I said "That's how permanent the black population is here in San Francisco."

The Civil Rights Movement

A lot of the war industries had closed down completely, and quite a few blacks had moved out of San Francisco to East Palo Alto and over to Oakland. None of the big hotels were hiring blacks in any capacity. None of the cab companies were hiring any black drivers. So the NAACP picked the big hotels out first. They started demonstrating, picketing in front of the Palace Hotel. Terry Francois, who had been a NAACP president before Nat Burbridge, came out to Nat's house one day and said "If those pickets go inside the lobby of the hotel, I'm not going to defend them." But the pickets went in, because the majority of the pickets weren't black, they were students from UC Berkeley and San Francisco State College. They had black teachers here then, but when they were demonstrating out there, they engaged in a Whist game at one of the teachers' houses that day. They didn't come out, even though it meant jobs also for them, too.

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San Francisco native Darrell Rogers describes his participation in the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) in 1962-64, an organization that helped organize the picket lines against job and housing discrimination during that era.

Video: Shaping San Francisco

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Local youths arrested during Freedom March in San Francisco, 1963.

Photo: San Francisco History Room, SF Public Library


Civil Rights protestors picket Cadillac dealers along Van Ness Avenue's auto row in the early 1960s, opposing the widespread racial discrimination in showroom employment patterns.

Photo: San Francisco Historical Society, San Francisco, CA

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Picket lines in front of Kress and Woolworth's at Market and Powell, Feb. 27, 1960.

Photo: Bancroft Library

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Civil Rights demonstrators in the Fillmore, 1963, at Turk and Fillmore Streets.

All the white liberals turned out in support of this movement. We had the next target, the next demonstration, at Auto Row. Auto Row on Van Ness Avenue, none of them hired blacks other than janitors. Well, we thought they should have some black salesman because Cadillac seemed to be the favorite vehicle of blacks who had a lot of money, so they picked the Cadillac agency. Of course the inevitable arrests were made there also, but we got a black salesman in there anyway as a result of it. I think Stokely Carmichael came out here once during that period. It was national, and we became part of the national movement.

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Sit-in on Auto Row, 1963.

Photo: Phiz Mezey

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Victory on Auto Row, 1963.

Photo: Phiz Mezey

During that period also there were riots in some cities. The carryover here was, they called it a riot out at Hunters' Point.

State of the Black Community Today

There's still too much unemployment I think over here and out at Hunter's Point. As a matter of fact there's too much unemployment among the black population all over the United States. I think we've got to continue this fight for equality, equality of opportunity. This is what Dr. Du Bois and others declared years ago: all we ask is equality of opportunity, that's all. We feel that other things will improve if you're not refused the same privileges that others who are citizens receive. This is the way we look at it. And I think things will right themselves if we did.

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A four-part radio series based on the Public Talk at CounterPULSE in April 2006, featuring Kevin Epps, Alicia Schwartz of People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), and Espanola Jackson of Bayview-Hunters Point.' (You can jump through the 4 half-hour shows using the right and left arrows at left of play bar)

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Civil rights demonstrators blockade the Cow Palace, July 15, 1964.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

I really don't know how united the black community is. I told you when we were behind the demonstrations during the civil rights movement, I told you about how some black intellectuals didn't participate. We still got to right ourselves, also, because I had a friend of mine, she was a psychologist with the Oakland school district. She said a lot of the black teachers over there didn't want to be bothered with black kids. All they were interested in was their checks, and that they could dress up nice. Well that doesn't surprise me, but that coming from a white person is the thing that surprised me today, she had paid attention to this. We still have an upper and lower class society among blacks too. We're not so well uniform in our relationship with one another, as I think we should be.


Tom Fleming

Photo: Chris Carlsson

I never could understand why the administration down at City Hall stopped those people from growing vegetables in those vacant lots on Fillmore Street. I think they should be everywhere, not only over here, but everywhere where you've got vacant land. If the people in the neighborhood want to grow vegetables, why not let them grow it? You can use the land. I don't know who engineered that idea. Well, they started building in some of those lots, but they still haven't built in one over here, where they say they're gonna build a jazz club. Whoever are the promoters are of the idea of a jazz club don't have enough money to build it over there. I understand why that isn't happening. You know that Fillmore Center, Goodlet wanted to build that up. He went to some white people to join in with him and Joe Alioto told the banks downtown, 'don't let him have any money.' That's what Goodlet said. He came up with that idea first for a Fillmore Center here.

I don't know [if it would have been different if Goodlet's vision had been implemented] because it happened anyway. I don't know if enough people want to move over to this part of town, that had the money to pay those sorts of rents. That's something that I don't know. But he did build some places out here, over here next to that post office on Steiner. The ones right here on the corner, he built these too, in partnership with some whites. He was the developer. He could see so far ahead. A remarkable guy. When I first met him it was on the campus in Berkeley in 1935, when he came out as a graduate student with the intention of getting a Masters Degree from Howard. After he got out here he took the comprehensive with a Ph.D. and went into the Ph.D. program. He never got a Masters Degree. And he got his Ph.D. in child psychology and he'd always talked about becoming a pediatrician. Well I don't think the black population was that sophisticated when he came back here in 1945, to go to a pediatrician for their children, so he just went into general practice.

I like what Willie Brown's doing. I think he's trying to get all the private capital and state support he can and try to make this city a better place, if that's his idea, and I think that is his idea. Because when Willie was first elected to office-you know Willie got into office because of Goodlet and the Sun-Reporter. Because Goodlet not only supported him with the paper, but he put money in his campaign. And they remained close friends for a long time. I haven't seen anything yet that I'd criticize him about, compared to other mayors before him. [Laughter]

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