*Featured Photo*Patrons at the Club Flamingo, before it was remodeled and called the Texas Playhouse, early 1950s. Wesley Johnson Jr. Collection. [From Harlemofthewestsf.com]
Urban spaces are constantly replaced, layered upon and sometimes we forget what was there and who is still there. Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era by Lewis Watts and Elizabeth Pepin Silva reminds us of the people, buildings, culture, and families that made up the San Francisco Fillmore during the Jazz Era. The Fillmore district is an area of the city that is now unrecognizable to those who grew up and lived there between the 1940s to 1960s. The Fillmore during the 1960s, especially, was a vibrant Black area, which some former residents say was a city in its own right – within the city of San Francisco.
World War II was instrumental in allowing more Black people to migrate to the Bay Area to find work. Both Oakland and San Francisco were hubs for Black Americans migrating from the deep South to work at the Port of Oakland and in Bayview Hunters Point, which was thriving during this time. According to Rhomberg in his book No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland (2007):
During and after the war… the Black population grew rapidly. By 1960, more than 22 percent of Oakland residents were African-American. With increasing size came greater spatial concentration… intensified racial segregation in housing. In 1940, 60 percent of the Black population lived in…West Oakland. In 1950, despite more than a fivefold increase in size, 80 percent lived in the same area. (pg. 121)
West Oakland, less than 20 years after World War II, became the headquarters for the Black Panther Party. Meanwhile the Fillmore became a hub for jazz artists, clubs, music venues, and Black high class culture more generally.
Blacks migrating from theSouth moving into Fillmore were able to do this largely because Japanese were interned in the 1940s. Before the 1950s and 1960s Japanese Americans were the main and largest community in the Fillmore, although it was always a very diverse area. When the U.S. government interned about 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II housing, buildings, and space became available in the Fillmore for the ever growing Black American population to replace them. The Fillmore went from being a Japanese American neighborhood to a Black American thriving community where legends such as Ella Fitzgerald, Eartha Kitt, Josephine Baker, a young John Coltrane (featured on the cover of the book – below), and Duke Ellington would hang out in places like Leola King’s Blue Mirror, Bop City, and Jack’s Tavern.
Leola King, an African American woman also known as the “Queen of the Fillmore,” who was born in Oklahoma and migrated to the Fillmore from Los Angeles with her son in 1946 was the richest woman in San Francisco at that time. Although much of her assets and physical legacy is gone due to redevelopment, eminent domain, and other violent forms of gentrification that disintegrated the Black Fillmore community at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, her son Tony still owns a couple properties in the Fillmore district. At the height of her reign, Miss King owned about 14 buildings in the Fillmore of which two were a couple of the most successful clubs in the neighborhood with celebrities always paying a visit to the Blue Mirror during their stops in San Francisco. Leola King’s legacy being replaced by the racism, urban exclusion, and violent redevelopment of the Fillmore neighborhood is reminiscent of so many years and continued realities of displacement for Black Americans, people of color and poor people currently living in the Bay Area.
As the Black Americans in the Fillmore replaced the Japanese Americans because of the U.S. government’s atrocious violent and unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Fillmore Jazz Era and the Black American community who created it would be replaced by a mostly White population due to the violence of urban “renewal” and redevelopment at the hands of the City of San Francisco. Regardless, the legacy of the people and the community they created is still here in San Francisco. Even some of the people, such as 91 year old Frank Fisher (also featured on the cover next to John Coltrane), and buildings (what is now Doc’s Lab) have survived the destruction of the thriving Jazz Era community. The book Harlem of the West does an important and phenomenal job of documenting and articulating this fantastic period of time in San Francisco.
With interviews and writing done by Elizabeth Pepin Silva and old photographs restored amazingly by Lewis Watts, this colossal book is a living archive of so much that has been lost due to the destruction of urban redevelopment and the gentrification of this dynamic neighborhood. In some ways urban development is about replacement and displacement, but we must remember that always we are replacing and displacing people, often in violent and racist ways. We should never forget that we’ve been here, we live here, we’re still here, and those of us who can still fight are staying.