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Profile: Bayview-Hunters Point    

Article 6 of 11-Part Series

A Brief History of Bayview-Hunters Point
By Amy Jeffries

SAN FRANCISCO - "My wife says I have too much paper", said Oscar James, 60, as he spread selections from his collection of old photographs and documents on his kitchen table.

The collection chronicles the history of Bayview-Hunters Point, where James was born and raised, from when blacks first arrived from the South.

In one book there's a picture of James' maternal grandmother, Eileen Ross Washington, who arrived from Texas in the 1930s and became one of the neighborhood's first black homeowners when she bought her house on Palou, where her neighbors were Irish, Italian and French.

"Then after she bought it they told her the house was haunted and burned a cross on the house," James said. Despite the incident, James said, San Francisco was a far cry from the racist South.

"They were lynching people in the South. When I went down to the South in 1955, they had just lynched Emmett Till, and I didn't know anything about racism until I got there, because my parents hadn't told me about what happened to my grandmother," James said.

During World War II, blacks left southern plantations in droves for the promise of jobs in San Francisco. Many found work at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard, which employed more than 18,000 workers at its peak. James' father was among them, moving here from Louisiana in 1938 to help build the shipyard that opened three years later.

At first, according to historian Albert Broussard's 1993 book, "Black San Francisco", blacks worked mostly in custodial or heavy labor jobs with little prospect for advancement. But within two years of the United States entering the war, the labor shortage opened new doors for blacks.

"We used to have a saying that, they'd bring the job to me and let me look it over and if I didn't like it I won't take it. It was just that easy to find a job at that time," said Essie Webb, 89.

Webb, who is Oscar James' mother-in-law, moved to the neighborhood in 1944 from East St. Louis, Mo. to join her husband, Olin Webb, who had been recruited to work as a welder in the shipyard.

The population of what's now known as Bayview-Hunters Point nearly quadrupled between 1940 and 1950, to more than 51,000, according to a study by the San Francisco planning department. Blacks comprised about a fifth of the population by 1950. A white majority and a handful of Chinese constituted the rest of the community.

Among the documents James has saved is a black and white panoramic photo of a flat-roofed housing project with a luxurious view of Potrero Hill and the Bay Bridge.

"This is where my older son and my daughter were born," James said, pointing to one of the units in the rectangular row.

The Navy built the Hunters Point projects as temporary housing for the thousands of new workers and their families. The development was segregated, with whites living on North Ridge and South Ridge roads and blacks on Navy Road.

In 1945, two black tenants complained about the conditions in Hunters Point. The complaints threatened to spark race riots as had occurred in other neighborhoods of San Francisco during the 1940s, according to Broussard's history. Instead the anger was mediated by the creation of a multiracial tenant's association and the addition of blacks to the police force patrolling the area.

"Instead of becoming a racial powder keg, Hunter's Point developed into one of the most progressive examples of San Francisco's wartime housing. It is curious that the acute housing shortage had prompted an atypical pattern of residential integration," Broussard wrote.

Children of all races shared the same classrooms and played on the same baseball and football teams sponsored by the neighborhood's Italian business owners, Oscar James said.

Growing up in a house on Hall Street, James lived next door to Les Porter, who was white. Porter used to work for the Legallet Rodeo, sponsored by a local tannery of the same name.

"He was the person who did the gun thing at the rodeos and rode horses. He taught us how to ride horses."

James remembered heading down to the docks to buy shrimp from Chinese fishermen.

"We used to go and buy shrimps, 10 cents a small bag, the next larger bags would be a quarter, and would be loaded with shrimps, we'd go back home make gumbo, jambalaya, whatever," James said.

Nobody had to go downtown for anything. Third Street, the neighborhood's full-service shopping center, boasted shoe stores, furniture sellers, ice cream parlors, and several cinemas including the Bayview Theater where the Bank of America is now located.

"Every Sunday after church, that was the place," James said. "In fact, that's where I first saw King Kong."

Once the war ended, the neighborhood changed. In 1954 the shipyard laid off thousands of workers, including Oscar James' father. Many white families left. Blacks, especially those with few skills and low income, often found they had nowhere to go. James' family tried house hunting in Westlake Village near Los Angeles.

"Before we got out of the car there they told us, 'We don't sell to no niggers.' That's the first time I heard that," James said.

"I didn't feel racism until there was a lack of opportunity. We only had certain areas we could move to, black folks - Stockton, Palo Alto. And they had to be the areas where say the railroad tracks passed," James said.

Essie Webb's husband was also laid off in 1954, and never again landed a stable job in the neighborhood. After a few years of frustration, Olin Webb left for New York, leaving his wife and eight children behind. Even though she was working as a nursery school teacher, Webb was forced to go on welfare to support her family.

In the early 1960s Webb and a group of other mothers began plotting to fight against the discrimination and disenfranchisement. When the Super Saver grocery store in the neighborhood refused to hire blacks from the community, the women decided to hold a protest.

"I think it was a Sunday morning, we got out there with our picket signs in the rain and picketed," she said.

Later, Webb's son George recruited 12 families for a rent strike protesting the city housing authority's poor maintenance of the Navy projects that the agency had taken over. Essie Webb helped write proposals for how to improve the schools.

The community activism culminated in the late 1960s and early 1970s when Webb and Oscar James both sat on the Joint Housing Committee that helped guide a major redevelopment project that created the India Basin Industrial Park and promised to bring in new housing, schools, industry and job opportunities.

James said many residents of Bayview-Hunters Point found jobs in the wake of the redevelopment. But after 10 or 15 years, he said the redevelopment jobs had dried up, many of the tenants of India Basin had pulled out, and commerce on Third Street had never returned to create permanent employment in the neighborhood.

In the 1980s, Bayview-Hunters Point sunk into the crack cocaine trade, furthering the trend of poverty and violence that continues today.

Webb said what once was a cohesive community where you could trust your neighbors to watch out for your children has splintered.

"I guess all the air came out of the balloon, and it just came to the ground and it's still there, and it's just waiting for someone to put some more air in and blow it up."

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