Category Archives: California Historical Society

Rescuing Black History in the Fillmore

San Franciscans of Japanese descent during forced evacuation of the city in 1942. Photo by the Department of the Interior, War Relocation Authority.

African Americans have been a part of San Francisco since before the Gold Rush. The city’s Black population saw its greatest increase, however, during World War II. Hailing primarily from Louisiana and Texas, the newcomers  had been recruited to work in Bay Area shipyards.  Many settled into homes in the Western Addition recently vacated by San Franciscans of Japanese descent who had been forced, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, to relocate to internment camps.

Over the following two decades, a visible African American presence established itself in the Western Addition neighborhood around Fillmore Street. This included a vibrant jazz and rhythm-and-blues nightclub scene that featured such artists such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Count Bassie, Thelonious Monk, and Ella Fitzgerald. When Justin Herman took control of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency in 1959, however, he oversaw the razing of much of the Fillmore and the forcible removal of Black residents from the neighborhood, bringing an end to the Fillmore jazz era. James Baldwin’s 1963 documentary, “Take This Hammer,” addresses the fallout; it can be seen online for free.

Ella Fitzgerald and Fillmore celebrants in the 1950s. Courtesy the Red Powell/Reggie Pettus Collection.

Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts have been working for many years to rescue the neighborhood’s Black music history – including Pepin’s work as associate producer on the 1999 KQED documentary, The Fillmore. In 2006, they published Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era. The book was released with a companion website and an exhibit that traveled to venues including the Museum of Performance and Design in San Francisco and the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.

Featured on the cover of the 2006 edition were, l-r: John Handy, Pony Poindexter, John Coltrane, Frank Fisher at Jimbo’s Bop City in the 1950s. Photo by Steven Jackson Jr.

Performing at the Herbst Theater in conjunction with the 2006 publication of Harlem of the West were John Handy (2nd from left) and Frank Fisher (3rd from left) who had appeared on the book’s cover. Photo courtesy Lewis Watts.

Currently, Pepin and Watts are preparing a revised edition of the book. It will feature a new design and Introduction, as well as additional material based on the oral histories they have recorded and photographs they have collected since the book was first published.

In part, it was photographs that first prompted the creation of the book – specifically, pictures that hung on the walls of Red’s Shine Parlor, a shoeshine business on Fillmore Street. Following owner Red Powell’s untimely death, his photographs were rescued by Reggie Pettus, owner of the New Chicago Barbershop across Fillmore street from Red’s Shine Parlor. Pettus, in turn, made them available to Lewis Watts.

Red Powell (far right) in front of his shoeshine parlor in the 1960s. Courtesy the Red Powell/Reggie Pettus Collection.

Many of the photos lacked information about the photographers and the people and places they portrayed. Elizabeth Pepin collaborated with Watts, who teaches photography at UC Santa Cruz, to identify the photographs. Pepin pursued her research at a time when little scholarship had done about African American history in San Francisco aside from a handful of works such as Douglas Henry Daniels’ Pioneer Urbanites and Albert Broussard’s Black San Francisco. Also at that time, Bay Area archival repositories such as the California Historical Society, the Bancroft Library, and the San Francisco History Center had little material about the city’s Black history.

Elizabeth Pepin and Lewis Watts. Photo courtesy Lewis Watts.

Since the initial publication of the book, Pepin and Watts have discussed their work with a wide range of audiences. In response, they have received ongoing offers of additional photographs and oral history recording sessions. It was this new content that prompted their decision to release an expanded version of their book – as well as audio files of some of those oral histories in future iterations of their website. As Pepin explained to me,

 The Fillmore was pretty much gone by the time I entered the world. I didn’t feel I had the right to put my voice into that. Obviously, I’m choosing out of all the interviews.  But really the book is written by the people who lived the history. I feel very strongly that this stuff needs to be available to the public. I think that there are many, many more stories to be told in the Fillmore. It’s important that this material be made available so that other people can put it toward their own projects.

Pepin and Watts’s work is especially pertinent in light of the failure of other attempts to capture and communicate the Fillmore’s African American past.  In 1995, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which had previously decimated the Fillmore neighborhood, launched the mismanaged Fillmore Jazz Preservation District project. The mandate had been to commission permanent interpretive art installations, offer financial support for Black businesses, and establish jazz venues such as Yoshi’s as well as the Jazz Heritage Center (where material from Pepin and Watts’s work has been exhibited), but the results have been mixed. The neighborhood further suffered when a Community Benefit District, which was established in 2006 to promote Fillmore heritage and businesses, was shuttered in 2012 following infighting among the area’s businesses owners and residents.

malcolm x

As part of the Fillmore Jazz Preservation District project, this sidewalk marker outside the Fillmore Auditorium originally read, “Malcolm X Spoke At The Fillmore Auditorium, 1962.” The brick  that featured the name “Malcolm X” has been replaced, but his name has not. 2012 photo by Drew Bourn.

Such disappointments make Pepin and Watts’s efforts to document and share the Black history of the Fillmore all the more vital.  If you have photographs or can help identify persons and places in Pepin and Watts’s existing photograph collections, or if you might be willing to share your recollections of the period, please contact Pepin and Watts. Such contributions are welcome as they prepare their new and expanded edition of Harlem of the West.


Filed under Bancroft Library, California Historical Society, San Francisco History Center

San Francisco History Expo 2011

SF Mint ca. 1900, courtesy the US National Archives

The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society (SFMHS) will be hosting the first San Francisco History Expo on Saturday, February 12 and Sunday, February 13 from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00p.m. at the Old Mint on the northwest corner of 5th and Mission Streets. Admission is free; and over 20 local history organizations will have exhibits, including:

In addition to the exhibits, the Expo will also feature a variety of programs, including: live performances, screenings of historic films, a forum at which authors will read from their recently published histories of San Francisco, displays of art by Frank Alan Zimmerman and by the San Francisco Quilters Guild, and opportunities for visitors to record oral histories and digitize photographs to be posted on the FoundSF website. On Saturday at 2:00 p.m. there will be a Community History Panel featuring Woody LaBounty of the Western Neighborhoods Project, Peter Linenthal and Abby Johnston of the Potrero Hill Archives Project, and Vicky Walker of the Bernal Heights History Project. On Sunday at 2:00 p.m. there will be a presentation on the work of muralist Mona Caron; and at 3:00 p.m. Willy Lizárraga will give a presentation on the history of San Francisco Carnaval.

Kristin Morris, Associate Curator for the SFMHS, points to the SFMHS’s ongoing series of monthly programs in explaining the basis for this collaborative event. This series has provided an opportunity for the SFMHS to partner with variety of local historical organizations, inviting those partners to introduce their work to a larger audience. Now, the SFMHS has invited those same organizations to participate in the Expo in order to further extend their outreach. The SFMHS is providing free admission in the hopes of attracting as many visitors as possible – especially students. By including exhibits by local archival repositories such as the California Historical Society and the San Francisco History Center, the SFMHS also hopes to introduce visitors to venues where they can conduct their own historical research.

The SFMHS plans to continue ongoing renovations to the Old Mint building and to eventually convert that space into museum of  San Francisco history. Because the SFMHS has a limited collection of materials for exhibition, the new museum would involve a collaboration with some of the organizations who will be participating at the Expo. The permanent exhibition would include artifacts on loan from many of those organizations; and some of the organizations will also be invited to curate temporary exhibits.

For more information about the Expo, please call the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society at: (415) 537-1105, extension 100.


Filed under Bernal History Project, California Historical Society, San Francisco City Guides, San Francisco History Association, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, San Francisco Museum & Historical Society

SFGenealogy: Providing Free Online Content

In 2002, the husband-and-wife team of Ron Filion and Pamela Storm launched their website SFGenealogy – a labor of love that showcases their passion for genealogical research and San Francisco Bay Area history. 

Filion describes the primary purpose of the site as providing free online access to content relevant to genealogists (such as information from birth certificates, marriage announcements, telephone directories, and obituaries) that might otherwise only exist in hard-copy in multiple locations.  He is quick to add, though, that the content they have sought to feature is “not your normal resources; it’s a hodgepodge of interesting things,” including a wide range of full-text materials related to San Francisco history. They receive support for the project in the form of a sponsorship by the California Genealogical Society and Library,  Google ads on their site, and single-dollar donations. Many volunteers from around the world also assist by doing transcription.

Storm and Filion seek out new sources of content such as school yearbooks, club membership rosters, maps, and other emphera at estate sales. They have also been known to use less orthodox materials, such as a pot holder they once discovered that featured a political advertisement. After digitizing or transcribing the content, they offer the originals as a donation to archival repositories such as the California Historical Society or the San Francisco History Center.

Their site features Web 2.0 functionality in the form of bulletin boards. This enable users to post comments, questions, or upload content that they themselves have transcribed. One volunteer, Cathy Gowdy, has posted transcriptions of over 12,000 Marin County obituaries. These contributions point to areas of users’ interest that have sometimes surprised Filion and Storm – such as spirited discussions about San Francisco’s defunct Mannings Cafeteria.

SFGenealogy also features a variety of databases that Storm and Filion have built – including the California Birth Index (1905-1995), the California Death Index (1940-1997), and San Francisco Mortuary Records. These databases offer examples of content that in some cases is only otherwise available online through subscription databases. 

In addition to providing content from other sources, Storm and Filion also develop original articles and maps on topics of interest to them –  such as ships buried beneath San Francisco’s streets, or the story of their investigation of a nineteenth-century photograph they had once discovered in the Argonaut Book Shop, or locations around San Francisco’s Civic Center to conduct genealogical and historical research. One of their more ambitious projects was the 1906 Earthquake Marriage Project, in which they investigated the suprising record number of marriages that took place immediately following San Francisco’s greatest natural disaster. The project, which involved conducting oral history work as well as archival research, culminated in an exhibition at City Hall in 2006.

A wide range of cultural heritage institutions have been digitizing content from their historical collections for online presentation for many years. Standards and best practices for how to scan materials (such as the California Digital Library’s Guidelines) and to provide “metadata” or descriptions of those materials (such as the Library of Congress’ Thesaurus for Graphic Materials) have been long established. In more recent years, some institutions have been moving from presenting their online content only on their own website to also presenting it on third-party hosts, such as Flickr, the Internet Archive, and the Hathi Trust – in part to be able to aggregate their content with content from other repositories (one example of a project to aggregate digital content from multiple repositories is the Biodiversity Heritage Library). Whether the work of making historical content available online is done by major institutions like the Smithsonian or by private individuals like Storm and Filion, questions about the best design formats, venues, and search functionality will persist as we all continue to explore how to make historical content as accessible as possible.     



Filed under California Historical Society, San Francisco History Center

Ghost Tours as a Way to Engage the Past

"Nob Hill Hotel at Night" 2008 photo by Marla Showfer

In honor of Halloween, I’d like to consider three ghost tours as examples of ways that San Francisco neighborhood history can be presented.

SF Chinatown Ghost Tours have been led since 1994 by Cynthia Yee, a community organizer and nationally-recognized dancer. Yee’s maternal great-grandfather, Fong Louie, immigrated from China in 1885. His Chinatown stories were passed d0wn to Yee’s mother, Mildred Fong, one of the pillars of the 光明佛道研究會 (Quong Ming Buddhist and Taoist Association) in Chinatown. Yee has told me that her idea for the tour came after going on tours in New Orleans. To develop her performance, she has drawn primarily on two sources: stories she learned from her mother; and coverage in local English-language newspapers (such as the San Francisco Chronicle) about Chinatown events such as the 1977 Golden Dragon Massacre. Yee tells me that she keeps track of  current news coverage rather than research older newspaper accounts or use archival repositories such as the Chinese Historical Society of America. At the same time, she has told me that Chinatown residents bring her news accounts, providing material to further develop her ghost tour presentation.

Similar to Cynthia Yee’s experience, Jim Fassbinder’s participation in a tour outside San Francisco prompted him to create the San Francisco Ghost Hunt, which he has led since 1998.  To develop his presentation, he did research at the San Francisco History Center, reviewed online content from the California Historical Society, enlisted college undergraduates to provide research assistance in academic libraries, and conducted oral history interviews. In his comments to me, he singled out the staff of the San Francisco History Center as being especially helpful in directing him to primary sources such as historic maps. Fassbinder chose Pacific Heights as the site of his tour partly for logistical reasons – the relative quiet, safety, and ease of walking – in addition to the stories he had learned about the neighborhood. Fassbinder has commented to me about his tour, “my main goal is this: I want everyone on a Ghost Hunt to have a real supernatural experience in a safe way.”

Playwright Kitty Burns has lead the Vampire Tour of San Francisco since 2001. Like Cynthia Yee, she was inspired to create the tour after participating in a tour in New Orleans.  To develop her presentation, Burns reviewed published histories – particularly Fire & Gold: the San Francisco Story by Charles Fracchia, founder and president emeritus of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. Burns also reviewed published articles and online content. She told me that her most valued resource, however, came in the form of oral history interviews she conducted with persons affiliated with commercial establishments and other institutions along her tour. Burns also indicated that the ongoing input she receives both from participants on her tours as well as persons affiliated with her tour stops continue to provide material for the further development of her presentation. Like Jim Fassbinder, Burns related to me that she selected the site of her tour – Nob Hill – partly out of logistical considerations such as safety. She added, “Nob Hill was a perfect area because all the stops on the tour are well known and very classy.  I thought that would add to the humor of a vampire tour.”

Part of what is striking to me about these three neighborhood-specific tours is that despite the differences in how the three guides conducted research for their presentations, all three of them turned to oral history interviews with neighborhood stakeholders as a significant source of content. What is also striking is that whereas many other contexts for engaging San Francisco history involve encounters with artifacts, or architectural features, or primary source materials such as historic documents and photographs, these tours intimate the possibility (with varying degrees of seriousness) of encounters with persons from the past  in the form of the ghosts or vampires of today.

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Filed under California Historical Society, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Museum & Historical Society

Time Capsules in San Francisco

Franklin statue, Washington Square Park, 2009 photo by Wally Gobetz

San Francisco is no stranger to time capsules. One example can be found in Washington Square Park at the base of the Benjamin Franklin statue commissioned by nineteenth-century millionaire and temperance advocate Henry D. Cogswell. The materials placed there in 1879 by Cogswell included personal papers and a sampling of publications that are now housed at the California Historical Society. After the original contents were exhumed in 1979 by then-mayor of San Francisco Dianne Fienstein, new materials replaced them for re-opening in 2079, including a pair of Levi’s jeans, a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a bottle of wine (ironic, given Cogswells temperance stance), and a copy of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

Sometimes a time capsule is forgotten and later re-discovered, as had been the case with a copper box filled with coins, photographs, newspaper clippings and other items that had been placed in the walls of San Francisco City Hall in 1913 by then-mayor Jim Rolph and found again in 1997 during renovation work. Selected contents from that collection are exhibited in City Hall’s South Light Court. A new time capsule was placed in City Hall in 2001 by then-mayor Willie Brown, containing a wide range of contents including one of the mayor’s hats, Rice a Roni, a bolt from the Golden Gate Bridge, a piece of the AIDS memorial quilt, a bottle of Anchor Steam beer, menus from the Fairmont and St. Francis hotels, and a video tape from 1997 of the opening of Mayor Rolph’s time capsule of 1913.

Sometimes time capsules themselves contain time capsules, as was discovered in 2001 when the cornerstone of the former Ohabai Shalome synagogue at 1881 Bush Street was opened. Items that had been placed in the cornerstone during the 1895 construction of the building included an earlier time capsule that had been created by a group of San Francisco Jews in 1865. Together, these contents were fashioned into an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum entitled “Hidden in the Walls”.

I’ve created a Google Map showing the location of time capsules in San Francisco. I imagine there are many that I’ve missed. Do you know of any that don’t appear on the map? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know about them.

For those who are interested, William E. Jarvis has done the only serious history to date of time capsules; and Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia hosts the International Time Capsule Society.


Filed under California Historical Society

California Historical Society annual meetings

Calaveras Reservoir. 2009 photo by Christina B. Castro

After something of a hiatus, the California Historical Society has re-instituted its program of annual meetings. The 2009 meeting was held on June 20, and the focus was the history of water use in California. Among the speakers, Deputy San Francisco City Attorney Josh Milstein offered a particularly interesting presentation on the water delivery systems in San Francisco from the Gold Rush to the present, including the Spring Valley Water Company and Hetch Hetchy. This is a topic that has been addressed elsewhere by Norris Hundley, Gray Brechin, and others; Milstein’s contribution consists in his foregrounding of legal battles over claims to water rights. Rita Schmidt Sudman, executive director of the Water Education Foundation, followed this up in her presentation by addressing contemporary conflicts among agriculatural, environmental and consumer interests regarding Hetch Hetchy. The California Historical Society will be hosting additional upcoming events.

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Filed under California Historical Society