Black History Month is almost over, but highlighting San Francisco’s Black community shouldn’t stop on March 1. Today we’re taking a look at Black leaders, artists, entrepreneurs and cultural influencers who are working year-round to move the City by the Bay forward.
African American Art & Culture Complex
The COVID-19 pandemic may have paused normal programming at the Fillmore’s African American Art & Culture Complex (AAACC), but twin sisters and co-executive directors Melonie and Melorra Green weren’t dissuaded—they transformed the complex’s parking lot into a pop-up open-air gallery. The exhibit, titled “Closer: Six Feet Apart,” is the organization's creative response to the pandemic, and its flow mimics the events of the past year.
"Art pieces focused around isolation were the first iteration,” Melonie said. "As you walk through the exhibit, you'll notice it transforms into pieces about social justice and the uprising of Black folks in America.”
The pop-up gallery was a classic Green sister move. They’ve become so well-known for their contributions to the arts scene in the neighborhood that members of the Fillmore community call them simply “the twins.'' On their shared resume? Helping produce the 2006 San Francisco Black Film Festival as part of a city-wide Juneteenth celebration and co-creating the exhibit “Bring Your Own Art,” which eventually morphed into the week-long festival Independent Artists Week. Now, the AAACC’s massive space on Fulton St. gives the Greens' ample space to host Black art collectives, theater companies, recording artists and dance instructors—or at least, it will, when social distancing is no longer the law of the land. In the meantime, the Greens are doing their best to maintain the community they’ve built.
After all, they’ve been living in and loving the Fillmore for over 20 years, and they’re not going to stop now. The Greens moved to San Francisco from Memphis in 2000, crash-landing in Freedom West with their aunt, who slept on the couch so her nieces could share her bed. Their choice of neighborhood was no accident. After graduating from a historically Black college, the Greens wanted to live in what mid-century San Franciscans called the “Harlem of the West,” a neighborhood whose main commercial corridor once hosted performances by the likes of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Sammy Davis, Jr.
In its heyday, the Fillmore not only brought these legendary musicians together, but also served as a lively commercial hub packed with Black-owned businesses where Black homeowners living in the surrounding areas could gather. But gentrification played a key role in the neighborhood losing its cultural identity. Despite the decline of Black representation in the Fillmore District, there are still local activists who have staked their claim within the community and are not afraid to let it be known to newcomers. Anti-gentrification rallies, community meetings focused on funding resources for Black-led organizations and partnerships with city officials have recently been their focus. “The Fillmore will definitely haze you in,” said Melorra. “You can't just come in here talking about the stuff you're going to do. You've got to prove it.”
SF Black Wallstreet
SF Black Wallstreet wants to build a better San Francisco for Black people.
Last June, amid the pandemic lockdown, Bayview resident and activist Tiffany Carter became fed up with issues around police brutality. She was sick of watching Black businesses struggle, and worried about the mental decline of her community due to the impact of the coronavirus. So she wrote a Facebook post calling on people to come together for Juneteenth at Gilman Park in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. What started as one small idea sparked by injustice morphed into a movement, gaining support from the surrounding community as well as city officials like Mayor London Breed, President of the Board of Supervisors Shamann Walton (District 10) and Supervisor Ahsha Safai (District 11).
The widespread public support for the gathering motivated Carter, along with six friends, to found the organization SF Black Wallstreet with a mission of preserving African American culture in San Francisco. The group’s network of entrepreneurs, community members and cultural influencers works together to promote financial literacy, organize events at Black-owned businesses and partners with the city to advocate for policies that lift up Black communities.
Its proudest achievement yet? Championing the “Good Neighbor Policy.” The policy aims to penalize 311 callers who use the line to file unsubstantiated and malicious reports against Black and brown people. Similar to the recently-passed Caren Act, which pertains only to 911 emergency calls, the policy would go one step further by also protecting Black and brown people from racially-motivated, non-emergency claims.
"We're fighting for equity for our Black businesses and for space and culture,” said co-founder Tinisch Hollins. “We just want to bring our city back, and we want to make sure that folks know that there has always been a Black San Francisco, and there always will be.”
San Francisco African American Art & Cultural District
Ebon Sean Glenn and Ericka Scott just want San Francisco to be Wakanda. And it’s a good thing, because as co-directors of the San Francisco African American Art & Cultural District (SFAAACD), they can actually make it happen. At the direction of Glenn and Scott, local artists Tim Hon, Steve Ha and Jonathan Brumfield recently installed a 40-foot mural featuring the words "Bayview Forever" alongside Marvel's “Black Panther” character and portraits of The Big Five of Bayview—five of the city’s most influential Black women.
Historically, African Americans in San Francisco have been at the mercy of inequitable policies and practices beginning with redlining and urban renewal and continuing with stories of gentrification, health disparities and inequitable treatment by law enforcement. And with the current population of Black San Franciscans straddling just 5%, down from 13.4% in 1970, protecting Black spaces and neighborhoods has become a top priority for community leaders like Glenn and Scott.
“I grew up in San Francisco on the other side in the Fillmore District, which has changed dramatically,” said Scott. “But growing up and coming over to the Bayview, honestly, I always felt like, ‘Wow, why do people have to live like this?’ It was heartbreaking to see people who looked liked me struggling,” she continued. “There's so much historical wrongdoing, so now it's going to take a lot to really change the economic structure of the Bayview and the people who live here and who are from here.”
That’s where the SFAAACD comes in. San Francisco’s 94124 zip code, known as Bayview-Hunters Point, has the largest number of Black residents of any neighborhood in the city. By designating the area as an official cultural district in 2018 and establishing the SFAAACD, the city of San Francisco committed to protecting the area’s heritage and fighting its gentrification. The cultural district designation gives the SFAAACD access to city funding to support small businesses, commission public art installations and administer mini-grants to Black-led nonprofits.
Ultimately, Glenn hopes that initiatives like the cultural district can help “level the playing field” for African Americans across San Francisco.
"I want to see Black people owning homes. I want to see Black folks with jobs in tech. I want to see Black folks playing with their kids at Aquatic Park because that's our land, too,” he says. “I just want to see Wakanda for all intents and purposes. I think that we have the potential and the drive to be that.”
Videos by Sophie Bearman.