San Francisco's Black population is less than 5 percent, exodus has been steady

For the past 50 years, there’s been an exodus of African Americans from San Francisco to the suburbs. At that time, thousands of homes and businesses were demolished in the Fillmore neighborhood as part of an urban renewal project.

In the Fillmore District, Brionna Domingue, a beauty salon owner, said she sees signs of the “black exodus” from San Francisco all around her.

"I'm born and raised here, so, I go from seeing this whole area, full of people that I grew up with and loved to...they're all the way out in the East Bay and beyond,” says Domingue. "This block is pretty much one of the last standing blocks to have black-owned businesses on them."

This public housing project in the Western Addition is now privatized. It used to be where Doug Parrish based his company, Red Dipper, an alternative energy company, until he says the new owners forced him and other black businesses to leave.

“People come here, like, the Super Bowl we had here: ‘Where are the black people?’ Well, they used to be in the Fillmore, but now they're gone!" he said.

Fred Jordan, head of the African American Chamber of Commerce, told me that racism and urban renewal are the reasons African Americans leave San Francisco.

"They pushed 50,000 African Americans out of San Francisco," says Jordan.

Even Willie Brown, the iconic former San Francisco mayor, says the black exodus is not a myth.

“No, it's not a myth. It's a reality. When I first ran for public office more than 40 years ago, the African American population was about 13 percent, or 90,000. Today it's under 5 percent and they have left town in droves," he said.

So where did African Americans migrate to? Places like Oakland, Richmond, Vallejo, Berkeley, and Sacramento to name a few.

The Fillmore Heritage Center used to be here on Fillmore Street, but now, the center is gone. That’s heartbreaking news for the Fillmore District, rich in so much black history.

“They called that the ‘Harlem of the West’. I mean, they had jazz clubs; they had 29 jazz clubs and supper clubs on Fillmore.  They had 180 businesses. I mean, it was one of the most prosperous areas in the country, but it was like the hood, like Harlem,” Jordan explained. 

"There was a viable, wonderful African American population in every way. We had three hotels in the Fillmore. We had, probably, 15 to 20 bars, with music facilities in them in the Fillmore,” said former Mayor Brown.

KTVU’s Dave Clark said one of the toughest things about doing this story about ‘What happened to the Fillmore District?’, is that a lot of the Fillmore District is gone.

In 1940, San Francisco’s black population was around 4,800. By 1970 it was 96,000. Today in 2016, it’s about 46,000 (less than 5 percent).

"We began to think: ‘Where do we go to find some other places to live? Let's go to Richmond. Let's go to Vallejo. Let's go to Oakland.’ And we began to migrate to those places. You could see it, David. As the churches began to have a reduced number of people on Sunday,” said Brown. “Suddenly, redevelopment started, and when re-development started, the first thing they did was get us out! They called it ‘urban renewal’. No. It was ‘urban removal’, and, literally, we began to float out."

This large, beautiful San Francisco home is still owned by Kenneth Watson and his family, he has no plans to leave, but his friends are moving out all the time.

“Most minorities are being moved out of here. Prices have been raised. A lot of them had property here that their families left, but, for whatever reason, they thought the grass was greener somewhere else and now, a lot of them want to come back, and they can't afford to come back,” Watson said.

Doug Parrish says small and minority-owned businesses like his are not treated fairly and the city’s rules are different for them.

“There's like, less than 5 percent of us in San Francisco. I mean, how can you say that you're a city of diversity and inclusion when you have these challenges? Gentrification takes place when these huge corporations come in, and technology companies are not hiring us. They are not hiring us!" said Parrish.

For one resident, April Harrison, it’s hard to stay positive and not be discouraged.

"Rent is high around here. It's hard for people to live in the city and over in the district,” she said.
The exodus of African Americans out of San Francisco has been dramatic and has been steady and it’s still happening as we speak. The big question is, can it be reversed?

“We know that there is a real need to make it more comfortable for African Americans to live here and there is some light, frankly, at the end of the tunnel,” said Brown.