In 1963, prescient author and scholar James Baldwin declared that Bayview-Hunters Point was “the San Francisco Americans pretend does not exist.” But beyond its reputation for government neglect, contaminated environmental conditions, gang and police murders and, more recently, gentrification, the neighborhood remains home to thousands of working families, including Mary and Willie Ratcliff. For more than 25 years, the couple has published the Bay View, an internationally read black newspaper, treasured independent news source and one of the few publications to be widely distributed both outside and inside the walls of America’s prison nation.
“I’d always had an interest in prison issues but didn‘t know much about them,” said Mary, who took the helm as editor in 1992. “On our very first route, we dropped papers at the jail. It was a big success at 850 Bryant, back when mass incarceration was beginning and everyone was going to state prison out of the jail — they weren’t going home, they were going to prison — and they took the paper with them.
“We started getting letters,” she continued. “And commentary. Brilliant political commentary. So we started to publish that, and [inmates] started sending more, stories about their own cases and confinement and solitary and all the tortures they had to survive. … We weren’t saying anything, they were, we were just publishing.”
On Aug. 12, 2012, the prisoner-penned “Agreement to End Hostilities” — which originated at Pelican Bay State Prison and called on inmates throughout California to settle all disputes in a diplomatic manner — changed conditions inside the system. And reports on prisoner hunger strikes across the state in 2011 and 2013 resulted in defined limits on solitary confinement in California.
“That’s when we decided to start publishing a much bigger paper,” said Mary, who oversees the monthly print production of its 24 densely-packed pages and daily news updates to the website.
“We woke up the prisoners,” added Willie, a contractor by trade who acquired the paper as a vehicle to make change. From the get-go, his editorials concerned police brutality, disproportionate incarceration rates for African Americans and The City’s unjust housing practices — set in motion by the long-beleaguered and now-defunct Redevelopment Agency — resulting in thousands of black residents citywide losing their homes. Of course, these matters remain topical more than 25 years since the Ratcliffs began publishing their nuanced and in-depth reports on black lives.
Founded in 1976 with an eye on local, black-owned businesses, the Bay View continues to cover news and the arts scene of the Bayview and the Bay Area, alongside topical stories on human rights issues and a column by Mumia Abu-Jamal. The January edition featured a piece on net neutrality by hip hop journalist and broadcaster Davey D; a remembrance of Keita “Icky” O’Neill, who was fatally shot by a San Francisco police officer in December; and a rundown of the feud between public intellectuals Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West.
However, the Bay View and Mary and Willie — now in their 70s and 80s, respectively — are at a new crossroads: Their senior status, combined with the outmigration of San Francisco’s black population, means fewer black businesses are advertising, and revenues are down.
Leroy F. Moore, Jr., an author and worldwide disability rights activist who was first published in the Bay View in the 1990s, stressed the newspaper’s value. “I can’t think about what life would be without the San Francisco Bay View newspaper,” he said, “especially for the next generation of black disabled youth and young adults.”
The paper’s future is unwritten, though ideas on the table to help sustain it include association with an educational or cultural institution and the formation of a co-op.
“It has been my honor to work with, alongside and in community with this beautiful family,” said Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia, a revolutionary journalist and co-founder of POOR Magazine/PoorNewsNetwork who frequently contributes to the Bay View, “they cannot close — we could not make it without this portal of real journalism.”
A generous gift from a reader in England paid some of the production costs for the January and February editions.
“Some of the strongest supporters of black prisoners in the U.S. are from Europe,” explained Mary. “But rather than Willie and me appealing to keep the Bay View going, we need a younger person to lead. We have wonderful volunteers, but we’d love to pay a staff.”
“People need to be paid, especially in the Bay Area,” echoed Willie, who first arrived in Hunters Point in the 1940s.
Hailing from East Liberty, Texas, a land-owning farming community, Willie was a teenage husband and father when he came West seeking work in the shipyards, among the few places at the time an African-American male could find a job in San Francisco. Dissatisfied with his 99 cents an hour, he heard about building trade opportunities in Alaska, where they were paying three times his wage.
“I saw people coming straight off the plane, and as long as they were white, they’d get the job,” remembered Willie, who picketed the job site and was employed soon after. Becoming one of the most active and successful builders in the Anchorage and Valdez areas, he went on to chair the state commission on human rights, advocating for black workers, the native population and women, all of whom were seeking jobs on the pipeline.
Mary, originally from Kodiak Island, was president of her local chapter of the National Organization of Women, waging campaigns for equal employment opportunities and day care assistance; her program was awarded millions in funding and still functions. She was also interested in race matters.
“I read the biography of Frederick Douglass when I was 8 and memorized parts of it,” she said.
Upon first meeting, Mary and Willie vigorously debated gender and racial equality; by her own admission, she knew nothing of lived black experience until they met and eventually fell in love. Together, they ran campaigns for public office: Willie for state Senate, and Mary for the Alaska House.
“It was widely acknowledged Alaska had the most aggressive human rights commission in the country,” said Mary. “Willie insisted on a very strong legal component and hired some of the best lawyers. I’ll never forget when we came here to San Francisco, and we could see some the of problems we’d been familiar with in Alaska and we wanted to solve them.
“We asked around, ‘Why doesn’t anyone from the human rights commission sue the city if things aren’t being done properly?’” she continued. “And people looked at us like we were insane. ‘You can’t sue the agency that funds you,’ they’d say, but Willie did it in Alaska all the time — and he won!”
They’d come here so Mary could attend law school (she graduated from Golden Gate University and passed the bar); the plan was to open a restaurant, run Willie’s construction business and publish the newspaper. But as in Alaska, Willie and his fellow black contractors were up against an entrenched system of racism: Over the years he’s been “starved out of business,” and repeatedly passed over for contracts. And yet, his and Mary’s outlook for the possibility of true liberation for all people and the next edition of the Bay View remains undimmed.
“I used to work around the clock and I can’t do that anymore. I’m not able to keep up with the workload,” Mary admitted. “But I’ve gotten better and better as time goes on at keeping healthy. That’s my biggest asset. I’m going to stay healthy and strong.”
As for Willie, “I have some irons in the fire,” he said. “I was born with irons in the fire.”
A crowdfunding campaign to keep the Bay View in print is currently in progress.
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with clarifications on why Willie Ratcliff sought employment in Alaska and on Mary Ratcliff’s comments on Alaska’s human rights commission.