Fernay McPherson celebrated Juneteenth every summer. As a young girl growing up in San Francisco’s Fillmore District, she didn’t yet understand what it represented, but she knew it was the one day each year she could get away with consuming all the barbecue and strawberry soda she could stomach.
“Juneteenth always meant community for me,” she said. “It was just a day full of positive energy.”
As she grew older, McPherson learned of the day’s significance. It was bittersweet.
Her mother hails from Port Arthur, Texas, a couple hours from Galveston, where federal troops arrived in 1865 to tell the state’s enslaved people they were free — more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Though it’s been a centerpiece of Black culture in America for more than a century, Juneteenth — and the acknowledgement of slavery’s lasting impact on people of color in this country — has long been overlooked by many.
President Joe Biden declared Juneteenth a federal holiday earlier this week. Mayor London Breed followed suit by proclaiming it an official city holiday.
“Honestly, I’m angry. The fact that we’ve had to have so much more bloodshed in order to make this a holiday,” McPherson said of how long it had taken. “This is a system that continues to happen.”
It will require more than closing businesses and hosting celebrations to even begin to rectify the harm caused by slavery and the subsequent generations of segregationist policies levied at Black Americans.
Reparations could be a start.
The Board of Supervisors approved members of the 15-person African American Reparations Advisory Committee last month, a body created as a result of legislation introduced by Supervisor Shamann Walton in January 2020.
Members will take roughly two years to craft a series of recommendations designed to rectify the lasting impacts of slavery, segregation and other discriminatory policies on the descendants of enslaved people here in San Francisco. Much of it will be rooted in feedback from community members.
“Reparations has been a top priority of my office,” Walton said in an email. “We have to right the wrongs of history where the Black community was exploited to build the foundation of this country.”
‘Erasing Black folks’
Many Black people arrived in San Francisco during World War II. They sought both shipyard jobs and escape from the racist South.
The federal government lured them with housing projects — albeit segregated — in distinct parts of The City they could call their own, including the Fillmore District.
“I call it Black people seeking asylum,” said Shani Jones, whose father came to San Francisco from New Orleans in the 1960s.
Neighborhoods such as the Fillmore became pillars of Black culture and opportunity, replete with Black-owned businesses and houses, as well as arts and civic institutions. It didn’t last long.
Federal redevelopment efforts dating back to the early 1970s demolished their homes and their businesses. Many Black folks who could stick around moved to Bayview-Hunters Point, but divestment, further redlining and predatory lending left the community vulnerable, often isolated from jobs, health care and other opportunities.
James L. Taylor, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and a reparations committee member, calls the extended period of out-migration that began in the seventies the “Black Removal.”
At its peak, about 13.4 percent percent of The City’s population was Black. Now, it’s around 5 percent.
“There’s been a lot that has happened that was very intentional around erasing Black folks, moving Black folks or keeping them in certain communities,” said Tinisch Hollins, also a member of the committee and executive director of criminal justice nonprofit Californians for Safety and Justice.
McPherson, a third generation resident of the Fillmore, recalls stories from family members about her neighborhood as the Harlem of the West. Black-owned businesses lined the streets, cafes on the corner served up cultural dishes and music venues and art galleries invited residents.
Much of that had been forced out by the time she was a teenager.
As an adult, McPherson wanted to reclaim the space.
How? In the form of a restaurant that would serve the dishes many of her neighbors grew up eating, things like rosemary fried chicken, collard greens and cornbread.
“My goal was to be in the neighborhood that I grew up in, a neighborhood that was so rich in African-American businesses and to have a slice of what it represented before,” she said. “But that still has not happened.”
McPherson said steep capital costs coupled with what she perceived to be a “lack of faith” in a Black woman running a business in San Francisco led her to open up her restaurant, Minnie Bell’s Soul Movement, in Emeryville instead.
“It’s very hurtful to see other people come into your community and open up a business just like that,” she said. “I can’t be in it myself when I’m working so hard to do that.”
‘Access to attain wealth’
Those who have remained are finding it harder and harder to survive.
The average median income of a Black household in San Francisco is about $31,000. That’s compared to roughly $110,000 for white families, the most recently available census data shows.
Addressing this wealth gap needs to be a top priority of any reparations package, according to advocates.
That can — and should — come in the form of direct cash payments, they said, because more dollars can lead to a positive trickle-down effect and provide access to more resources.
It should also involve changes to the systems that have long kept Black people from building wealth, the kind that doesn’t just benefit a single household but that can be passed down between generations.
“Every system benefits from the disenfranchisement of Black and Brown folks in our city,” said Hollins, a Bayview-Hunters Point native and co-founder of SF Black Wall Street, a nonprofit born out of the pandemic to support Black residents.
This could mean providing financial assistance for first-time Black homebuyers, giving capital support for Black business owners looking to open a brick-and-mortar location or protecting people from the kind of “911 Karen calls” that have become far too commonplace, advocates suggest.
It could also mean reallocating city funds from policing, for example, toward programs operating within the Black community to support workforce development, youth development and health.
Breed’s $120 million Dreamkeeper Initiative in her most recent budget proposal starts down this path, but multiple people told The Examiner that more sweeping action would be needed to help Black families in San Francisco build long-term wealth.
An equitable housing policy — the kind that doesn’t just put a roof over a person’s head, but rather makes high-quality, well-resourced housing accessible that really allows a family to thrive — should also be central to any reparations package, multiple people told The Examiner.
A Black person is more likely to experience homelessness. They account for about 37 percent of The City’s entire homeless population, as of The City’s recent point-in-time count.
“The lack of home ownership is appalling,” said Joi Jackson Morgan, executive director of 3rd Street Youth Center and Clinic in the Bayview, regarding the difficulties Black residents face in purchasing houses of their own. “It shows up in a variety of ways, and it just continues to cycle.”
She suggests down payment assistance and long-term eviction protection as good starting points.
Jones, who owns a restaurant, says that aspiring Black business owners face obstacles foreign to many of their white counterparts. Because Black families in San Francisco are often excluded from employment, housing and educational opportunities, they’re unable to build the same kind of generational wealth that affords them the chances to climb up the economic ladder.
She runs Peaches Patties, inspired by the Jamaican home cooking of her mother, out of a food hall, in part because she can’t make the finances work to open up her own storefront.
“I think there should definitely be that access to attain wealth,” Jones said of a reparations package.
The very nature of this reparations effort is retroactive, an attempt to remedy past harm. Truly restorative justice will require permanent and authentic change moving forward that’s responsive to the lived needs of the community.
That starts with how we teach the history of Black people in America and in San Francisco, many say.
After George Floyd was murdered in May 2020, many demonstrators zeroed in on the idea of who we commemorate in our history as heroes — whether that be through public art, the naming of buildings or in our textbooks.
Statues were torn down in public spaces across the country. One of them was in Golden Gate Park.
A sculptural rendering of Francis Scott Key, a slave owner who wrote the national anthem, was toppled by demonstrators one year ago. On Friday, city officials unveiled 350 new sculptures that represent the first Africans captured and transported to this country to be exploited as chattel labor.
Titled “Monumental Reckoning,” the installation by artist Dana King seeks to challenge the traditional narrative of our history and provide an alternative to who — and what — we lift up with our public art.
“We really want people, in a delicate and unapologetic way, to feel different and be reminded that, yes, there are Black people here. And, yes, there are Black people under the feet of powerful institutions and people,” a spokesperson for the installation said.
San Francisco wouldn’t be the first place to provide reparations. Evanston, Ill. made headlines in March when it approved a program that would grant qualifying households up to $25,000 for down payments or home repairs. This was widely considered to be the first program of its kind enacted in the country.
Other cities are considering or have already committed to modest funding for reparations committees, a direct response to the racial reckoning that reverberated throughout the nation last year.
However, Taylor believes San Francisco has the potential to lay the groundwork for how this could look in major cities nationally, given its history as an early adopter of social change on issues such as marriage equality or the legalization of marijuana.
“If there’s any place we can do it, it’s San Francisco,” he said. “We have to say we have given up on defending racism, and we are now willing to rewrite our told history.”
Progressive history aside, reparations to Black San Franciscans might be readily embraced as a concept by many, but making that transition from virtue signaling to crafting and approving policy that could redistribute wealth and opportunity is a whole different story.
“You have to not just have an aspiration, but you have to literally win over the neighborhoods and persuade major stakeholders of The City that this is a policy that will benefit all of San Francisco,” Taylor said. “The white population has to be persuaded politically that it is in its best interest to elevate the Black community.”