African Americans in San Francisco and Oakland

Michael Cheers

There are stacks of tomes about the Second Great Migration of African Americans who trekked from southern and northern U.S. cities to California in the early 1940s. Isabel Wilkerson’s exhaustively-researched book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, is arguably the best. The Golden State held promise for these explorers, who sought better weather climates and refuge from southern racism and northern segregation. Blacks migrating North thought that escaping the cotton-picking industry and lynchings would be better, but instead found discriminatory housing laws and meager weekly wages from jobs as cooks, dishwashers, maids, janitors and railroad porters. The California sun drew them to better paying unskilled and skilled jobs in the U.S. defense industry in the Bay Area. In the 1960s many blacks with degrees from mostly historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) found white-collar employment with companies like IBM and other tech companies in the fledgling Silicon Valley. Fast forward to the 21st century. African Americans in San Francisco and Oakland are now challenged by high housing costs that are driving them in droves from their homes, culture, neighborhoods, and businesses to less expensive parts of the state, or out of California altogether. The African American population in San Francisco is below 6 percent and Oakland’s black population has dropped 25 percent in recent years. If current trends continue, according to an article in the Guardian newspaper, the black population in Oakland could fall to 16 percent over the next decade. In this photo essay, the author samples a few African American institutions that are emblematic of the state of African Americans in San Francisco and Oakland.


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