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Section title is "Harlem of the West." Image: Two African American musicians are playing saxophones and one is playing trumpet. Photo by Steven Jackson Jr., kindly donated by Pam Jackson.

Photo by Steven Jackson Jr., kindly donated by Pam Jackson.

During the Gold Rush of the 1840s - 1860s, hundreds of African Americans and people of African descent were drawn to San Francisco, and many settled in the northern edge of Chinatown. The earthquake and resulting fire in 1906 caused them to disperse either across the bay or to the new residential enclave of the Western Addition.


During World War II, Executive Order #8802 banned discrimination of defense industry workers and contributed to a 797 percent increase in the Black population in San Francisco, which represented 5.6% of the City’s total population by 1945. However, African Americans were subjected to restrictive covenants in higher-status areas of the city, preventing them from renting or owning homes outside of where they had initially settled. Out of the five public housing projects that were built by 1943, The Westside Courts was the only public housing developed in the Western Addition that accepted Black tenants. 

As the African American community began planting roots in the Western Addition in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, the Fillmore neighborhood became a thriving business district with numerous successful Black-owned businesses. “The Harlem of the West” in the Fillmore area generated a popular night life with booming jazz nightclubs and performances.


Wesley Johnson Sr. and his staff behind the bar of the Texas Playhouse, 1836 Fillmore Street, mid-1950s. Wesley Johnson Jr. Collection. Kindly donated by Holly Johnson Friar.

The Urban Renewal 

In 1948, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) deemed the Western Addition to be “blighted” and planned the first large scale, two-phase urban redevelopment. The first phase, which included demolition of entire blocks of homes and buildings, completed in 1973 cut the neighborhood population almost in half and over 850 businesses, mostly black-owned, were shut down. A much larger scale prolongated second phase was completed in the early 2000s. 


With its proximity to the Western Addition, the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood became a refuge for residents pushed out by the urban renewal projects. From being over 70 percent White from 1940-1960, the demographics shifted to a peak of 33% Black by 1970, and Black musicians began taking on the newly popular Rock n Roll in the 1960s and the Disco in the 1970s. But by 1970, Mayor Alioto’s “Restore the Haight” effort to curb the so-called rise in crime and drugs led the property values in the Haight to skyrocket and displace many African Americans, reducing their representation to under 20% by 1980. 


Buildings being wrecked in Western Addition to make room for 608 public housing low rental units. This demolition work is in a block bounded by Turk, Eddy, Laguna, and Buchanan Streets. Image courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.


  1. Daniels, Douglas H. Pioneer Urbanites. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990

  2. Broussard, Albert S. Black San Francisco. Lawrence, KS: 1993.

  3. Kamiya, Gary.  “The Losing Fight for Integration in SF’s First Housing Projects”, San Francisco Chronicle, August 5, 2016.

  4. Pepin, Elizabeth and Lewis Watts. Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006.

  5. Dundon, Rian, “Gorgeous photos from the ‘Harlem of the West’ show the glory days of the San Francisco jazz scene”, The Timeline, May 16, 2017,

  6. Sam Lefebvre, “Without Charles Sullivan, There’d Be No Fillmore As We Know It”, KQED, June 14, 2017.

  7. Tim Kelley Consulting, The Alfred Williams Consultancy, VerPlanck Historic Preservation Consulting, San Francisco Planning Department. “African American Citywide Historic Context Statement” [Final Draft]. Prepared for the City and County of San Francisco. January, 2016.

  8. Godfrey, Brian J. Neighborhoods in Transition. Berkeley: UC Press, 1988

Learn more

Below: Fillmore & Geary Streets, 1956. View east on Geary from Fillmore to approaching MUNI B-line #97. Virtually every building in this view was demolished for redevelopment. OpenSFHistory / wnp67.0605

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