San Francisco’s Monument to A Racist Past Hides In Plain Sight

jherman plaza
Justin Herman Plaza badly needs to be renamed.

“There is no moral difference between the facts of life in Birmingham and the facts of life in San Francisco.” -James Baldwin, 1963

For progressive white people who live in liberal northern cities, there’s a persistent myth that racism is something that happens somewhere else and is perpetrated by other people. Racism doesn’t happen in San Francisco, California, it happens in Charlottesville, Virginia. Racism doesn’t come from well-meaning Democrats, it comes from hostile Republicans. It’s a false dichotomy, and it completely ignores the role of systemic racism in perpetuating inequality.

Is a Black person in Virginia more likely to have the N word yelled at them than one in Boston? Perhaps, though it certainly happens in both places. But even if you allow that overt racism might be more common and persistent in southern cities or in rural areas, it’s impossible to deny that the liberal cities of the north spent decades pursuing discriminatory and racist housing and development policies, and have done little if anything to atone for it. In some cases, like Minneapolis, they’re still pursuing them. In the end, does it matter much if your house was burnt down by the KKK in the name of white supremacy or if it was demolished by the Housing Authority in the name of redevelopment? Either way, you’ve lost your home. Either way, your own community has told you that you’re not welcome in it.

While we’ve justly chastised the people and cities that are still holding onto monuments celebrating the Confederacy and segregation (and celebrated the cities that have removed them in the face of outrage and protests from white supremacists), we’ve failed to critically examine or even notice the monuments that celebrate racism in our own backyard. And here in San Francisco, Justin Herman Plaza, one of our most prominent public spaces, is a grand monument to systemic racism.

Fairly well remembered is The City’s history of discrimination against its Chinese population. A direct line can be drawn from the anti-Chinese race riot of 1877 to the first ever Federal law designed to curb immigration, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. To the degree that our city has come to terms with and atoned for the racism aimed at its Chinese residents, it is by and large because of the political capital and social power the Chinese community has amassed here over the decades. Asian residents, with Chinese immigrants and their descendants compromising by far the largest bloc, are now an ethnic plurality here, and within the next decade and a half, will become the outright majority. We have our first Chinese mayor, Ed Lee, and the mayors that recently preceded him, like Gavin Newsom and Willie Brown, owed their place in office in no small part to Rose Pak and the power brokers of Chinatown.

San Francisco’s Chinese history is now lauded and celebrated, and rightly so. But would white San Francisco have ever come to terms with that part of our history if our Chinese community hadn’t become so large and amassed so much collective financial, social and political power? The largely forgotten history of our African American communities seems to indicate otherwise.

There was a time when San Francisco and the Bay Area had the most successful Black population in the entire country. African Americans came from all over the nation to work in the area’s shipyards and armories during World War II. At a time when employers no longer had the luxury of discrimination based on race or gender, they were paid well and generally treated fairly, and they used those earnings to build vibrant communities in the area. Across the bay, West Oakland’s 7th street was a thriving cultural mecca. Here in San Francisco, the Fillmore district was among the most prosperous Black neighborhoods in America, with its collection of Jazz clubs, fine dining, high-end retail and other Black-owned businesses. It was, for a time, the most culturally significant Black community anywhere outside of New York City.

San Francisco had been one of the earliest cities to officially ban racial discrimination and segregation, all the way back in 1860, but in practice this was never really the case, except during those short few years during World War II when the needs of manufacturers for labor exceeded their desire or ability to discriminate against women and minorities. Even then, the tangled web of systemic racism still had a part to play. The Fillmore district was only able to attract so many Black newcomers because the Japanese community that previously filled the neighborhood was subjected to internment in concentration camps for the duration of the war. Regardless, for a brief time, the Fillmore sprung into prominence, a beautiful example of what a Black community could do with hard-earned money and the freedom to invest and spend it. But by the end of the 1950s, this had begun to change.

As the wartime industries shuttered, newly unemployed Black San Franciscans found the old discriminatory hiring practices had returned in full, and with rising unemployment and reduced purchasing power to continue investing in it, the Fillmore neighborhood slowly began to slide into poverty. The urban decay was heightened, in San Francisco as in so many other cities, as wealthy white residents began to flee these cities for their suburbs. Between 1950 and 1980, The City shed 100,000 residents. And as in so many other cities, San Francisco’s response to the ongoing urban crisis was not to invest in these neighborhoods and impoverished communities, but to tear them down and displace their minority residents in hopes that whites would return. They did not, and by and large, these renewal and redevelopment plans ended in disaster.

For San Francisco, the architect of all this was Justin Herman, head of the SF Redevelopment Agency from 1959 until his death in 1971. During his time in the role, he oversaw the demolition of almost the entire Fillmore district. Hundreds of old Victorian homes and businesses were demolished, first to make room for the planned widening of Geary Boulevard, for which alone 461 Black-owned businesses and over 4,000 black families were evicted, and thereafter, to carve out large blocs for vague future development. But as The City’s population continued to decline and unemployment continued to rise, it eroded the municipal tax base, and there was no money for any of these planned developments. Vacant lots created by the Fillmore’s destruction sat empty for years, and in some cases, decades. The result was the de facto exile of San Francisco’s black population, which in the postwar years had grown to make up as much of 13% of The City, at the time larger even than The City’s Asian community. It now stands at just north of 5%, which is the lowest percentage of African American residents in any major American city, north or south, east or west.

Justin Herman was not a well-intentioned man whose policies ended in accidental disaster. Prior to leading the SFRA, he spent a decade as the head of the Housing and Home Finance Agency, under whose leadership the agency specifically denied access to housing and loans to Black residents, except in the outlying areas of the Bayview and Hunter’s Point. These housing and banking policies were explicitly designed to segregate the black population into specific, less desirable neighborhoods, and they largely succeeded. Herman’s personal and professional history is long and ugly, and deserves a much more thorough retelling than I’m getting to here, but in the end, he achieved his goal of crushing the Black communities in the heart of San Francisco. Hannibal Williams, onetime spokesperson for the Western Addition Community Organization, summed up his legacy succinctly. “We didn’t know who the devil was. But we knew who Justin Herman was and that was the devil for us.”

So how has tolerant, liberal, progressive San Francisco come to terms with this ugly piece of our past? By naming our most scenic and significant public plaza after Herman, and handing out an annual award for business development named in his honor. Justin Herman Plaza sits across the Embarcadero from the Ferry Building, and aside from the name, is the type of civic space any city would be happy to have. It is long past time it got a name befitting its beauty.

The few attempts at renaming the plaza through the years have failed to gain traction, even though the total cost for the name change is estimated at a paltry $5200. If you’re a San Francisco resident, I urge you to contact your member of the Board of Supervisors and let them know you want it renamed. The best proposal I’ve seen would rechristen it Maya Angelou Plaza, well known for her celebrated career as poet and activist, but mostly forgotten as San Francisco’s first black female streetcar operator.

The amount of collective effort that it would take to rename Justin Herman Plaza is small. The amount of money it would cost is even smaller, less than 2 months rent for an average SF 1-bedroom apartment. At a time when so many of us are demanding that monuments to racism be removed in other cities, it is vitally important that we take the steps to do so in our own city.  San Francisco’s Chinese community has reminded us of our sins and forced us to face them by their presence. In the case of San Francisco’s African American community, it is largely their absence that should speak to us. Will we confront this part of our history, or will we continue to ignore it and keep pretending that racism and monuments to it are only something that exists in somebody else’s backyard? San Francisco is, rightly or wrongly, held up as the nation’s best example of tolerance and progressive politics. We can live up to that standard, admit our mistakes, learn, grow from them and refuse to repeat them, or we can continue to ignore our history, safe in the comforting thought that we’re good white folks in a liberal city. The choice is ours.

-by Harrison Anderson

39 thoughts on “San Francisco’s Monument to A Racist Past Hides In Plain Sight”

  1. Isn’t it odd how you never question why something or someone gets honored? I had no idea who Justin Herman was.

  2. Not to to take anything from Ms. Maya Angelo but the San Francisco Street Artists were at that location when no-one wanted to be there, back in 1971 when it was called the Embarcadero Plaza. Ms. Angelo already has many libraries, dorms and halls named after her. If anything, since she was the first Black female streetcar operator I would think either a Cable Car or Cable Car Stop named in her honor would be appropriate. In addition, if the history of the sins of the Redevelopment Agency are to be highlighted it should be done in the Fillmore District where the event occurred. With maps, photos and drawings so people will have a better understanding of what happen in that very location. There is no connection between Ms. Angelo and the Plaza. Whereas there is direct and over 45 year longstanding connection between the Plaza and the San Francisco Street Artists.

    Go to:

    When changed, the name should be changed to the San Francisco Street Artists Plaza.

    Thank you,

    Michael Addario
    Photography / Film / San Francisco Street Artist

  3. How about Mary Pleasant? She did possibly more than anyone for the San Francisco black community – and this was in the 1800s!

  4. Thank you for the history lesson! I’m in favor of a name change and feel the Bay Area African American community should nominate replacements as they were the ones targeted and displaced by JH.

  5. Thank you for piece….can you tell if anyone is actively trying to change the name ? My friend and I were thinking of a gofundme page but don’t want to duplicate efforts and like to support any effort to do so.

    1. Yes, we are meeting with the San Francisco Authorities this week and met with some last week. A group San Francisco citizens started the petition to the “Recreation & Parks Commission and Board of Supervisors: San Francisco “Please Rename the Justin Herman Plaza to The David Johnson Plaza” and I want to see if you and your friends could help by adding your name.
      You can read more and sign the petition here:
      Barbara Thompson

      1. Sorry, just getting back to you. Fantastic..will take a look at that website and share with my friend.

        1. Enough with the male centric practice! How about we assign ALL name changes to women until we have 51% (out population) of monuments, streets, etc. named after women?

  6. Pleasant Plaza…then take down that pile of construction waste they call a fountain and put in a beautiful fountain we all can enjoy!

  7. I didn’t know that about Justin Herman, and would be in favor of renaming it. Incidentally, assuming racism is only in the south is not an example of a “false dichotomy.” It means falsely asserting things are either one way or another, when a 3rd way is possible, or the first two things can both be true. Besides that, decent aricle.

  8. Great read. Omg this was straight fire. A lot of the streets in San Francisco were named after racists. Sir Francis Drake was a slaver. Juniperro Serra and all the other Saints were part of the destruction of the Ohlone, Miwoks, and Wappo tribe members. Etc. Etc. I’ve talked about covert racism on San Francisco on my blog as well. If you’d like you can check it out right here..

    Thank you for blessing us with this knowledge

  9. Believing the racism is a southern issue really is white thinking. Anywhere there are we Black people there is RACISM.

  10. One of the problems is that the Bay Area has numerous streets, buildings, and parks named after people who were racist, sexist, or otherwise less than enlightened. Justin Herman is one example – and one whose name isn’t that well known.
    What about some others?
    Father Junipero Serra was a significant historical figure who established the California missions. He was also incredibly cruel to California Indians who were enslaved and beaten.
    Leland Stanford, as part owner of the Central Pacific Railroad, employed Chinese workers. He would later rail against Chinese like George Wallace railing against African-Americans.
    Jack London was a magnificent writer and a champion of the working class. He was also a vile racist.

  11. Great piece! Redlining and segregationalist housing policies need our critical attention. One editorial typo; in paragraph 4, compromising should be comprising.

  12. An important article helping us understand our past. I agree that Ms. Angelou has plenty of buildings named after her. How about having people submit names of important women (yes, women as there are plenty of male names accross the City) of color who made contributions to the City.

  13. Justin Herman plaza aka Embarcadero aka Embarco aka EMB, was the most diverse place in Frisco for kids back in the late 80s to the mid 90s. And it was because of the beautiful mixed culture of skateboarding. I was there almost every day skating and it was like the Hollywood of skating in the 90s. People came from all over trying to get sponsored etc, just like an actor goes to Hollywood trying to get noticed for a tv show or movie. Anyway, we had every race skating and having fun, just hella dudes being kids hanginout at EMB, even a deaf kid we called DefJam used to chill sometimes. Well anyway, just wanted to give a little fyi history lesson about the Justin Herman plaza.

  14. How about a Native American trible figure? Or,…..possibly, the last Mexican Alcade, after all it was Yerba Buena before it was taken over and renamed San Francisco?? Or, are Mexicans too foreign????

  15. More to read on redlining and gentrification: The Color of Law, A forgotten history of how our government segregated America, by Richard Rothstein. with a review by David Oshinsky in The New York Times Book Review, June 25, 2017. My sister was a member of a group in Chicago that “outed” redlining on the Westside of Chicago by sending white people to rent apartments after African-Americans were told the apartments were not available. The group helped to win a legal case against the real estate industry, but racism in housing continues, as it has in education, healthcare, and the workplace. Here’s to those who are fighting back!

  16. Next to Justin Herman Plaza is a memorial to the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War that killed thousands of priests and nuns. Tear it down!!

    1. I’m sure that’s *why* there’s a memorial to them. “Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” – Denis Diderot

  17. “Thousands of units of affordable housing have been developed, and there has been lots
    of investment and economic development but none of that has been able to make up for
    the tremendous sense of loss the people who lived in the Western Addition feel in terms
    of the cultural fabric.”
    -Fred Blackwell
    Urban renewal irrevocably transformed the physical, social, and economic landscape of the
    Western Addition. While some observers attribute the flight of African Americans from the city
    directly to the destruction of the Fillmore during the 1960s, the rate of out-migration has actually
    increased since 1990. The complex challenges facing low-income families in San Francisco—
    e.g., the short supply of affordable housing, the scarcity of blue-collar employment opportunities,
    and an inadequate public education system—have likely done far more to drive African
    Americans from the city than has the legacy of urban renewal

  18. Why not name it after about Donaldina Cameron who rescued all the endentured Chinese girls in Chinatown at the turn of the century??? ANYONE but another man.

  19. Lets not forget about James D Phelan, banker, philanthropist, politician, mayor of San Francisco and U.S. Senator representing California, James D. Phelan (1861–1930). Phelan made the exclusions Japanese immigrants one of the centerpieces of his senate reelection campaign with the campaign slogan “Keep California White.” Phelan also supported alien land law legislation in 1913. His home was the Villa Montalvo mansion and he was active in the San Francisco arts and social scene.
    I am aghast when Montalvo has art functions and has a lifesize cutout of Phelan visitors can pose with. If everyone only knew the history of his politics, but Montalvo fails to come clean.
    Then there’s the San Francisco Foundation James D Phelan Art awards….sigh.
    Link about his history:

  20. Development plans are often used to mask racist motives. Slow growth or no growth initiatives are used to mask, “we don’t want those people in our neighborhood,” motives.

  21. This blog is so timely for us: A group of San Francisco citizens started the petition to the “Recreation & Parks Commission and Board of Supervisors: San Francisco “Please Rename the Justin Herman Plaza to The David Johnson Plaza” and I want to see if you and your friends could help by adding your name.
    Our goal is to reach 500 signatures and we need more support. You can read more and sign the petition here:
    BECAUSE ….
    1) David’s role in desegregating the SF Unified school system in the landmark lawsuit 1969 Johnson vs SF Unified that resulted in SF school children of any race, religion or creed having access to any school in the district. It was a distinct moment in history that pushed SF to more racially progressive values in the highly segregated realm of public education.
    • Article:
    • Johnson vs SF Unified:
    2) David was a successful small business owner of a photography studio on Divisadero; a candidate for Office San Francisco Sheriff; appointed Chairman of Mayor’s Committee to Restore the Haight-Ashbury, by Mayor Joseph Alioto; appointed to the San Francisco Manpower Planning Council by Mayor George Moscone, Politically he was a contemporary of Willie Brown and Carlton B Goodlett.
    3) David was the President of the National Alliance of Postal Employees and President of the African-American Historical and Cultural Society and a founding member of the Black Caucus organization at the University of California Medical Center.
    4) David was the first African America to study with Ansel Adams in his first photography class at the SF Institute of art, and he studied with photographer greats like Imogene Cunningham, Dorothea Lange and Minor White. He is a well regarded photographer and Civil Rights documentarian who has a collection of historic documentation of the Fillmore district in its Jazz heyday. You can see his most famous photograph in the restaurant 1300 Fillmore. The Bancroft Library at University California Berkeley recently acquired his collection.
    5) David belongs to the greatest generation and is a WWII veteran.
    6) Two of his children, his daughter in law and a step daughter reside in and work for the city. He has created a legacy of service that lasts generations.
    7) David is a living treasure that represents the unsung heroism of African-American San Franciscans who contributed to the greatness of SF with lasting results. At nearly 91, he still speaks publically, shows his work and remains politically active and has advocated for the passage of Laura’s Law.
    Film Actor Danny Glover and David Johnson
    At the San Francisco Black Film Festival in June 2017, Actor Danny Glover said
    “This man is more than just a photographer, in this community he along with my father, worked together for the betterment of the people, not only did they do this, they were role models and mentors to the young men here…”

  22. Danny Glover? Ask him about the beating of the newspaper editor during the SF State strike.

  23. I agree this person’s name should not be attached to anything. SF should have a clear policy and deliberative protocol on naming streets, plazas and buildings to avoid naming things in a rush that are regretted later. When Geoge Moscone was murdered in a political revenge killing, there was a mad rush to name everything after him. Today it is a mad rush to name everything after Mya Angelou. A person’s name should not be used until after the person has been dead for a period such as 20 or 50 years. Standards for selection might include the person’s established long term positive impact on the City, the contribution made by selflessly helping others, etc. I suggest someone like Jonas Salk for the polio cure. After the passage of time it might be a deceased scientist, comedian, athlete, educator, musician, writer. In the SF tradition of honoring folks we might just put it out to bid.

    1. We wouldn’t have gotten the Robin Williams Tunnel with your rules. Anyway, it sounds like a committee is warranted; please complete the by-laws and circulate for review.

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