Housing Discrimination in “The City”
In the summer of 1957, Major League Baseball’s New York Giants announced they were moving their acclaimed club to San Francisco. Willie Mays, then a 26-year-old star with the Giants, and the 1954 National League MVP, set out to embrace his new home.
“You have to realize that in 1957, when the Giants moved to San Francisco, baseball was literally the national pastime, it was the number one sport,” said Dr. Harry Edwards, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at University of California, Berkeley. “You had the greatest player (Willie Mays), the hero of the 1954 World Series as part of that team and without him, the Giants don’t move to San Francisco. He had to sign off on that.”
In New York City, Mays was a neighborhood icon well known for his community involvement with kids. He played stickball in the streets with local teenagers, treated entire city blocks to ice cream and welcomed youngsters to drop by his house on birthdays and holidays, particularly Halloween. Willie, and his wife Marghuerite, hoped to find a comparably welcoming neighborhood when they moved to the west coast.
While looking at housing options in San Francisco the couple settled on a beautiful, three-bedroom dwelling in an upscale, tree-lined neighborhood near Forest Hill. Little did the Mays family know their choice of real estate would soon stir up a social uproar.
Within days a well-known Bay Area home builder and property owner living a few doors away from the Mays’ chosen home decided the new neighbor might put his investments in jeopardy. He told reporters, “I happen to have a few pieces of property in the area, and I stand to lose a lot if colored people move in.” (Willie Mays.The Life.The Legend. By James S. Hirsch p. 277)
Although Willie downplayed the comment and tried to minimize the simmering controversy, Mrs. Mays recognized a subtle form of racism was at work. She told reporters, “Down in Alabama where we come from, you know your place. But up here, it’s all a lot of camouflage. They grin in your face and deceive you.” (Willie Mays.The Life.The Legend. By James S. Hirsch p.278)
Despite his athletic fame and accomplishments Willie encountered what numerous people of color have experienced while trying to find a home: racism, undergirded by social and legal constructs.
According to Dr. Michael Omi, an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of California, Berkeley, “One’s fame and celebrity does not necessarily inoculate one from pernicious racism.”
San Francisco, although celebrated as a welcoming and progressive city, remained segregated through much of the 20th century. As the city grew after World War II, a large majority of the African-American population settled in the BayView/Hunters Point area or in the Western Addition.
Dr. Harry Edwards noted that the form of racism experienced by Mays was not uncommon. Although Mays was a well recognized sporting hero, praised and adored for his actions on the baseball diamond, his presence as a homeowner in the city’s tonier enclaves was considered unacceptable.
Mays, “a superstar athlete had the audacity, the courage to go to a restricted area and tried to purchase a home in the city, which had accepted his team but did not accept him as a fully legitimate citizen or even human being,” Edwards said. “They did not want to rent to him. And so that became a headline. That became a cause célèbre and out of that cause célèbre was generated during the civil rights era, a movement for open housing.”
Terry Francois, a prominent Black attorney who later became a powerful force on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, intervened on behalf of Mays. Within days, the homeowner had a change of heart and, despite being berated by neighbors, announced he would sell to the most prominent and recognizable athlete ever to live in the area.
The area remained almost exclusively white, but Mays cracked open the door for people to see San Francisco’s segregated housing situation.
“It all came to fruition two years later in 1959 and 1960,” Dr. Edwards said. “And by 1963, the state of California had passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act. That was five years before Lyndon Baines Johnson sponsored the National Fair Housing Act (1968). But it all went back to Willie Mays.”
Although Mays initiated the small steps needed to start a long journey, housing segregation continued in San Francisco. For more information on Mays’ difficulty in purchasing a home in San Francisco see:
Chronicle Covers: When Willie Mays was denied housing because he was black (sfchronicle.com)
Willie Mays Had a Hard Time Buying a House in San Francisco (socketsite.com)
Discrimination, S.F. style, hit Mays – East Bay Times
Streetwise: Willie Mays – Western Neighborhoods Project – San Francisco History (outsidelands.org)
African American Segregation in San Francisco – FoundSF
FACTORS LEADING TO HOUSING SEGREGATION
Imagine a group of bankers, lenders and government surveyors gathered around a city map and armed with colored pencils. Their mission: to determine what neighborhoods were financially unstable, thus resulting in its residents being unworthy of loans and losing any chance at upward mobility.
That’s how the insidious practice of redlining began.
In the 1930s the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) used their colored pencils to grade neighborhoods and designate certain areas across the United States as unsuitable for loans. According to the color-codes used by the HOLC, green indicated an area that was “best suited,” for loans, blue meant “still desirable,” yellow for “definitely declining” and red was “hazardous.”
Members of the “redlined” or “hazardous” communities obviously felt the harshest impact. They were considered credit risks by local lenders, generally because of their racial and ethnic backgrounds, and were denied loans or were unable to obtain mortgage insurance. The dream of buying and owning a home became virtually nonexistent for them. Redlined neighborhoods in San Francisco included the Western Addition, Bayview/Hunters Point and Chinatown, areas consisting largely of African Americans and Asian immigrants.
Growing up and living in segregated areas can lead to a number of problems according to social scientists. Where an individual resides is a prime indicator of that person’s success or failure in terms of education, employment and future earnings. In segregated areas, the population is profoundly shaped by the quality of its schools, housing options, shopping centers and public resources.
“Neighborhoods have an enormous impact on a resident’s potential economic development, their mobility and their success,” Dr. Omi said. “There are some economists who are recently showing that families who moved from a high poverty neighborhood to a low poverty neighborhood, really improved their children’s economic success in terms of college attendance rates and their subsequent earnings as adults. So where one lives has a profound effect on shaping the well being and life chances of its residents and their children.”
While the HOLC was determining who was worthy of a loan, the Federal Housing Administration, starting in the 1930s, became involved with contractors and builders by subsidizing the mass-production of suburban homes. As veterans returned from World War II, they soon married and sparked a baby boom. The young families generated a new demand for housing in America. But most of the new subdivisions came with a caveat. They were available almost exclusively to whites and often came with a restrictive covenant that barred the sale of property to Black buyers.
As late as 1950, the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ code of ethics stated that “a Realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood … any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values.” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic)
The HOLC, a federal agency, seemed to agree. It insisted that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant:a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites.
For more information on redlining in America see:
Restrictive covenants were devised to inform home owners what they can and cannot do with their property and are generally found among the “Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions” in a home’s preliminary title report. For example, restrictive covenants may state the owner must maintain and trim his front lawn, or that the owner is not allowed to raise farm animals on the property.
Racist restrictive covenants also found their way into the documents and by the 1930s became fairly common as a way of prohibiting nonwhite people from purchasing or occupying land in certain areas.
An example of a racist covenant that appears on a Redwood City, CA property title report for a home built in the 1930s states “No person of any race other than the Caucasian or white race may use or occupy the property,” with the exception of “domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant.” (Marisa Kendall, Bay Area News Group)
Similar racist covenants are still included on numerous property deeds across the country. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial covenants were unenforceable. The landmark civil rights case, known as Shelley v. Kraemer, addressed the plight of the Shelleys, a Black family, who migrated from Mississippi to St. Louis, MO. They purchased a home in St. Louis from a person who did not want to enforce the racial covenant. A white neighbor objected, sued the Shelleys, and won the case. The Shelleys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed the sale and ruled the state could not enforce racial covenants because they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Nevertheless, the covenants remained commonplace, and were condoned through social enforcement and peer pressure. Then in 1968 Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Fair Housing Act explicitly made the covenants illegal.
For more information on restrictive covenants and how to remove them see:
Marisa Kendall wrote an encompassing piece for the Mercury News about racial covenants,email@example.com
During the 1950s, San Francisco’s Fillmore District was known as the “Harlem of the West.” Its vibrant nightclubs attracted the cream of the jazz world. On any given night jazz aficionados might find Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald or Dizzy Gillespie at local clubs like Jimbo’s Bop City or the Blue Mirror.
As a whole the Fillmore neighborhood was a lively, Black commercial hub with stately yet aging Victorian houses. It had its own community of locally owned restaurants, shops and services. There were employment opportunities and a sense of common purpose for the Black residents. But by the late 1950s and 1960s the Fillmore District was at the forefront of San Francisco’s redevelopment which led to widespread displacement of the Black community.
The modern concept of urban renewal originally began after World War II when President Harry Truman signed the 1949 Housing Act authorizing the rebuilding of run-down city neighborhoods. It encouraged investors or middle class buyers to purchase and gentrify property in working-class or decaying areas and generally targeted low income and not-white neighborhoods. The result was a widespread displacement of families causing a change in the area’s economic and social fabric. Essentially, Congress approved the demolition of inner city slums by providing local governments with federal funds and allowing for the seizure of property by eminent domain.
According to city planners, the Western Addition constituted a run-down or “blighted” neighborhood and was a prime area for redevelopment. By 1956 the city began to tear it down.
According to the California Task Force to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans published in 2022, the City of San Francisco closed 883 Western Addition businesses, displaced 4,729 households, destroyed 2,500 historic Victorian homes and damaged the lives of nearly 20,000 people. It turned out to be one of the largest projects of urban renewal on the West Coast.
In 1963 acclaimed author James Baldwin toured San Francisco while making a documentary for KQED entitled Take This Hammer. While driving through the Fillmore, he remarked “redevelopment” is just “the removal of Negroes.”
By the time redevelopment was completed and new housing and shops were restored, most of the former Fillmore residents couldn’t afford to return. In a little over two decades the epicenter of the city’s Black community was gone. With it went the economic opportunities and social networks for African-Americans that fostered jobs, upward mobility and community support.
For more information on urban renewal in San Francisco see:
To combat housing segregation several laws have been enacted and they have gradually picked away at the restrictions and covenants that narrowed the housing options for people of color.
In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court case, Shelley v. Kraemer, outlawed racially restrictive covenants, yet housing discrimination continued. In many of the more affluent areas of San Francisco, like St. Francis Wood, Balboa Terrace and Forest Hills, covenants were included in purchase agreements that excluded home sellers from selling property to minorities.
In 1963 the Rumford Fair Housing Act was passed by the California Legislature and signed into law by Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown. The bill, drafted by William Byron Rumford, Northern California’s first Black state legislator, prohibited property owners from denying housing to anyone because of ethnicity, race or religion.
By 1968 housing rights became a hot potato at the national level and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act. The new law prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental or financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin or sex.
Despite the legislation, racially-based housing segregation still exists in America. Becoming familiar with the prevalence and impact of this issue is one way to be a part of positive progress towards dismantling these constructs. The US. Department of Housing and Urban Development is a good place to start. You can also contact your local city/county government to learn more about what legislation or covenants exist in your community. Other sources include: