Sunday, November 20, 2011

African American history: homegrown

Yesterday's Bayview History Day event at Washington Carver Elementary School was as much an historic event as an educational one. Shapers of history shared firsthand experiences about the neighborhood's unique and important past. Others celebrated the new library in the neighborhood's future.

The event was dedicated to Eloise Westbrook, a locally and globally recognized change-maker who passed away recently at age 94. A full program kicked-off with the screening of a short video about Mrs. Westbrook.

Shirley Jones, one of the women known as "The Big Five," was featured in the video. She told the story of Eloise Westbrook, speaking in her usual no-nonsense manner, to House Speaker Tip O'Neill.

"I don't call you Tip. You don't call me Eloise."

New political clout

While topics at the history event were wide-ranging, Bayview Hunters Point's role in important political struggles emerged powerfully.

John Templeton, writer, historian and expert on the 60-plus black-owned restaurants in San Francisco, made a few comments and then interviewed esteemed members of Bayview Hunters Point's African American community.

"Bayview is of national importance," Mr. Templeton pointed out.

Templeton noted that, in the 1960's, the Ford Foundation promoted Bayview as the country's best organized community. At that time, everyone knew everyone, and the neighborhood was organized down to the block level. When word needed to go out about something, it went out fast and wide.

Espanola Jackson was at the front of the fight to integrate public housing. "If they called it an annex, that meant it was for black folks," she said from the stage.

Housing justice. Affordable health care. Neighborhood health clinics. These movements began here according to expert testimony at the history event.

Developing new leaders

Espanola Jackson found herself in the thick of the welfare rights struggle of the 1960's. She knew she wanted to help change the inequality she, her family and friends were experiencing, but wasn't sure how to go about it. She had been told she should find her leader, and so she approached Mrs. Westbrook.

"I was scared," Jackson said about meeting Mrs. Westbrook. "I tried to look tough."

But Mrs. Westbrook was famous by that point, and a large woman with a reputation for talking loudly and using language Jackson did not use.

Westbrook message to young Espanola Jackson has well-served both Jackson and the issues she has championed ever since.  "You don't need me to lead you," she said. "You can be your own leader."

Westbrook made sure Jackson had help getting flyers out about a first meeting. By the second meeting, Jackson found herself Chair of the group.

Many elders at the event expressed how important new leadership and involvement is to the struggles they continue to work on.  For some, leadership was about having faith and getting busy.  Say "Yes I can," one participant said, "and you will be able to do it."

"No one gave us anything," Jackson said. "We fought for all of it."

Referencing the Block C Organization and George Earl, Essie Webb gave an example of a rent strike that was waged when the Housing Authority failed to maintain public housing.

Instead of paying rent, "twelve families put their rent money into a bank. And it worked. Does anyone remember the showers? We wanted better showers, and to pick our own contractors."

They got both.

Food and culture
In a brief on-stage interview, Mr. Templeton asked Rev. James Hall, an organizer for the annual Black Cuisine Festival, why he believes knowing about his culture's food is important.

"When your food goes, your culture goes with it," Rev. Hall said. He went on to say that this is why George Davis was inspired to start Black Cuisine which has been an important part of Bayview Hunters Point's cultural landscape in one form or another for 33 years.

Rev. Hall explained how food is connected to struggle, and how families had to get creative simply to survive. Over time, making do with free or low cost ingredients, such as the fruits and vegetables raised by families themselves, became customary.

"Let me tell you something about greens," Rev. Hall said of growing these hardy and productive plants. "Once you get that first batch going, you almost can't get rid of them."

In Butchertown (now known as Dogpatch), the slaughterhouse workers threw out scraps that were part of a food tradition that continues in new ways to this day.

"$5 a pound for ox tail?!" Espanola Jackson said of today's prices for an ingredient once considered worthless.

Mrs. Pickering shared how she gardened, raising food just like nearly every Bayview Hunters Point resident. "My husband didn't like gardening, but I did it year after year."

"Every major decision that was made in my family was made at the kitchen table," said Rev. Hall. "The women would call us in, and we would go."

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