Posted on 03/30/2013

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San Francisco
African Americans
Palace Hotel in San Fran

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Palace Hotel

Palace Hotel
African American chambermaids and porters on the upper balcony of the Grand Court at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, California. All blacks were fired in 1888 due to racist pressure from white unions.

African Americans began arriving in San Francisco with the first waves of prospectors heading to the gold fields. California became a no-slave territory by 1856, but blacks rarely achieved anything approaching social or political equality. The primary limitation to black achievement in San Francisco was the narrow range of jobs available, a reality which grew worse as white workers got organized in their own defense by the 1870s. A high percentage of Afro-San Franciscans were employed in the service economy as waiters, draymen, porters, maids, ship cooks, stewards, etc. (60% of the working males and 97% of the females).

The number of blacks in San Francisco never surpassed about 1,500 until after World War I (it was only about 4,000 by the onset of World War II at the end of 1941).

The long and sordid history of white working class racism helps contextualize the frequent use of blacks as strikebreakers in San Francisco. For example, in the hot summer of 1916, restaurant and kitchen workers were locked out by employers as part of the general campaign to break union power being pushed by the Chamber of Commerce. Restaurant and cafe managers declared an open shop policy and began hiring scabs, many black. In mid-July two black scab longshoremen were killed along the strike-bound waterfront. By the winter, most of the strikes had ended in victory for the unions, and black workers were again pounding the pavement in search of work.

When the Chamber of Commerce finally broke the longshoremen's strike in 1919, a more (racially) fluid waterfront labor market led to an influx of black workers, although they were required to work in segregated work gangs and weren't allowed to join the union.

SF Digi Archives: Blacks and Labor An Unfinished History, Chris Carlsson
Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco by Douglas Henry Daniels