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Chapter Five— The Fillmore
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Chapter Five—
The Fillmore

Well, well, well, don't worry 'bout me . . . I done cross over
The Soul Stirrers
Texas Jubilee Negro Gospel Singers, 1947

The Willie Brown who stepped off the train in San Francisco on August 4, 1951, was not much to look at. He was a slightly built, short young man with ridiculously thick glasses. His best clothes were a white shirt, khaki pants, and a well-worn pair of shoes. Everything he owned fit into his small cardboard suitcase. He was virtually indistinguishable from the thousands of other Negroes flooding into the San Francisco Bay Area that summer from the rural South searching for opportunity and escaping the straitjacket of segregation. The date of August 4, 1951, is permanently fixed in Willie Brown's memory. He considers it his second birthday.[1]

Yet there was something to distinguish him, namely his huge dreams and expectations, and a personality to match. Brown's goal was to get into Stanford University, the finest private university in the West.[2] He was outgoing, gabby really. He possessed a winning smile and an infectious laugh, and he could learn names and faces in an instant. He had graduated second in his high school class, an achievement he considered of major value, although he would soon learn that it counted for little in his new world. He was bookish, priding himself for being something of a math whiz. Above all, Willie Brown was eager in the extreme and not easily deterred. If he lacked any self-confidence, no one saw it.

His uncle Itsie Collins picked him up at the depot. Collins must have been an awesome sight that day to young Willie Brown as he stepped off


the train. Collins wore a silk suit, a one-hundred-dollar felt Dobbs hat, and an elegant shirt tailor-made in Chinatown. His attire was embellished with an expensive watch, diamond rings, and a diamond stick pin. Collins drove to the station in his late-model car. To an impressionable young man from Texas, Itsie Collins was the epitome of success.[3] Collins was doing better in San Francisco than he had ever done in Mineola running his combination dance hall, card parlor, gin joint with his brother. He was on his own now and bigger than ever, running an illicit gambling casino in San Francisco. Collins had a string of "boys"—as he called them—working for him. He considered himself "the best-dressed man in San Francisco,"[4] and he may well have been. Collins wasted no time in telling young Brown to get rid of his khakis. Willie Brown looked like a farmworker from Texas—which, indeed, he was—and that just would not do for the urbane life he was about to lead.

Collins brought his nephew home to his three-story flat on Oak Street. Collins handed his wife, Idora, a wad of cash and told her to take Brown to the Emporium department store and deck him out with a new set of clothes.[5] Brown had never seen such clothes except in mail-order catalogs.

The vibrant world Willie Brown entered that August was about as far from Mineola as he could have gotten while still remaining in North America. To begin with, for the first time in his life Brown lived in a house that had running water and was situated on a street with sidewalks. But there was more. San Francisco—black San Francisco—was a twenty-four-hour-a-day city. And the epicenter of that San Francisco was the Fillmore, or Western Addition as city planners called it. Just to the west of the civic center and to the south of the posh Pacific Heights, the Fillmore was a self-contained city within a city roughly eight blocks by six blocks—about a square mile. Visually, it was an urban landscape of stubby Victorian buildings crisscrossed by a canopy of wires for electric streetcars. Sitting in a trough surrounded by hills in the center of the city, the Western Addition offered few, if any, spectacular views. It was not prime real estate.

It became the neighborhood of choice for blacks in the city beginning in about 1920. Eventually, as racial restrictions were imposed, the neighborhood became the major ghetto for African Americans in San Francisco. By 1930 nearly half of the city's blacks resided in the enclave.[6] Ten years later, the Western Addition was considered by whites as the Negro section of San Francisco, and it became a slum. Most of the city's substandard housing was located there.[7] In the year Willie Brown arrived in San Francisco, Thomas Fleming, managing editor of the Sun-Reporter newspaper, wrote, "Job discrimination based on color, is, in my opinion, more vicious in the city of San Francisco than it is in other parts of the South."[8] However, it was also an ethnically diverse, culturally rich neighborhood with a strong sense of community. It was the Harlem of the West.[9]


Historians have written much about the migration of blacks to eastern cities during World War II, but less noted was the movement westward.[10] That migration was no less transforming in the West than it was in the East. Not since just after the Civil War had so many blacks been on the move all at once. In the years just before the turn of the twentieth century, 90 percent of all African Americans lived in the rural South; eighty years later, 85 percent lived in urban areas, with only slightly more than half still in the South.[11] By the end of the war, two-thirds of the blacks living in San Francisco were recent migrants from the South, and slightly more than half of them were from the lower Mississippi River drainage region of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Mississippi.[12] Within four years, twenty-seven thousand African Americans migrated to San Francisco alone.[13]

That migration transformed California almost overnight. Writer Carey McWilliams, one of the few in that period who understood what that migration meant for the future of California, wrote, "San Francisco was not only the first boom town in the West but the one town that continued to boom."[14] The populations of Texas and California were roughly equal in 1940, but in the next eight years the population of California grew a phenomenal 45 percent, compared with a sluggish to percent in Texas.[15] "If asked to name the most important respect in which California differs from the other 47 states, I would say that the difference consists in the fact that California has not grown or evolved so much as it has hurtled forward, rocket fashion, by a series of chain reaction explosions," McWilliams observed.

The migration of blacks from the South during World War II continued unabated following the war. By 1950 there were 43,460 blacks in San Francisco, almost ten times the number from a decade earlier.[16] And they kept coming. In 1951, when Willie Brown arrived, there were an estimated fifty-five thousand blacks in San Francisco.[17] At one point the Urban League's executive director, Seaton W. Manning, remarked, "I find it hard to believe that there are any Negroes left in Texas and Louisiana."[18]

As blacks poured into the San Francisco Bay Area from 1940 on, they became the main target of racial restrictions.[19] The system had grown entrenched since the Gold Rush, a century earlier, when Chinese were the principal targets of discrimination. Nor did San Francisco's racial restrictions fall easily. In the mid-1960s, when racial barriers were falling everywhere, the all-white maintenance crew on San Francisco's proudest symbol, the Golden Gate Bridge, walked off their jobs to protest the hiring of the first blacks into their ranks.[20]

The Western Addition of the 1950s was a boomtown of theaters, hotels, bars, restaurants, billiard halls, and, of course, casinos[21] —and Willie Brown set forth to explore them all. Robert Scheer, in his 1991 biographical portrait of Brown for the Los Angeles Times Magazine , characterized Brown's wanderings as "liberating, quite a break from the straight-laced maternalism of


Mineola."[22] Indeed, it was a male-centered world. Brown found the Long Branch Bar, a joint that ran the entire length of a city block on Post Street between Fillmore and Steiner, and Jimbo's Bop City, which did not open until 2 A.M., when the legal bars closed. One block of Post Street contained no fewer than four casinos, all in a row.

Itsie Collins's casino was on that particular block. Unobtrusively called the "Smoke Shop," it had a counter with cigars and candy in front. Behind the counter was a door, and behind that door was another door. Behind that was the casino. If the police were lurking, the man selling cigars in front would push a button with his foot setting off a light inside the casino. By the time the police got through all of the doors, the evidence of gambling was removed.[23]

The police regularly collected a cut in return for leaving the casinos alone or going easy when they raided. "You can't make money unless you make something for them, too," Collins explained.[24] Collins met a police officer every Monday on the same corner and left an envelope full of cash on the seat of his patrol car. However, the police still had to periodically bust the gambling joints so that they would look like they were doing their jobs. They reached an accommodation with Collins and his friends to everyone's mutual benefit. A police officer would tip off Collins about the raid. Collins would make sure there were eight or ten people around to get arrested, paying them ten dollars a piece for the favor. Meanwhile, the regular gamblers would hang out at a bar until the raid was over. "When the raid is over, everybody come out right back to gambling," he said.[25]

In recent years, protective of his politician nephew, Collins consistently told reporters that Willie Brown had no involvement in his gambling business in those wide-open days. "He never did want to come around me on my line," he said. "He wasn't interested in it, and I didn't try to make him interested in it."[26] Collins said he set up Brown at Cobb's barbershop shining shoes, purchasing a chair for him and all the equipment he needed. But his nephew, he said, hated shining shoes and quit after three days. Brown found a job selling shoes somewhere else, and that was the end of it.[27]

But that was not the whole story.

Willie Brown was involved in his uncle's gambling business. His involvement was unavoidable. Pressed on the subject in an interview for this book, Brown replied that he used his uncle's shoe-shine chair as a lookout post: "I did during a brief period working, I think, as a shoe-shine boy at or near where Itsie and his crowd hung out and would on occasion let them know if there was any police anywhere around. I was not the watch person, as such, but I certainly wouldn't want them to get busted."[28]

His uncle would leave cash each day for Willie before leaving the house. Willie explored the city mostly on his own. For a young man whose previous world was the sandy streets of a rural Texas town, San Francisco was nothing less than the Land of Oz. "The way that I learned about San Francisco was


[Itsie and Idora] not spending any time taking me anyplace. They would just tell me where to go, and they always left enough resources in terms of money available every day for me to go do whatever I needed to do or wanted to do, and they left me pretty much on my own to exercise my own judgment about my associates, the places that I hung out in."[29]

Brown's taste for nightclubs and the fast lane have run unabated throughout his adult life. To this day he adores the nightspots of San Francisco, enjoys discovering the latest hip place and showing it to his friends. The nightclubs of San Francisco are for him a magnificent stage. He adored Itsie's style, his panache. Brown once said he modeled his life after Itsie Collins. Pressed to explain, he said he admired Collin's "zest for life that he has always had. He absolutely enjoys every second of his life, and he never exhibited malice toward anything or anybody."[30]

Nonetheless, Brown apparently was not seriously tempted to make the seamier side of his uncle's life his own. At the urging of his mother, among the first things Brown did was join a church. He chose the Jones Methodist Church on Post Street, exactly one block west of Collin's gambling casino. Just as in Mineola, where his gift of gab made him a standout, Brown emerged as the youth leader at Jones Church. Brown, in fact, straddled two ways of life. Such straddling was really not unusual. "You see, in the black community a pimp might live right next door to the preacher," said the Reverend Hamilton Boswell, the pastor of Jones Church in the 1950s. "You don't agree on personal lifestyles, and all of that, but you're forced to live together in the same community."[31] Brown could easily have fallen into a life in the underworld or, just as easily, become a preacher. He chose neither. His ambition was far bigger.

His most immediate problem was getting into Stanford University. Someone told him—he is not sure who—to talk with Duncan V. Gillies, who was a professor at San Francisco State College. Gillies had been appointed to the faculty at San Francisco State a year earlier. An undergraduate alumnus of San Francisco State himself, Gillies had a master's degree in education from Stanford.[32]

Gillies was a professor of educational psychology, and he was a controversial one. He had been an Army officer for twenty-two years and had served in World War II. He was fearless. Throughout his career Gillies took politically unpopular stands. He was particularly known for his advocacy of sex education at a time when it was believed to be part of a Communist plot in California. In the 1950s Gillies raised eyebrows by publicly deploring the practice of expelling pregnant teenage girls from high school.[33] Finding Gillies was one of Brown's luckiest breaks in a life filled with lucky breaks.

San Francisco State in the 1950s was an oasis of political liberals and racial progress. A group of professors had launched an interracial church that struggled for acceptance in both the black and white communities.[34] The professors also practiced a primitive form of affirmative action and were on


the lookout for promising young Negroes for admittance to the college. Willie Brown was just the sort they were looking for. He turned out to be perhaps the most prominent beneficiary of their forward-looking experiment.

Brown talked to Gillies about getting into Stanford, and Gillies reviewed his educational background. Gillies was frank with Brown. Brown's preparation was hopelessly inadequate for Stanford or the University of California, across the bay in Berkeley. Most of what Brown had learned in his rural, segregated school he had learned by rote. "He indicated to me that he didn't believe under any circumstances that I could ever enter Stanford or Berkeley."[35] However, Gillies encouraged Brown to take an entrance exam for San Francisco State. "I accepted his advice. It was the best advice I had ever gotten, educationally speaking. It was probably the only advice I ever got, educationally speaking, as I reflect upon it."

Brown took the exam, but he did not do especially well. "By no stretch of the imagination was Mineola Colored High ever even close to being a college prep institution," he explained, years later.[36] "I was miseducated in a little red school house. The education that I got students should not be burdened with. You don't know how much self-learning and how much un-learning that I had to do. I entered college on probation, and not for crimes. I didn't have the background. I didn't know science."

In summer of 1993, Brown again described the experience at an extra-ordinary gathering of his high school classmates at a dinner back in their hometown in Texas. It was one of the few occasions in which the ever-confident Willie Brown exposed his feelings of insecurity that he kept usually well hidden. "You've got to know that I did not pass the entrance exam. I could not, nor could any of you. You could not have passed the entrance exam. It contained information that you've never been exposed to. It contained words that were not a part of what we had been a part of, and my guess is that many of you with college experiences come out of Mineola were like that."[37] Many of his friends nodded in agreement.

Nonetheless, Gillies saw to it that Brown was admitted to San Francisco State on a probationary status, giving Brown one semester to prove he could perform college work. As a politician, Brown always prided himself as a quick study and as something of a genius. Indeed, he boasted to his high school friends at their reunion that he found college academic work not so hard after all. But in reality Brown struggled in those first few months. His preparation for college work was, in fact, terrible. He had learned how to do math, but he had never learned the principles behind any of it. Many of the words in his college books were foreign to him, as they would have been to anyone from his background.[38] Geometry in high school was a matter of memorizing a book. But in college he was required to analyze the problems. "That was absolutely flabbergasting because I just couldn't do it," he once admitted.[39] His uncle remembered that Brown worked hard and was frequently down.


His cavorting at the nightclubs all but ceased. "We all sit and have dinner," Collins recalled, "but he didn't do no socialize. He just study. Instead of being out like any youngster would be, he be looking at a book."[40]

Brown spent long hours in the library, and his aunt and uncle saw him less and less. They worried. Itsie Collins finally sent one of his "boys" from the gambling casino to see him. "I sent him up there to represent me to see what was the matter," he recalled. "I come to find out he had some Bs and Cs—he didn't like it. He was a fighter now."[41] Brown was no honor student, but he passed in his first semester. By his own admission, he had grown up considerably. "By the time I finished the first semester at San Francisco State, I had mastered life, in my opinion," he told an interviewer years later.[42]

Academics came easier as Brown progressed. One of his classmates, Charles Wheat, a returning Korean War veteran who was older than Brown, remembered taking a class with Brown on international relations. "Willie has a great sense of humor and a no-holds-barred laugh and had an in-your-face way in class with the teachers," Wheat said. "I had come to respect his quick and brilliant mind."[43] His instructors agreed. The professor in their class, Olive Cowell, a tall, matronly woman with a Rooseveltian accent, invited the class one afternoon to her Berkeley Hills home for tea. She spent most of the afternoon discussing the affairs of the world with one student in particular—Willie Brown. "His command of English and his ability to artfully use it was apparent even then," Wheat remembered.[44]

Willie Brown moved out of Itsie Collins's home, probably in 1953.[45] He increasingly moved away from his uncle's orbit, although he would never entirely leave it. As he plugged away toward graduation, Brown worked at a series of odd jobs. Money would be an issue for him for at least the next decade. His anxiety showed through in a light-hearted Christmas card he penned on a piece of corrugated cardboard in December 1954 and mailed to his mother in Dallas:[46]

Money is scarce
     Times are Hard
         So let this be
              Your Xmas Card
                                   Willie B.

Irrepressible, Brown joined a Negro fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. He started auditioning for roles in a black community theater. He signed up for the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) so that he could be commissioned an officer in the newly integrated Air Force upon graduation. He became active in the San Francisco branch of the NAACP. He also started running hurdles on the college track and hanging around with jocks. "I was really establishing a base quickly," he said in an interview for this book. "I did it all


in a matter of two months. I set out to meet everybody alive." For emphasis, he repeated: "I set about to introduce myself to everybody alive ."[47]

Brown became increasingly sophisticated politically as he moved around San Francisco State and began widening his circle of friends. He was in an especially vibrant place at a remarkable moment in its history. Brown hung out in the cafeteria with Wheat and other friends engaging in long discussions about the presidential candidacy of Adlai Stevenson, the red-baiting witch-hunts of Joe McCarthy, and especially local San Francisco politicians.

Among those whom Willie Brown met at San Francisco State, two people were the most significant. One was Blanche Vitero, a petite dance major with whom Brown fell in love. They met at a sorority-fraternity mixer. "He was a big man on campus," she said.[48] He exuded self-confidence and she was drawn to him. "I wondered who this bouncy young man was who seemed to be all over the campus. He never kept still."[49]

The other significant relationship Brown formed at San Francisco State was with a tall, cocky white basketball player who liked to play practical jokes: John Burton. As a campus athlete, Burton liked to hang out in the Redwood Room of the college student union. Because he was a basketball player, many of his friends were Negroes. It was only natural that he would run into the equally cocky Willie Brown. They met as fellow cadets in an Air Force ROTC class.[50] The two easily hit it off.

John Burton was remembered in the 1970s by Dan Farmer, his basketball coach at San Francisco State, as a bright and skilled athlete.[51] John played guard, and the team captured the Far West Conference championship in the 1953–54 season. "He was the kind of kid you'd almost like to have your son be," Farmer remembered. "John just lived for basketball. That was his main interest in life."

That, and pulling practical jokes. Among the pranks Burton pulled was getting one of his friends, a new student, to pose as a character named "Archie San Sebastian." Burton worked up a fake record on his friend, showing that he had been an all-service fullback for the Navy and a former tailback for Penn State. Burton then staged a press conference to announce San Francisco State's coup in getting the star athlete. The announcement made the school newspaper before San Francisco State football coach Joe Verducci finally caught onto the hoax and put an end to it.[52]

There was a serious side to John Burton. His father was a doctor who had struggled through the Depression to put himself through medical school and had a tremendous empathy for the poor. John's older brother, Phillip, was a budding politician who was attempting to challenge the city's entrenched Democratic establishment.

In truth, San Francisco was an incredible place to be in the 1950s for those with a vision. In North Beach, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac


read poetry and talked into the night at spots such as City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio Cafe. They were vanguards of a new culture. At San Francisco State, Willie Brown, John Burton, and their friends also talked for endless hours. They were vanguards of a new politics.

Brown's relationships with Blanche Vitero and John Burton led to two marriages. The first was to Blanche on September 1, 1957. That marriage would produce three children, but also considerable pain, in the years ahead. The second was to the Burton brothers, John and Phillip. That marriage would produce one of the most successful and enduring American political organizations of the second half of the twentieth century.

Itsie Collins lived out the final years of his life in San Francisco in a retirement home, where photographs of his illustrious nephew adorned the walls. Over the years, Itsie Collins had several run-ins with the law before he finally quit gambling. His nephew always managed to get him out of trouble. Into his late eighties, when he felt well enough, Itsie Collins would don his tuxedo and go to Willie Brown's political fund-raising bashes.[53] Itsie never really stopped living the fast life that began in East Texas.


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