Future Genealogy... and life on Hunter's Point, 1965-1968

Although I spend so much time gathering the documentary evidence of my ancestors, I tend to give relatively little thought to my distant descendants.  It's time to change that approach; we are all links in a chain, and the links that come after us are just as important as those that came before.  More and more I'm hearing prominent genealogists (Tom Jones and Judy Russell immediately come to mind) advocate gathering your own family's story while you still can.  At Rootstech this year, Judy Russell reminded us that oral history is lost within three generations.  

The records of your life are relatively easy to find -- and will become even easier in the future with digitization and crowd-sourced indexing -- but the details of who you are as a person can be lost very quickly.  I want my descendants to know about the choices I've made and how the experiences in my life have shaped my world view.

Aside from a personal time capsule (which, by the way, my family and I have actually created and buried in the foundation of our home!), the next best gift to the future would be an autobiography. For mine, I've decided to start with the time our family lived in Hunter's Point, San Francisco.  

My Dad was a career Naval officer, with advanced degrees in naval architecture/marine engineering and, later, in business administration.  In 1965, we were living in Boston, when he received orders to report to Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard in California.  

The Navy never did things the easy way -- most of our moves involved crossing a continent or an ocean.  (I told a story about this particular trip when I first started blogging, in "Tales of an Old Cattle Wrangler.")  We arrived in San Francisco in June -- my mother was thrilled to be in California!
I think San Francisco was one of my mother's favorite places to live

The shipyard was fairly close to the city...and there was the usual close Navy community, so inside the base, we fit right in.
source: Google Maps, personal knowledge

Our quarters were on Innes Avenue, just a block from the main gate:
1962 Map of Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard (source: SFgenealogy.com; annotations are my own)

As you can see, the Hunter's Point shipyard was surrounded on three sides by water.  The fourth side was comprised of the Hunter's Point and Bayview neighborhoods, which were relatively isolated parts of San Francisco with limited access to public transportation.  The population in this area was predominantly low-income African-American families; poverty and crime were rampant.  

The mid-sixties were difficult years for America, as we struggled with creating a just society for all.  While the lack of civil rights was perhaps more obvious in parts of the country where Jim Crow laws physically separated the races, places like San Francisco were equally discriminating:  to put it simply, African-Americans had far fewer opportunities for housing, employment, and education.  It was more insidious in San Francisco by the very fact that the effects of racism were hidden in pockets of poverty that most people never saw.  (Kelly & VerPlanck, p. 10)

Living in this new world, what struck me was the smell.  I had no frame of reference for this, so I complained to my mother that it smelled like the circus.  It was, in fact, the remnants of San Francisco's once-thriving slaughterhouses, which remained in this part of the city through the 1960s.  (Kelley & VerPlanck, p. 7)

A picture of a friend taken in our front yard -- you can see all the heavy industry right next door!
Living on base was like living in any small town -- we had a movie theater, community center, churches and a library.  We did not have schools on the base, however, and so the Navy provided bus transportation to various schools in San Francisco.  My bus driver was named Merle, and I just loved him; he knew all the kids by name and would laugh and joke with everyone.  My favorite place to sit was right behind him so we could talk.  Everyone knew that this was my spot. 
I'm on the far left, with other "Navy Juniors" and Merle

One day, though, I got on the bus and was horrified to see that Merle was not driving and my seat was taken.  

By an MP with a rifle, no less.  

I remember standing there with my arms akimbo, glaring at the soldier, as if the force of my indignation would make him move.  He didn't smile, or even look at me, and eventually I got the picture and found another seat.

Over the next few days and weeks, we kids knew that there was a lot going on outside the base.  For one thing, there were more crowds out on the streets surrounding us, and rocks and bottles were thrown over the fence from the outside.  One family, whose quarters directly adjoined the fence, had to move because of the smoke bombs and molotov cocktails that were thrown into their yard.

...And the armed MP continued to ride our school bus for several weeks afterwards.

I never knew the details of the disturbances until just recently, when I started to do the research for this blogpost.  I learned that on September 27, 1966, a white policeman shot a black teenager who supposedly refused to stop for questioning after a car was stolen.  This was the final straw for a community already smoldering with resentment against whites who marginalized them and essentially blamed them for their own poverty.  Riots broke out and the governor called in the National Guard.  Even back then, I knew that there was some reason that black people and white people didn't get along, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out what it could be.  

You see, Sheila, my best friend from school, was black.  And yes, we had fights, but we always made up later.  I don't remember exactly where Sheila lived, but it was in the general vicinity of the base -- sadly, I could visit her, but she was never able to visit me.  I remember one such visit; we went around telling everyone in her neighborhood that we were cousins.  I'll never forget how I felt when a boy said, "no, you can't be cousins -- she's caucasian!" ... and the way he said it, he might have been saying: she's the devil.
My second grade class at St. Paulus -- here I am with Sheila
Now I want you to understand that I'm just reporting my memories -- clearly not reality as it existed for the Hunter's Point and Bayview communities.  For that, I refer you to any number of websites and articles about the riots in 1966.  But this was my first exposure to the concept of "difference." 

Photo credit: "The 1966 Hunters Point Rebellion," The San Francisco Bay View; National Black Newspaper, 2 Sep 2011
...was literally just a few blocks away from this:
photos taken at 560 Innes Avenue, Hunter's Point
I was very much aware of the disparity between our lives and those of the people in the surrounding communities.  It was hard not to be, driving through them every day going to school.  As a little child, though, all you could do was to hold it in your heart -- to be reconciled and healed someday.

For us, life calmed down quickly after the riots subsided.  Things got back to normal, Merle returned to driving my bus, and I got my seat back.  In June of 1968, after a few months of real fear that my father would be sent to Vietnam, he was transferred instead to Japan, and we were able to move there with him.

My takeaway from this experience was that despite all our external differences, people are all the same at heart.  The truth is, life isn't fair -- and it never will be.  There will always be rich and poor, but that distinction should be a result of a person's own ability, initiative, drive, or lack thereof, but it should never, ever be based on the color of a person's skin.  

And let me tell you, there is still quite a lot of work to do before that will be the common perspective in our world.

Further Reading on Hunter's Point and the 1966 Riots

Kelly & VerPlanck Consulting, "Bayview-Hunters Point Area B Survey; San Francisco, California Historic Context Statement," Prepared for the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, 11 Feb 2010 
(http://www.sanfranciscohistory.com/BVHP_Context.pdf)  (This is a fascinating look at the historical development of this San Francisco community from the 18th century to the present, including a detailed examination of the trends leading to its isolation and blight in the post WWII years.)

Chris Carlsson, "The Hunters Point Riot; Unfinished History." on FoundSF [online digital archives] (http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=The_Hunters_Point_Riot)

"1966 Hunters Point Uprising and other tales of 'San Francisco's Last Black Neighborhood,'" The San Francisco Bay View; National Black Newspaper, 24 Sep 2009


"Property Damage After Bayview Hunters Point Uprising," September 1966 [video] San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive, (https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/217094

"Hunters Point Shipyard Closure Protests," 26 April 1973 [video] San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive, https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/217408.  (This video shows protests at the gate, which was just a block from our house.  We were long gone by 1973, but it looked just the same when we lived there.)