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I Am San Francisco

By Kheven Lagrone and Jarrel Phillips

We are the San Francisco no one talks about
—James Baldwin

Today, a native Black San Franciscan often hears, “An African American born in San Francisco? I’ve never met one before. You must be one of the few.”

For many of us, the questions conjure up feelings of marginalization and confront us with the reality of losing our homes. Just what does it mean to be a native San Franciscan? In response to this challenge we are creating two public art exhibitions on the theme I Am San Francisco. The first, curated by Kheven LaGrone, is subtitled (Re)Collecting the Home of Native Black San Franciscans, the second, by Jarrel Phillips, is Black Past and Presence.

San Francisco was once home to a significant and vibrant African American population. San Francisco State University started the nation’s first Black Studies Program in 1968 and the Fillmore District was often called the Harlem of the West. But according to the last census, San Francisco has had one of the largest declines in Black population of any large city since the 1970s when Blacks made up 13.4 percent of the city. By 2013, the Black population was less than half of that and it has declined visibly since then. The African American middle class has almost disappeared and San Francisco’s public schools reflect that continuing decline in population. According to the San Francisco Unified School District, its African American student population plummeted almost 60 percent from 2001 to 2015.

The stories that follow are the textual portion of an exhibit that strives to capture the home and soul of native Black San Francisco via personal stories.

We are not here to fight, struggle, or prove anything. We just want to share the depth, beauty, complexity, and abundance prevalent within ‘Black life’—culturally, communally, and individually.

Kheven LaGrone has created and curated many exhibitions, including, I Am America: Black Genealogy Through the Eyes of An Artist; Coloring Outside the Lines: Black Cartoonists as Social Commentators; and BABA: Black Artists’ Expressions of Father. LaGrone’s shows have been exhibited in New York, San Francisco, Atlanta, Oakland, and Richmond. Jarrel Phillips is the founder of AVE (, curator of How We Play, and an RP&E Cultural Correspondent.

IAMSF contributors include: Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party; Sophie Maxwell, Democratic Country Central Committee Candidtate; Mohammed Bilal, Executive Director of the African American Culture Complex; Devorah Major, SF Poet Laureate; Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin, CCSF African American Studies Professor; Blanche Brown, Haitian Folkoric Dance Teacher; Assata Conley, SF Community School Student; Joanna Haigood, Zaccho Dance Theater; Dr. Amos Brown, President of the San Francisco Chapter of the NAACP; Thomas Simpson, Artistic Director of AfroSolo.

I Am San Francisco for Reimagine! RP&E
Lead Artist Jarrel Phillips (AVE Founder), with collaborating artists Kheven LaGrone, and Christine Joy Ferrer and Jess Clarke from Reimagine!

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