Marcus Books, one of the country’s first bookstores dedicated to the work of African American writers, opened in 1960 in the Fillmore district of San Francisco. At the time the neighborhood was a hotbed of Black culture on the west coast, known as the “Harlem of the West” for its music, nightclubs and the diversity of its inhabitants. The store remained at its location on Fillmore for more than fifty years, until it was closed in 2014 due to a rent hike. Another cultural icon, the Church of St. John Coltrane, an African Orthodox Church dedicated to the music and teachings of the famous saxophonist founded in 1968, was forced to close its doors even more recently for similar reasons.
This is an all too familiar story in the Bay area. In the last decade or so gentrification and rising prices have taken a toll on San Francisco’s arts communities and on its communities of color. Many iconic African American cultural and historical locations have seen their doors close as the community that sustained them is priced out of their homes. However, many others still remain.
One of the most enduring repositories for the history of Bay Area Black culture is the African American Historical and Cultural Society. The society, which opened in 1955 was the first of its kind west of the Mississippi. The Society holds a wide variety of talks, exhibitions and other programming aimed at educating the community about the lives and contributions of African Americans in the city of San Francisco.
The Historical Society’s collection is housed inside another Bay area icon, the African American Arts and Culture Complex. The Complex, which has been open in some form for the last forty years, is home to ten separate Black arts companies, including the African American Shakespeare Company, Cultural Odyssey and the Juneteenth Celebration Committee to name just a few. In total, the complex holds more Black Arts organizations than any other building in the city.
“If this building went under it would annihilate Black arts in [San Francisco]” said Executive Director Mohammed Soriano Bilal.
Thankfully, the complex is not in danger of closing; its currently planning to expand its offerings by opening a café space, as well as joining the various organizations housed in the building into a collective. Bilal hopes the new space will serve as a gathering space for the community at large and that creating a collective will help ease some of the burden of fundraising for smaller arts organizations within the AAACC.
Another organization that is still going strong is the Museum of the African Diaspora, in fact it just earned the distinction of becoming an affiliate of the Smithsonian. The museum’s mission is to feature exhibitions that speak not just to the African American experience, but to the lives and varying perspectives of millions of people of African descent around the globe. They specialize in contemporary art, though the museum interprets this broadly, housing such diverse offerings as a slave narrative audio collection and a chef-in-residence program in addition to revolving visual art exhibitions. The museum also runs an emerging artist program designed to provide connections and exhibition opportunities to young African American artists in the Bay area.
“Institutions like this are the soul of the city” MoAD’s Deputy Director, Michael Warr, a Bay area native, told EBONY.com. He said preserving the culture and diversity housed in these type of institutions is something everyone needs to be involved in. “People often think [the arts] are sustained by big foundations and the like, when in reality every individual donation makes a difference.”
Perhaps this is the solution to the rapid loss of African American arts, culture and community in the Bay area, coming together in support of the arts and history of the community across lines of race and class. Interestingly, both the AAACC and the MoAD have strong support from a diverse group of arts patrons, including a core group of newcomers to the city, as well as regulars who often community from as far away as Sacramento for events. The MoAD event boasts international visitors and members.
Both organizations also regularly partner with institutions such as SOMArts, who while not specifically geared towards the African American community, have nonetheless indicated their support through funding and/or collaborations with Black artists and arts organizations.
As for Marcus Books, though gone from their original location the bookstore was too much of a fixture to be gone for good. Their location in Oakland on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, near the MacArthur BART station, still houses readings and events for the African American writing community. They will also have a pop up location in the upcoming café that is planned for the Arts and Culture Complex.