In 1964, I arrived in San Francisco and had the chance to visit the Fillmore at the end of its heyday. Some of the clubs still remained, and on a Saturday night, the streets were filled with well-dressed people partying and having a good time. I was vaguely aware of the plans for urban renewal, but I had little idea then of the neighborhood’s rich history, other than a general knowledge about the great African American migration west during and after World War II. My own Southern-born parents ended up in Washington State when my father was discharged from the Army.
By 1990 I was a photographer, and I began looking at the Fillmore as a part of my general interest in a visual examination of history and contemporary experience in African American communities. My family history was the root of this interest. On a tip from my friend Mildred Howard, I went to Red’s Shoeshine Parlor across from The Fillmore Auditorium. When I inquired about photographing the gallery on the walls that represented almost everyone who had lived and performed in The Fillmore, the owner of the shop, Elgin “Red” Powell, said, “Absolutely not!” It was clear that he was less than interested in talking with me. Some time passed, and when I returned, Red’s shop was empty, and there was no trace of the pictures. No one in the neighborhood seemed to know what happened to Red and the photographs in his shop. I was afraid that this valuable collection of history was lost. I continued to ask about its whereabouts for years.
In 1996 I was doing research for a report on the cultural history of the Fillmore for a proposal to convert the area into a “Jazz Preservation District,” and continued asking around the neighborhood about Red and his photographs. When I went into the New Chicago Barber Shop, across the street from Red’s parlor, and asked one of the barbers, Reggie Pettus, I was thrilled by his response, “They are in my back room.”
Reggie filled in the blanks about what had happened. Red Powell had a stroke not long after we met in the early 1990s, lost his lease and died soon afterward. When the parlor closed, everything was taken from the walls and was about to be tossed into a dumpster by the landlord. Reggie rescued the photographs and memorabilia, and kept them ever since and he was happy to let me go through the boxes.
I used Red’s collection in a report on the neighborhood and curated an exhibition that was first displayed outside Mayor Willie Brown’s Civic Center office, and later in the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery across the street. The photographs and other artifacts from the original collection, contribute to a remarkable reflection of the neighborhood’s history.
The images tell stories, raise questions and capture the incredible joy and sense of style conveyed to us in our talks with people about the period. We are fortunate that many of the clubs employed photographers to shoot the performers, employees and patrons. The collections are also a tribute to the individuals who took the time and energy to save them.
The ever-expanding archive has been used in documentary films, websites, a number of publications, museum exhibits and even a storefront installation that Elizabeth Pepin Silva and I helped curate on Fillmore Street in the very location of many of the clubs. It continues to be an honor and inspiration to see and work with the materials we found. I’ve talked to older residents who go by the installation every day because it reminds them of a period they say was the best in their lives.
Lewis Watts is a photographer, archivist/curator, visual historian and Professor Emeritus of Art at University of California, Santa Cruz, where he taught photography for 13 years. Before that he taught at UC, Berkeley for over 25 years. His research and artwork centers around the “cultural landscape” primarily in African diaspora communities. His recent book is Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era, co-authored with Elizabeth Pepin Silva, published by Chronicle Books 2006, Edition One Books 2016 and Heyday Books 2020. Order your copy of Harlem of the West here. Watts is the author of New Orleans Suite: Music and Culture in Transition, Univ. of California Press, 2013 and Portraits, Edition One Books 2019. His work has been exhibited and included in the collections of The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Citè de La Musique, Paris, France, The Berkeley Art Museum, Autograph London, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, The Oakland Museum of California, The Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase NY, The Amistad Center for Art and Culture, Hartford, Conn, Light Work, Syracuse NY, The Special Collections, McHenry Library, UC Santa Cruz, The Paul Sack Collection, San Francisco, The Art Mill Horaždovice Czech Republic and the Bancroft Library, UC Berkelely among others.