Compton's Cafeteria Riot

It's a hot August night in San Francisco in 1966 -- three years before the famed Stonewall. Compton's Cafeteria, in the seedy Tenderloin district, is hopping with its usual assortment of transgender people, young street hustlers, and down-and-out regulars. The management, annoyed by the noisy crowd at one table, calls the police. When a surly cop, accustomed to manhandling Compton's clientele, attempts to arrest one of the queens, she throws her coffee in his face. Mayhem erupts -- windows break, furniture flies through the air. Police reinforcements arrive, and the fighting spills into the street. For the first time, the drag queens band together to fight back, getting the better of the cops, whom they kick and stomp with their high-heeled shoes and beat with their heavy purses. For everyone at Compton's that night, one thing was certain -- things would never be the same again.
photo and text from comptonscafeteriariot.org

More than ten years ago, historian, author, and former director of the GLBT Historical Society Susan Stryker uncovered the history of a riot in San Francisco's Tenderloin district. In 2005, together with fellow historian-turned-filmmaker Victor Silverman and producer Jack Walsh, she released a documentary about that night, its context, and the early gay liberation and transexual human rights movements which the riot helped to inspire. Before Susan's work on this project, the Compton's story was mostly forgotten, but that doesn't mean that night didn't matter. It was a turning point for the queer community: San Franciscans were catalyzed by the event to start organizing, and the boldness of those queens and queers sent a message to the cops that harassing and brutalizing trans people, queer people, and poor people wasn't going to fly anymore. That spontaneous, furious fight was a landmark in the movement against police brutality and for human rights.

Wikipedia has a bit more on the riot, Susan's film delves into the whole story. It's called Screaming Queens. Here's a clip:


East Bay Lesbian Bars

Because the gnomes that control google prefer that blogs have straight-ahead titles, I had to give this a straight-ahead title. Were that not the case, I would have called this post Women Unite in Armed Snuggle, a slogan found in the following wonderful link:

A brief history of East Bay lesbian bars.

I don't know much about bars because I spent my 20s clean and sober, and now that I'm not sober, I already feel too old to leave my house after 8 pm. But having read this piece by Barbara Hoke (and heavily illustrated, mainly with photos from the prolific Cathy Cade), I can say that I genuinely wish I spent more time in bars! Most specifically, I wish I could have gone to the Driftwood in Hayward to check out the former Roller Derby queens who ran the place. Seriously, I think bar history is important because bars are where we found each other even when we couldn't find each other anywhere else. Community is important and Stonewall should confirm that what happens in the bars has repercussions that are much bigger.

Related, I haven't watched it in a few years but I remember liking Last Call at Maude's about a long-lived San Francisco dyke bar. And for more on lesbian bar history, this Curve article discusses it, including references to a couple books on the topic.

I'll close with some silliness: popular culture's take on lesbian bars. I would have included Roseanne's lesbian bar kiss, but the only clip I could find on YouTube was too long. Instead I offer you these two:

Susie Bright uploaded her cameo in the bar scene in Bound (which I walked out of after the first 10 minutes when it was in the theater a dozen years ago).

And Pam Grier beats off the lesbians in the Foxy Brown bar fight scene (which I confess, I am too young to have seen in the theater):

Drink on gals!


Two Bookstores

I've had a pretty stressful few months, and unfortunately for my generally overdrawn bank account, I've been pacifying myself by buying a lot of used furniture and new books. Yesterday I found myself twice unable to resist the temptation of bookstores.

Laurel Bookstore on MacArthur and 39th is now (since I moved a couple weeks ago) my neighborhood bookstore. They mostly carry new books, with a large children's section and a nice mix of other topics. I spent some time talking to the owner and she was especially warm and helpful. The place generally has a friendly, happy, neighborhoody feeling that I liked. When I was there yesterday I found a copy of Storybook Strings and a new history of the Laurel District by Oakland lover Dennis Evanosky. Turns out he'll be doing a reading at Laurel Bookstore next month, so I'll be back!

Then last night, after filling up on injira at Cafe Colucci I stopped into Book Zoo on Telegraph at Alcatraz and found a couple used Arcadia history books and a well-preserved first edition of If They Come in the Morning from the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis and Other Political Prisoners. I don't care about the first edition thing, I just want to read it, but I was impressed that the Book Zoo folks only charged four bucks. Their prices are all very reasonable and the store is beautiful, with lovely old hardbacks shelved almost to the ceiling. Very worth a visit.

I really wanted to close this with a link to John and Yoko singing Angela, but I couldn't find a copy online, so you'll have to content yourself with reading the lyrics.


More Rosie

In the massive oversight department, my recent post about the Rosie the Riveter Park failed to mention an awesome related project. The Bancroft Regional Oral History Office conducted almost 50 oral histories of men and women who lived and worked in Richmond during the war. You can read a few of the transcripts on their site.


Good news for history nerds (like me)

History Nerds Rejoice! The New York Times is making their Times Select features including a large portion of their archives available for free to all. I could give a hoo-ha about reading the Times columnists, but the archives – all the archives from 1851 to 1922 and some content from 1923 to 1986 available online for free! I never have to leave the comfort of my computer screen again! Unfortunately, you still need to register (for free) to read the article about it.

(Just watch out for giants!)


Technical Problems

A bit of tech housekeeping that you can ignore if you read this site by going straight to bayradical.blogspot.com:

Apparently, those of you who read Bay Radical through an RSS reader like bloglines or LJ syndication are seeing re-posts of my old entries, sometimes all of them at once! I know this is annoying, but my research about this hasn't uncovered exactly where the problem lies. Basically, for some reason, the RSS reader perceives that I have updated or changed old posts, and is trying to show you the 'new versions' even when there isn't a new version.

From what I understand, this problem is common, and happens to lots of blogs in all different readers, but I have been told that google reader does this the least of any other reader, so you could try subscribing there instead.

If you have any idea of how I can reduce this problem, please let me know!


Chron coverage of War era social change

Apparently, Ken "Jazz is best when its played by dead people" Burns has a new documentary on WWII. Despite my feelings about Burns (and I know about Burns, because for some reason I sat through the endless Baseball documentary even though I haven't really been into baseball since I was a tomboy kid) I'm pretty interested to check it out, because he focuses on the impact of the war on urban communities, including Sacramento where I lived when I was in high school. An article about the documentary in today's Chron includes some cool historical tidbits about the Bay Area during the war. Here's the link.


Rosie the Riveter Memorial Park

Rosie Memorial 2

I told the kids I was taking them to the Rosie the Riveter Park, which they seemed very excited about it despite the fact they've never heard of Rosie the Riveter. The concept of Rosie the Riveter is confusing because the idea that there was a time when women weren't allowed to work the same jobs as men is foreign to them. I mean, their parents are lesbians – in their world, women do everything including fixing cars, washing dishes, and rolling children up in their blankets like human burritos; why shouldn't women rivet? And what the hell is a rivet anyway? On the way to the park I gave them my now classic lecture (most recently used when discussing Martin Luther King Jr.) about how Sometimes People Have Ideas That Aren't True, and It's Important to Tell Those People That ANYONE Can Be a Riveter (or that anyone should be able to ride in the front of the bus, depending on which lecture I'm giving). (I restrained myself from giving a lecture on war profiteering, which might have been more appropriate for this memorial – more on that in a minute.)

Rosie Memorial 5

I hadn't been to Richmond in a while, and when I got off the freeway, I was completely confused by the impenetrable wall of condos. This isn't the Richmond I'm familiar with, and if it is part of Richmond now, what is the city doing with all the new property taxes? Please, someone with some real Richmond knowledge fill me in. In any case, I got lost in condo land and finally ended up at an upscale mini-mart where I asked the proprietor for directions to Rosie the Riveter Park. He looked over his glasses at me and chuckled (I'm not exaggerating - he really chuckled!), "Your expectations are too high," and directed me back to a patch of grass next to a parking lot I'd just passed.

The kids and I got out at the Rosie Memorial, a little exhibit about women homefront workers that was commissioned by the City of Richmond, and designed by artist Susan Schwartzenberg (Susan, why don't you have a website?) and landscape architect Cheryl Barton. Given, I'm a nerd, but I really liked it. The memorial runs the length of a Liberty Ship, and as you walk along the path spanning the ships distance, you can read a mini labor history of WWII, with a focus on people of color and women. Also interspersed are quotes from women shipyard workers, and these, along with photos posted at the site, are the most affecting part of the exhibit.

Rosie Memorial 4

The memorial is planted on the former site of Kaiser Shipyard number 2, where steel magnate Henry J. Kaiser employed many thousands of workers to build ships for WWII.

Richmond's history is inseparably linked with Kaiser's factories and with the war. Richmond became a largely African-American city (36% of the population according to the latest census) as a result of migration related to the war industries. And the poverty that many Richmond residents confront now is directly linked with the city's failure to create adequate housing and infrastructure for its many new residents during the war, and the sudden disappearance of jobs that occurred when the war was over.

Rosie Memorial 6

In 1940, Richmond had a small town feeling and a population of around 23,000. By 1950, the population was more than 99,000. Workers came in carloads and trainloads, brought by the more than 170 recruiters that Kaiser employed around the state and around the country to power the shipbuilding empire that he had centered in Richmond. So desperate was Kaiser for workers that at one point, LA recruiters instituted a "work for drunks" program where judges issued suspended sentences to 'vagrants' in exchange for an agreement to come work in the Richmond yards. That program didn't last long, but even for the average newly arrived worker, (if you can say that there was an 'average' since folks came from all over the state, from all regions of the country, and represented dozens of ethnic groups) the attrition rate was high. Once workers arrived they found limited housing, working conditions that were both stressful and tedious, and the loneliness of leaving home. The many new African-American workers transplanted from the South found themselves subject to the same Jim Crow racist hiring and housing practices they were familiar with from back home. War industry work crews were racially segregated, Black workers were rarely promoted to supervisory positions, and Black workers were refused membership in the major unions and instead relegated to auxiliary 'negro' unions where members were expected to pay dues but received little or no protection. (White women faced job discrimination as well, receiving significantly lower pay for jobs that white male workers got more for). While many protested these conditions, for example, in the Sausalito shipyards nearly all the Black employees walked out in protest of racist conditions in 1943, government agencies, white labor leaders, and industrialist business-owners were less than sympathetic. Outside of the factory, public housing built during the war was segregated in Richmond, as it was in Oakland and elsewhere in the Bay Area. (According to The Second Gold Rush, details on that book below, Berkeley community leader Byron Rumford started a petition drive protesting public housing segregation which finally lead to federally mandated integration of Berkeley/Albany public housing in 1946.) Basic workplace rights and decent housing were a struggle for Richmond's many new Black residents. For their part, newly arrived white Southern workers tended to complain about 'having to' work side-by-side with African-Americans.

Rosie Memorial 3

Who was Henry J. Kaiser? He was your basic guy-out-to-make-a-buck, all-American, success story. He got his big start running a road-paving business, and ended his life turning Honolulu into the tourist sink that it is today. He was successful to say the least – his company, along with another Bay Area local, Bechtel and four other companies managed the construction of the Hoover Dam. During the war, Kaiser employees in Richmond (and his three other factories along the West Coast) were building a whole war ship in about a month (the record was set when workers constructed an entire ship in just over four days). His name also lives on in the Kaiser Permanente HMO, which was created because Kaiser needed to provide some basic health services to his thousands of employees, and who can afford that kind of expense (while maintaining a millionaire lifestyle)?

When the war ended, Kaiser moved on to new projects. He even (briefly) got into the auto industry. For the thousands of factory workers who had moved to the Bay Area, many full of patriotism and hope for the future, life wasn't quite as easy as Kaiser's. The jobs disappeared almost immediately. Soldiers came home and were given priority for the few jobs that remained. Women and men of color found themselves fired or demoted to make way for white men who were prioritized by employers. Today Richmond is still full of art, culture, and hard work, but undeniably, Richmond has been scarred by the poverty that is a legacy of the war industry here. The Rosie Memorial is just a little thing, but I loved getting to learn more about why things happened the way they did here. I was glad to come. I confess that the kids liked the nearby boats a lot more than that exhibit, but what can they do, they're a captive audience.

Rosie Memorial 1

This entry barely scratches the surface of what can be said about the long-term impact of WWII industry on race, gender, and economics here. If you want to learn more, there are a bunch of other sources I'd recommend:

Marilynn S. Johnson's The Second Gold Rush provided a bunch of references for this post. It's factually dense but it maintains a readable narrative. I don't think you have to be as obsessive as I am to enjoy it, which is unusual for this kind of regional history book.

Fight or Be Slaves also has tons of information about this period.

Robert Self discusses issues related to changing racial dynamics in the East Bay after WWII in American Babylon. Unfortunately, I got about 50 pages into this book last summer, and then accidentally left it at Feather River Family Camp, so I can't tell you for sure if it's worth reading, but my friend Jess was just saying good things about it, so on his recommendation, I'll say, go for it.

I thought this Bay Crossings article had some interesting history about water travel related to Richmond.

Finally, I was inspired to check out the Rosie park after reading a nice article about it in the San Francisco Bayview. The article originally appeared on Black Commentator, but I'm including the Bayview link because of some additional notes at the end of their version.

Hey, if you want to learn more, Here's a whole pile of relevant sources.

I'll send you out with this video by historian Betty Soskin on African-Americans in the Richmond war industries. You can read some details about the content of the video here.

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