I grew up in a segregated San Francisco, though it was never officially acknowledged.
Looking at my Mission Dolores eighth-grade photo, I see only two faces of color at the all boys’ school, one a Latino boy ironically named Michael O’Neill. That name fit the demographics of the San Francisco Mission District, mostly Irish and Italian. Latinos lived farther out in the South Mission. Black people literally lived across the tracks of Market Street in the Fillmore District, named after President Millard Fillmore, proponent of the Fugitive Slave Act. Black youth attended Everett Junior High around the corner. Mission Dolores students were dismissed at a different time so students from both schools rarely met at the bus stop. I don’t know if that was intentional.
The first time a Black person came into my house occurred toward the end of my grandfather’s life when Thomas Corrigan Sr. needed a cook and a caretaker. He had been an Irish immigrant laborer paving the streets of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. The caretaker’s name was Ruby. My ailing grandfather was also recovering from the sudden death of his wife, Agnes, after 40 years of marriage. I wrote about that stressful time in a hybrid memoir, “Confessions of a Shanty Irishman.” Here is a brief excerpt:
“They finally buried Agnes in April. Grandfather cried in bed every night and Father hired Ruby, a day nurse to watch him. Ruby cooked meals, and one day took a sliver from my hand using a needle, her fingers soft and strong with a precise delicate touch. They were black hands, but had the same gentle precision of an Agnes. When I left to play ball in the park, my playmates saw Ruby standing in the doorway flashing her gold-toothed smile.”
I remember those amused boys making a racist remark, but I said nothing, walking toward the baseball diamond in Dolores Park. My grandfather and Ruby, patient but resilient, actually got along well. Perhaps they both understood what it meant to be dismissed as the “hired help” with no other value. Thomas Sr. died in bed one hot June day after Father and I came home from Sunday Mass. Ruby came to the funeral. My father took her to one side and said, “We appreciate the work you’ve done, Ruby.”
“Your dad was a tough old Irishman,” Ruby said, “but I liked him.”
I attended the all boys’ Saint Ignatius High School run by Jesuits, and we had one Black student named Tom Manny. He endured many racist insults, until he became a football star. After that, he wasn’t just a “n-word” but “our n-word.” It was because of Tom Manny that we won the championship one season. I don’t believe Tom Manny ever graduated. Mission Dolores and Saint Ignatius were private schools and tuition was possibly too high for low-income families, though we considered ourselves to be lower middle class.
At San Francisco State, racial issues came to the forefront during the often violent student strike of 1968-1969, which eventually resulted in the first college ethnic studies class.
Have times changed that much since then? We have the Black Lives Matter Movement and federal agents from Homeland Security attacking protesters in Portland, including the Wall of Moms and veterans. In a joint statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer criticized the Trump administration for showing a “lack of respect” for Americans’ dignity and the First Amendment right to peaceful protest. Recent events have been unsettling.
Despite that, I do believe times have changed regarding race — and in a positive way since the San Francisco State protests. Congressman John Lewis believed that. Mission Dolores and Saint Ignatius are now co-educational and diverse. Certainly, my father and grandparents could never have imagined President Barack Obama. Though I worry about confrontations between the people and federal agents, the demonstrations indicate a new awareness, even if we have so many more bridges to cross.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.