Inside the Black Church Fighting for Reparations from California

Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
The pulpit at Third Baptist Church of San Francisco has been a powerful place for the Rev. Amos C. Brown, seen June 4, 2023, who has delivered a maximalist message of what a historical remedy should be for Black Californians.

SAN FRANCISCO – The Gospel reading at the Third Baptist Church on this cool early-summer Sunday is from Luke, who relates the story of a meeting between Jesus and a particularly avaricious tax collector.

The passage is short. It is, as the congregation understands intuitively, a parable about yesterday and today, about theft and remedy.

In the end, humbled, the tax collector agrees to give half his wealth to the poor and to reimburse anyone he has wronged financially by paying them four times more than he owes.

“For the Son of man came to find and to restore what was lost,” the Rev. Amos C. Brown, 82 and in full voice, reads from the pulpit.

“And that to me sounds like reparations.”

California’s two-year review of what it owes Black residents for decades of state-sanctioned discrimination is reaching a decisive phase, and whatever form of reparation that emerges will set a national precedent. At a church that’s nearly as old as the state, expectations among Black Californians for recompense remain high, and Brown, who is vice chairman of the first-of-its-kind state reparations task force, has kept them that way.

Among the panel’s recommendations – which will be sent as a final report to the legislature by Thursday – are new programs to expand Black economic and educational opportunities, a formal apology for historical racism, and perhaps the boldest, cash payments of as much as $1.3 million to qualifying African Americans.

A new state bureau could be created to oversee the implementation of whatever the legislature adopts from the 500-page report.

The price could reach into the tens of billions of dollars in a state already facing a $32 billion budget deficit, a fiscal hole that did not exist when the project began in the raw days following the videotaped murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The challenges ahead are steep.

Black residents today account for just 5 percent of the state’s population, and many taxpayers who will be asked to finance a reparations package had little to do with constructing the institutionalized discrimination that helped accelerate African American flight and impoverishment over nearly a century. Those divisions over the degree of historical theft and modern remedy are apparent even within this church on the hill.

One recent poll revealed that among Californians, a clear majority supports the idea of a formal apology to African Americans and their descendants – the simplest of the remedies included in the commission’s report.

But the same poll, by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute, also found that only a majority of Black residents believes that racism is a “big problem” in the nation, an answer likely to influence how urgently the legislature’s mostly White and Latino lawmakers take on an expensive reparations project. Only about 1 in 3 White Californians said they believe racism is a “big problem.”

From the first sin of slavery through last-century urban redevelopment programs harmful to Black prosperity to the disproportionate African American incarceration rate during the so-called war on drugs, Brown draws a direct line through Black history to the reparations package he has helped design, a debt he believes must now be paid despite the state’s fiscal condition.

“We are victims of a crime,” Brown said, seated in his cluttered office, the walls decorated in a rich résumé of work in the civil rights movement. “If you are going to tell us what you can’t do because of the lack of money available, at least have the respect to tell us what you can do, what you will do.”

‘In my blood’

The story of Black California – and the path to reparations – can be traced through the Third Baptist Church and the rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods that surround it. It is a story of early success in culture and economy, of patriotism, and finally of a destructive urban renewal process that is still forcing Black residents from this liberal city.

Unlike with other racial and ethnic groups, the Black migration to California did not coincide with the Gold Rush, the mid-19th-century bonanza in the Sierra Nevada that drew speculators, outlaws and opportunists from the East. The money and migrants remade this hard-to-reach edge of the continent, which became a non-slave state in 1850.

The Black migratory surge came in the years before and during World War II, when California’s naval installations and new, enormous shipyards expanded to confront the imperial Japanese threat. Black newcomers filled the ranks of both seamen and shipbuilders. Over the course of the war, San Francisco’s African American population increased by more than six times.

And as they arrived, Black migrants from Southern states looked to replace the churches left behind. Third Baptist opened its doors in a former ordnance storage depot in 1852.

It has not closed since, even though it moved several times before finding its current location high above the Fillmore neighborhood. Over the decades, the sanctuary has resounded with the voices of Paul Robeson and Mahalia Jackson and the lectures of W.E.B. Du Bois – all of whom visited before Brown arrived in 1976 to run the church.

He was born in Jackson, Miss., the great-great-grandson of enslaved people. He recalls as a 14-year-old in August 1955 hearing the news of Emmett Till’s lynching. In a fury, Brown ran to the city’s NAACP offices across town, hoping to see Medgar Evers, the group’s field organizer.

“He told me, ‘Don’t just be upset,'” Brown recalled. “He said, ‘Let’s be smart and strategic.'”

Evers, later murdered in part for his role in investigating Till’s death, told Brown to organize the city’s young people. Within months, Brown had created the West Jackson Youth Council.

As a reward, Evers asked Brown’s mother if he could bring her son along to San Francisco the following year for the NAACP convention, which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and Thurgood Marshall all attended. Brown was 15.

“This has been in my blood, in my psyche – this theme of liberation,” Brown said.

Redevelopment and removal

In the past century, the Fillmore neighborhood became a national focal point of Black culture and economy, a place where Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald appeared regularly, where Louis Armstrong performed in its clubs and theaters.

Third Baptist was its sanctuary on the hill. It and a network of like-minded, socially liberal Black churches began working with the civil rights movement.

But following World War II, the neighborhood’s largely Black identity began shifting, as Japanese immigrants and White people arrived, looking for homes.

In 1948, according to a draft of this city’s own ongoing reparations study, “under the guise of urban development,” San Francisco declared the area blighted, “which provided just cause to destroy a large portion of the Fillmore.” It was rebuilt as a mostly residential area that, in many cases, priced out Black residents.

The city’s reparation draft report states that the Fillmore demolition “closed 883 businesses, displaced 4,729 households, destroyed 2,500 Victorian homes, and damaged the lives of nearly 20,000 people.” Many of them were Black. Compensation to the Fillmore’s displaced Black residents was paltry, if paid out at all.

Brown assumed control of Third Baptist as his congregation was being pushed out by the ongoing Fillmore redevelopment. A congregation of 3,600 parishioners when he arrived at Third Baptist is one-sixth that size today.

“This city no longer felt it needed Black people to build its economy,” said Brown, referring to the region’s larger shift from a fading shipyard economy to a Silicon Valley one. “And this was a sanctioned system of Black removal.”

The Black church in California was an engine for civil rights advocacy, as it was in other parts of the nation, from the 1950s through the 1970s.

But its message of spiritual and social liberation has tired along with its graying, shrinking congregation, and though Third Baptist is somewhat of an outlier, the Black church has been largely absent from the push statewide for reparations.

In recent years, Third Street parishioners have marched in favor of reparations, hosted a hearing of the state commission, and listened nearly every Sunday since the state movement began in earnest as Brown has delivered a maximalist message of what a historical remedy should be for Black Californians.

The pulpit has been a powerful place for Brown, the one at Third Baptist and the one on the commission itself. But in truth the church has been more symbolic than practical within the broader movement for reparations, and some African American scholars characterize the Black church’s larger role so far as marginal and its strength as a spent force.

“This has been a blind spot in the Black church,” said James Lance Taylor, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco, who is a Black scholar and a member of the city’s reparations task force. “The Black church here is not dead. But it is exhausted, and we’re hoping the reparations movement will wake them back up to the social issues surrounding them.”

>Washington Post photo by Melina Mara
Third Baptist Church of San Francisco had 3,600 parishioners when the Rev. Amos C. Brown arrived in 1976. Today, it’s one-sixth that size.

‘Everyone has a fight ahead’

Once the commission’s report is turned over to the legislature, the lobbying begins over what, if any, reparations Black Californians will receive.

The divisions within Black Californians, though, over what form reparations should take remain wide, even in a city where yawning inequality is made even worse by the high cost of housing and the uneven economy.

The Fillmore neighborhood, off the commercial byways, is a mix of relatively new duplexes and enduring Victorians that survived the so-called redevelopment. The foot traffic is mostly White, the cafes and hilltop parks also reflecting the broader demographic change.

On the busy corner of Geary and Fillmore Streets a few blocks from Third Baptist is a small shop called In the Black, which occupies part of the storied Fillmore theater, a venue that once hosted Miles Davis and such iconic counterculture performers as Jimi Hendrix.

The shop is a collective consisting of nearly 20 local vendors, selling jewelry, clothing and hats, handbags and makeup, run by Pia Harris. She is 45, a Black San Franciscan who arrived from Louisiana with her mother decades ago.

For now, Harris is a contented tenant in a corner of prime real estate. But some of her vendors may soon want to open their own stores. This has proved to be a challenge, she said, because some Black small-business people she knows have been unable to secure loans due to lack of collateral. It is a problem freezing economic development across many Black neighborhoods.

She believes any reparations package from the legislature must include expanding Black access to credit.

“We’re just trying to catch up to where everyone else is,” Harris said. “It’s so hard to hear sometimes that all this happened so long ago, all this discrimination. I mean, Jim Crow happened in my lifetime and it’s still happening.”

“I have some hope,” she added, “but everyone has a fight ahead.”

Gregory Richardson arrived as a child in San Francisco from Mississippi with his mother and father, who was then serving in the U.S. military. He shares his small apartment today on the edge of the Fillmore with his ailing mom.

“I tell people there are two things important to me – Jesus Christ and the belief in a Black Wall Street,” said Richardson, 66, a community advocate and onetime parishioner of Third Baptist who still works with the church in his role as head of the men’s group at the nearby Jones United Methodist Church.

“We have proven we do not need handouts,” he said. “We need industry to be able to support the Black family.”

In the pews of Third Baptist, Black expectations vary, despite Brown’s prominent role on the task force and the energy he has brought to the movement.

Fred Thomas, a jack-of-all-trades at Third Baptist, is 33 and does not know if he would qualify for a cash payment or any form of reparation, which depends on whether he is a direct descendant of an enslaved person or a free Black person living in the country before the end of the 19th century.

An estimated 80 percent of Black Californians qualify for reparations under those definitions, set by the task force last year.

“This is about something so much bigger than money,” Thomas said. “What matters is that resources could be poured into education or wherever there is something lacking in our community. The playing field should be made level.”

After serving in the Army, Alexander T. Williams arrived in San Francisco, living near Third Baptist in the Haight district. On a recent Sunday, he is serving as an usher, passing out hymnals and the service programs while wearing a pressed blue blazer and formal white gloves.

His great-great-grandfather was enslaved in North Carolina, where Williams was born, and after years of working as a technical adviser for Del Monte Foods here, he managed to buy 100 acres of that plantation. He has family living there now.

“What I most want is the government acknowledging the wrong that has been done to us for so many years,” said Williams, 82. “Reparation to me means that the wrong has been recognized. I’ll leave the amount or anything like that to others.”

‘Now is the time for America to pay its bill’

The Third Baptist Singers begin “We Shall Overcome,” and Brown rises with them to open his sermon, titled on this day “A Model of Full Salvation.” The theme is liberation – for those wronged and for those to blame.

“When White folks say, ‘I didn’t enslave you, get over it,’ I’m here to say today that in America you can be an accomplice without pulling the trigger,” Brown shouts, chords from the church organ swelling behind him. “And now is the time for America to pay its bill.”

Brown favors cash payments as one form of reparation. But he has also identified disused buildings, vacant lots and other sites that he believes should be given to Black Californians as part of the package.

These properties, in his view, are the kinds of practical assets Blacks lost here over decades of discrimination. They now must be made into remedies that, in his words, follow the model of the “40 acres and a mule” grant made to freed Black Americans after the Civil War.

“That was about land and it’s very basic,” Brown said. “And that is equally true for us today. That is still our need.”