Once called “The Harlem of the West,” the Fillmore District of San Francisco has long been home to the Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. Each Sunday, this unique Christian congregation worships to the powerful notes of live jazz, encouraging its audience to participate through the crash of a tambourine or the stomp of a foot.
This church and its members embody the heart and soul of this traditionally African-American neighborhood.
Unfortunately, the health of San Francisco’s “heart and soul” is in decline. What can the health of this community tell us about the state of the city as a whole, and how can this pulse be taken? Institutions like The Church of Saint Coltrane lend themselves directly to this endeavor by providing a window into the personal experiences that make up the challenges and triumphs of the Fillmore through daily lived experience.
At the University of San Francisco, students enjoy the unique opportunity of learning from these cultures on a personal level. It is no accident that USF, a school which prides itself on the diversity of its student body, stands in the center of a city whose identity contains a multi-cultural history of a far larger scale. With social activism inscribed as one of USF’s core values, students have the unique opportunity to raise their social consciousness of not only the globe, but the infinitely complex city right beneath their feet.
The fact that music has been an integral and inextricable element of the Fillmore district is only a part of its history. The area has seen migrations of Russian, Japanese, Central American, and Filipino immigrants, each adding a unique tinge to the complex flavor of the area. Although its history is unquestionably multi-cultural, the African-American community has existed at the heart of this melting pot from the time of its creation in the 1880’s.
According to the U.S. Census, the African-American community in San Francisco in 1970 was 13.4 percent. In 1990 it was down to 10.9 percent, and by 2013, had dwindled to 6.0 percent.
In San Francisco, the ongoing debate over the city’s identity in regard to gentrification is not a foreign one. An issue seldom acknowledged, however, is the fact that gentrification does not affect demographics in a proportionate manner. As one can see from the statistics above, for communities like The Church of Saint Coltrane, the shifting identity of San Francisco has hit some harder than others.
What, then, are the implications of this reality? Due to its existence as a religious and musical entity in a district famous for both, the church serves as a crucial artery with which one can take the pulse of the district as a whole.
Founder of the church, Archbishop Franzo King has played an integral role in the church through its many changes and evolutions.
Throughout these evolutions however, Coltrane’s music has remained at the heart of the operation. “Music is a trinity for us: melody, harmony, and rhythm; the father, son, and holy spirit” explained the Archbishop. King was raised in the Sanctified Church (or, The Original Church of God), a community that looked down on jazz and blues music. “If you listened to jazz or blues you weren’t going to heaven” stated King.
But for Archbishop King, who was drawn towards negative influences in his youth, “it was John Coltrane’s music that brought me back to God.” The church, as it stands today, began as a listening club in which members would gather, listen, and discuss John Coltrane’s music.
As the congregation evolved through the years, King explains that it was his mother, Mildred Phyllis, who legitimized the church in the eyes of the religious community.
“She helped to put this community together, gave me my first bishop papers before we came into the African Orthodox Church, and codified, bonafide, and justified everything that we were doing.”
One of the ways in which the church has ingrained itself in the community of the Fillmore is through its social justice work. “We have been a vibrant part of this community since 1971 in large part due to our social activism; speaking out against violence, racism, police brutality, and other important issues of equality. We are here in this community as a spokesperson that speaks truth to power,” said King.
When asked to share his thoughts on the decline of the African-American community in San Francisco, King shared, “What’s happening is just short of genocide. It’s a crime, pre-meditated with malice and forethought, to drive the African-American community out of San Francisco. We’ve tried to stand up against this fact with very little success.”
Whether or not the decline of the black population is indeed premeditated, King’s comments provide insight into the issue from the eyes of one who is intimately involved in the struggle.
Asked to explain his greatest hope for the future of The Saint John Coltrane Church, King stated, “My greatest hope is to have a higher institution of learning, a John Coltrane University, I think that would establish the longevity of the church. We need a school of social justice and liberal arts, that’s my highest deal for the church right now.”
The preservation of organizations like this one is viewed by many as paramount to the sustained social justice movement in both the Fillmore District and San Francisco as a whole. It is from these communities on the front lines of activism that play the most crucial role in speaking out and resisting the more pernicious aspects of gentrification.
When asked about the most important aspect of the church’s work, King jokingly replied, “paying the electric bill!” Although said in jest, this remark points to a much more serious issue.
King views the exodus of African-Americans from San Francisco as both a social and economic detriment to the Fillmore and its historic legacy.
A sked to determine the greatest challenge facing the church, the Archbishop said, “Economic stability…We need a building, we need money for the staff, this is our greatest obstacle.”
He continued, “A related issue is the outward migration of our congregation. Our deacon and his family is not here because they live in Santa Cruz and there’s a storm today. We have people here from Redwood City as well, all over the place, so the challenge as a whole is economic.”
Whether or not the economic battle raging in the African-American community is present by design or circumstance, San Francisco stands to lose a community which has existed at its heart and soul for decades.
King elucidated, “The problem is that we have become separated. Poor and oppressed is not a racially exclusive reality. It’s not about whose knife is deeper; mine is 14 inches, yours is 7 inches. But we’re both bleeding.”
As the African American community in San Francisco struggles to maintain its historic presence, the future for Blacks in the city remains to be seen.
Photo Credit: Eli MacDonald/Foghorn