It was a heady feeling for a brand new San Francisco State University graduate, who’d grown up on “the Hill” along Innes Street near the Hunters Point Shipyard, to take an interview to serve as manager of what would turn out to be the first black supermarket nationwide.
That was how Robert Simms was thrust into the middle of the 1960s in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, as first manager of the Neighborhood Coop, which had attracted 2,500 African-Americans to join in an unprecedented show of economic unit.
During “A Conversation with Robert Simms: Bayview in the 1960s” Friday, Oct. 2 at the Bayview branch library, Simms told of coming to the neighborhood at the age of four, attending local elementary and middle schools and then being inspired by neighborhood business leaders like Sam Jordan, whom he would ask their secrets to success.
“Although I majored in business at S.F. State, the insights I got from people like Sam Jordan have served me well for a long time,” said Simms.
After a year heading the Coop, Simms decided to start a newspaper to chronicle the positive developments in the neighborhood. It was called The Spokesman. When he walked into the community room of the library, he was struck by the bound copies of the newspaper, which published from 1964 to 1970, most of which he had not seen for more than three decades.
Simms described a group of women known as the “The Big 5”, who were the supervisors of various block clubs and could command attention anywhere from Washington to Sacramento to City Hall. “They could come into a meeting and change the agenda. They’d say, No, this is what we want to talk about.”
He also illuminated what had become known as the 1966 “riot.”
“After the shooting of a black youth in the back, we all thought it was unjust, so there was a meeting called with the mayor, but the mayor didn’t show for hours on end. People got frustrated and a side group began breaking some windows, so huge numbers of police showed up. We didn’t leave because we were just standing in the street. So the police would huddle and then they’d come out with billy clubs and chase us up the street. After 20 minutes or so, we’d come back. Then, they’d chase us again. The Spokesman was the only media there so we had the photos and the story and all the other media had to use our information. It even showed up in the national magazine The Nation.”
Simms challenged the characterization as a riot. “It was just people who were frustrated. There was no violence.”
He described Bayview/Hunters Point as a neighborhood filled with hard-working people who raised families. “But we were always characterized negatively, and it puts a burden on anyone who comes from there to prove themselves.”
There’s still a need for something like The Spokesman today, Simms suggested.