September 9, 2019

Elouise Goes to Washington

by The Nod

Eric tells Brittany the story of Elouise Westbrook, a legendary housing rights activist in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco who never, ever took no for an answer.

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Transcript

[THEME MUSIC PLAYS]


ERIC: From Gimlet Media, this is The Nod. A podcast about Black culture, from Blackness's biggest fans. I'm Eric Eddings.

BRITTANY: And I'm Brittany Luse.


[THEME MUSIC PLAYS OUT]



ERIC: Do you know what time it is?

BRITTANY: I do.

ERIC: Do you know what ti- Do you know where that comes from?

BRITTANY: Um, no, but I saw you doing the Bankhead Bounce. I got really stressed out. (laughs)

ERIC: (laughs)

BRITTANY: What are you doing?

ERIC: That's, you don't remember like when Swizz Beats, uh, says at the beginning of songs? Like in-, usually in videos?

BRITTANY: Yeah, well, you know what? 

[Swizz Beats' "Like That" plays]

BRITTANY: You just don't sound like him. So you just looked like yourself...

ERIC: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

BRITTANY: Shaking your shoulders and asking me that question.

ERIC: Well regardless...

BRITTANY: But I get it now.

ERIC: (laughs)

BRITTANY: Okay.

ERIC: Anyway, do you know what time it is?

BRITTANY: I have an inkling, but I also think that you're gonna tell me.

ERIC: Well you'd be right. It's time for Peanut Butter History.

Sound Clips: George Washington Carver was the wizard of the soil.

Sound Clips: George Washington Carver was the most well-known African-American of his day.

Sound Clips: During his lifetime, Carver extracted more than 300 products from the peanut.

Sound Clips: There was one product that many mistakenly attribute to him. Peanut butter.

[PEANUT BUTTER HISTORY THEME]

BRITTANY: Peanut butter history is a nod to the awe-inspiring George Washington Carver.

ERIC: Who didn't invent peanut butter, by the way, but he did think of hundreds of new uses for peanuts, including antiseptic, hair-dressing, which was a mixture of peanut oil and lanolin.

BRITTANY: I feel like that combination is a few ingredients short of honestly some of those concoctions that some of these girls be making on YouTube now.

ERIC: Right?

BRITTANY: (laughs) Like deep conditioner, braid oil, whatever. And actually it's probably only about 12 ingredients short of uh, Luster's Pink Oil lotion, so, there you go.

ERIC: Well, there you go, he was on to something.

BRITTANY: He was on to something.

ERIC: And this is also our homage to the many, many Black inventors, scientists, artists and activists who have yet to be recognized for their contributions. And today we're gonna make sure that one activist gets the recognition they deserve.

BRITTANY: Ok an activist, tell me more...

ERIC: Yes! An activist. And while this story is going to end up in a place you won't expect, sadly the way it starts is all too familiar. The BEGINNING goes like this: Black people begin to settle into a neighborhood, white people begin to move out.

BRITTANY: Yeah.

ERIC: Racism, lack of jobs and opportunities leads to like, protests and demonstrations. Even more white flight occurs. The city decides to build a freeway through the neighborhood, cutting it off from the rest of the city. Without support, the neighborhood declines. It's then marked for quote on quote, redevelopment.

BRITTANY: Oh yeah...

ERIC: Buildings get knocked down. Black families get displaced this is sadly a tale as old as time. Do those trends sound familiar?

BRITTANY: Sound pretty familiar.

ERIC: Since World War II, like, this process has been happening to Black neighborhoods all over the U.S., you know, Detroit even.

BRITTANY: Yeah...

ERIC: … Austin. You name the city, some version of this has likely happened there. And that's almost how things ended up in today's story if it were not for the actions of one woman. Her name is Elouise Westbrook. All right, does that sound familiar at all?

BRITTANY: No.

ERIC: Okay. So, Elouise Westbrook was a legendary housing rights activist in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco.

BRITTANY: Oh, San Francisco, yeah.

ERIC: Yes.

ERIC: She fought against literally every obstacle that post-war America threw at Black folks and came out victorious. And you mentioned you- you seemed like Hunters Point Bayview rang a bell...

BRITTANY: Yeah...

ERIC: Because you just talked to someone...

BRITTANY: Yeah, Jimmie Fails…The star of uh, Last Black Man in San Francisco.

ERIC: Yes, yes there you go. They highlight the neighborhood in the movie. And so, for Elouise's story, we are talking about that neighborhood Bayview Hunters Point, but we're talking about that neighborhood in the 60s and the 70s. 

ERIC: At that time, it was overcrowded...With hundreds of Black families living in old dilapidated housing stock that was left over from WW2. And so, by the late 60s, Bayview Hunters Point had been marked for redevelopment. Dun, dun, dun...

ERIC: You know, people were really nervous and afraid that this redevelopment meant that like they too would be displaced. But Bayview had something that other neighborhoods didn't, they had Elouise Westbrook.

BRITTANY: Mm...

ERIC: She was a mom in her 50s around this time and she was known as like this like tall woman, literally like six feet tall with just a ton of personality. And she was an activist for a lot of things, not just housing. Uh, she just spoke up for the neighborhood. So here’s a clip of a speech she gave to Black students at San Francisco State College. The students were protesting to try to get an ethnic studies program. I want you to listen to how she introduces herself.  

WESTBROOK: I want you to know that I- I am a Black woman. I'm a mother, and I have 15 grandchildren, and I want a country that I can be proud of (applause). I only have but one life to give, children. When I die, I'm dead. And you better believe it, but I'm dying for the rights of people. (applause)

BRITTANY: I mean if you've got 15 grandchildren you gotta ensure...

ERIC: (laughs)

BRITTANY: (laughs) ...the future, I mean, that's high stakes.

ERIC: Yeah, and clearly she's like, tough lady, straight shooter, like says it how it is.

BRITTANY: Nice skin too, I just gotta say. I can see the video, y'all can't see the video.

ERIC: (laughs)

BRITTANY: But Black really don't crack. I can't believe she was in her 50s. Looking good.

ERIC: Yeah, she- she had a nice li-, I don't know if-, I don't even know if it was a wig.

BRITTANY: It's a wig.

ERIC: It's a wig, oh okay. Well she had a nice wig going.

BRITTANY: It was the style back then, everybody had a wig.

ERIC: Ah, but she was fresh. And so, Elouise and four other Black woman in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood became known as the Big Five of Bayview.

BRITTANY: Mm...

ERIC: And to be frank, they ran shit out there. And they formed this Joint Housing Committee to negotiate with the city to bring new housing to the neighborhood without displacing residents. I wanna actually play you this clip from this 1969 documentary called Hunter’s Point: A View from the Hill. It’s about the housing situation in Hunter’s Point from local TV station KRON. Now, this was awhile go, so pay close attention to how they describe her…You can hear the subtle⎼or maybe not subtle⎼ disdain for the power she wields.  

NEWS ANNOUNCER: In Hunters Point, as in most Black communities, the burden of public responsibility has been shouldered largely by Black women. The current leader of a local matriarchy is Mrs. Elouise Westbrook she is chairman of the joint housing committee...the influence of women like Mrs. Westbrook rests in their ability to forcefully articulate the needs and attitudes of the community

WESTBROOK: I do feel like the people of Hunter's Point have been very, very patient. They have been kind not to burn it down. And I think that's beautiful. [laughter] 

BRITTANY: (Laughing)

ERIC: So like, local matriarchy, the way she forcefully wields her power⎼

BRITTANY: Forcefully articulates. Which is true but also still feels coded.

ERIC: Yeah, exactly.

BRITTANY: But I like what she said about how kind it is that people didn’t burn it down...that is very real.



ERIC: So, instead of burning the place down, she demanded meetings, called elected officials incessantly. And soon, the redevelopment agency for the city like decided the best way to deal with her is just to work with her. (laughs)

BRITTANY: There you go.

ERIC: And, yeah, and so they actually started negotiating with the Joint Housing Committee to do things differently this time. So they finally settled on a site in the Hunter’s Point neighborhood.

BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

ERIC: They even secured an agreement from the mayor that the new building would be funded with federal dollars that had already been awarded. 

BRITTANY: Yeah.

ERIC: So obviously, this is where shit starts to go south. So, the mayor hits up Elouise in the Joint Housing Authority after the building has been demolished and lets them know that the federal government has not yet released the $14 million that they need to build the new housing. It's a really large number, you can't just pull $14 million.

BRITTANY: No, I mean $14 million is a lot now, but that's a lot back⎼what years are we talking about?

ERIC: We're talking about late 60s...

BRITTANY: That's a lot of money.

ERIC: Yeah, and to the mayor's credit, the mayor and the head of the redevelopment agency both, in individual trips, flew to D.C. to try to negotiate with HUD to just like, release the money, just give them the money, it'd already been awarded. But no dice.

ERIC: So, you know, these ridiculously powerful white men accepted this no, but Elouise refused. She knew that she could better. So, she proposed that they go to Washington and just ask the HUD secretary to release the funds. Now, folks thought that plan was laughable, like, literally the most powerful white man in the city had just tried that and-

BRITTANY: It didn't work.

ERIC: It ended in failure, yeah.

BRITTANY: (laughs) Yeah.

ERIC: Um, so, they were like, they literally said to her, how are you gonna go, you being this Black woman, gonna get this like, powerful white people to do something? Why- why would that even be possible? But again, Elouise is not gonna take no for answer and this one of many, many times in this story that Elouise will teach people that you just don't tell her no. It's just not a word that she acknowledges.

BRITTANY: Mm.

ERIC: Ok? And I just want to say, we know so much of this story because she was interviewed so extensively by a grad student, Rachel Brahinsky, and also the Joint Housing Committee to incredible fucking notes. So, alright, are you ready to hear the story of Elouise managed to accomplish something that even the most powerful white man in her town could not?

BRITTANY: Yeah, I mean- what, that's irresistible. (laughs)

ERIC: (laughs)

BRITTANY: The premise of that is irresistible. Yes! 

[MUSIC IN]

ERIC: Well, I need you to be a little more patient because that story is coming…After the break.

[MUSIC OUT]

BREAK

ERIC: Welcome back! 

BRITTANY: Welcome Back.

ERIC: Ok, let’s get back to Eloise’s story. 

BRITTANY: Okay, um, so, I, have got four minutes on the clock, you've got four minutes to tell this story and to make it just a little more challenging, to add a little bit of a swerve, little twist, I'm gonna play you some music that speeds up as it goes along, just to put the pressure, you know I like to keep my foot on your neck.

ERIC: You do. That, you do.

BRITTANY: (laughs)

BRITTANY: Okay, are you ready to tell the story?

ERIC: Uh, yes.

BRITTANY: Okay. Ready? Set.

[MUSIC STARTS]

ERIC: So, It’s 1970 and people thought Elouise and her group couldn't go to Washington to get this done, they were like nah, this is just not about to happen, fam. Uh, and so, you know, again, another no that Elouise is faced with. But Elouise doesn't know that song. So she and the women of the Joint Housing Authority they raised money for 14 people to be able to go to D.C. and ask for this money back.

BRITTANY: From San Francisco?

ERIC: From San Francisco.

BRITTANY: Oh shit.

ERIC: Massive delegation. So, sadly the next no that they got was from their congressman once they got to D.C.

BRITTANY: Wait so they raised the money, they got to D.C. and then he- they said no.

ERIC: Yeah, he like refused to even meet with them. So, Elouise calls his secretary is like, no we'll be there a ten o'clock and if he's not there, listen to this real good it's a quote mind you, “if he's not there we're gonna throw out all the furniture from his office and throw your ass out too.” So of course, the congressman was waiting for them on the steps of the capitol building when they got there. He didn't want them to actually throw him and his shit out of the window, but he told them he couldn't do anything.

ERIC: Another no. No, like number two or three, but he walked them over to the office from one of their senators, who also refused to meet with them.

BRITTANY: Mm-mm (negative)

ERIC: Like, the secretary for his office said, “You must be the Elouise Westbrook delegation, look you can sit here in the waiting room and the rest of you can go and sit in the hallway”. So, Elouise said, “Wait, look around here and find us a room to sit in, we are not going to sit in a hallway”. So, they obviously found a room, but the senator never showed up. His staff quickly realized they that they were not gonna leave until someone did something. So, his staff actually got them a chance meeting with the leadership of HUD. Massive win. That’s hard to get.

BRITTANY: Oh my gosh.

ERIC: So finally, like, they're getting somewhere. Maybe they're gonna get a yes at this point. Things are looking up. So, the women head over to HUD and they pour into the lead HUD official's office and they wait, and they wait and they wait. So, Elouise was getting annoyed, and apparently she like, gets up and sits in the lead HUD official's chair, and so when he finally arrives, he had no place to sit, and was very pissed off about to which she gave no fucks.

BRITTANY: Oh!

ERIC: So, now this is where it gets real. So, Elouise and the group they begin to make a case for why Hunters Point is so badly in need of this money. She then reminds him that they had already awarded it to them, like it was promised. And so, one of the officials said, Ms. Westbrook, we didn't promise you a damn thing, it was those democrats from the previous administration who promised it.

BRITTANY: Oh no!

ERIC: So, there’s another member of the delegation Geneva Whitfield, who has been in the room the whole time. Geneva looked around at the situation and realized she’d had enough, she said. “One of these men looked up at us as though we were a bunch of animals, I kept assuring myself that I was a human being and I thought of my children, as I thought of this I felt that it was the end of line, I wanted to get him, even if it'd meant I had to perish.”

BRITTANY: Wow.

ERIC: At which point, the woman got up, and literally tried to get him. She like started like kicking and fighting, had to be restrained.

BRITTANY: You know what sometimes people need hands. I'm really glad that she did that cause sometimes that's what people need.

ERIC: So, everybody started shouting at this point, like the meeting devolves into this massive mess, at which, Elouise gets up, she starts crying, like moving a little weird...and faints.

BRITTANY: Oh my gosh.

ERIC: So, people in the room, they like feared she might've had a stroke. Ambulance comes along and t- tries to take her to this charity hospital-

BRITTANY: Oh my gosh!

ERIC: She is like, no don't take me to a charity hospital, she demands to be taken to the hospital where members of Congress are treated. And so, which they do. So, in her absence, the group gets to work, like they're insisting like that these you know, officials, these republicans, have greatly disrespected Elouise, and they demanded that the funds be released immediately.

ERIC: Now, it turns out that Elouise was fine. Now, no one is saying that she faked it.

BRITTANY: You know what, I'm going to be honest, as a somebody with a flair for the dramatic, I caught- I caught a whiff of that.

ERIC: (laughs)

BRITTANY: I caught a whiff. 

BRITTANY: I caught a whiff. Um…but actually in an even more dramatic turns of events…your time has run out! But please continue because you know, I need to figure out what happens, like I gotta figure out what happens. What's Elouise gonna do. 

ERIC: OK so… 

ERIC: She was released to go back to her hotel room later that day. Now, Elouise says, when I woke up they were shaking me and saying hey you got uh telegram from Mayor from the Mayor Alioto, that was the mayor from at San Francisco at the time.

BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

ERIC: And it said, come home baby, we got the money. Needless to say, everyone was shocked. Not just because Elouise and the crew got the money, they were shocked because the Nixon administration mind you, notoriously racist, didn't just give them the $14 million that they were promised, Elouise and her delegation came home having secured $30 million. More than double the amount. If Elouise had not commandeered that meeting, actually wait, if Elouise had not commandeered every single fucking point of that trip...

BRITTANY: (laughs)

ERIC: ...they never would have gotten the money. They literally came home to a parade in the neighborhood in their honor.

BRITTANY: That's so wonderful.

ERIC: Yeah.

BRITTANY: Oh my gosh. Does she have a statue up somewhere in San Francisco?

ERIC: She doesn't have a statue, but they did name uh, a street after her in the neighborhood.

BRITTANY: Oh my gosh, it's just such a quick needed hit of inspiration to hear Elouise's story. It also too was so nice to see the video of her talking. She's very beautiful, she's very tall, she has so much presence, and she looks like somebody that I could know, but also it's realized it's very rare to see, outside of maybe Fannie Lou Hamer, footage of Black women speaking to large groups of people, do you know what I mean? Especially, or in front of press, because she had press microphones in front of her when she was talking.

BRITTANY: In the clips that you showed me earlier, during like the years in the Civil Rights Movement, it's just so rare to see that. And it's like you know, Elouise is somebody I did not learn about in school.

ERIC: Most of us didn't, sadly.

BRITTANY: Yeah! and like, I hadn't ever come across her name, reading, or you know, self-education or anything like that. Um, and the fact that there was footage like this makes me think of like not only, okay obviously how many more Elouises are there, all of the communities where Black people exist in the country, but also like, how many more Elouises existed that were actually recorded. 

ERIC: Yeah.

BRITTANY: That we don't even see!

ERIC: Totally, yeah, there's so much stuff of her out there, but because there's not enough conversation about who she was and what she was doing, or just about women who were like, doing so much of the work at the time.

BRITTANY: It's like a lot of times I think that like we, we there's like this sort of like reflexive argument that's like, oh well people you know women were working behind the scenes. That's like this woman was not working behind the scenes.

ERIC: No.

BRITTANY: They raised incredible amounts of money, and they secured the bag.

ERIC: Yes. (laughs)

BRITTANY: Literally. Literally, secured the bag for their entire community and they were recorded and it's just like, I just- I'm in my feelings right now.

ERIC: They were just so effective. There's a clip I want to play you, so this is after they had secured the money.

BRITTANY: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

ERIC: She's just talking about how they worked with the city, and I watched this, and like, I just got hyped.

WESTBROOK: We were gonna be a part of and all the decisions that was going to be made in this community, we were going to be a part of those decisions, and I want to say that we have been. Selected the architects, selected the contractors, we made bids and things like that, we knew everything about all the bids. When any employee is hired out here in Hunters Point, we have a part in hiring that employee. We also have a part in firing and I uh, uh, which I think is just beautiful, because I don't think there's other, another urban renewal that works like the way Hunters Point work.

BRITTANY: So watching that clip is interesting because it gives me so many questions about like, so, obviously I know how things turned out, because I already spoke with Jimmie about neighborhoods like Fillmore, and Hunters Point, and Bayview. I'm wondering, what happened though in the in between, cause like it sounds like they had a remarkable amount of power in this situation.

ERIC: They did, but you know how the shit be, racism. Like, so, the building they were trying to secure money for was finished, but a third of the way through construction on other projects they hoped to build, the Nixon administration withdrew half the funds.

BRITTANY: They took the money?

ERIC: Yeah, so a lot of people got nicer homes than they ever had access to before. 

But, the real scope of what they had planned for redevelopment in Hunters Point was just like never fully realized. 

Because they weren’t able to build as much housing as they’d hoped though, all the conditions that had previously led to like crime and blight, and overcrowding...they eventually returned. 

And we're kind of back, sadly, to where we were. But, to me, that doesn't change the fact that like basically like when Hunters Point went Bayview, when that neighborhood needed her, she found a way, you know even if it was temporary she still like beat that system that like normally always wins...for uh, for a time she did it, she was doing that thing.

BRITTANY: Yeah. But I will say, the story of Elouise, it's just giving me so much to chew on. I just- it's just making me really feel like I have the fuel that I need to deal with some of the ridiculous insurmountable challenges that, that I have yet to face you know, in this, in this month.

ERIC: Yeah. Make tomorrow, Tell A White Man, You Can't Tell Me No Day, you know. (laughs)

BRITTANY: I might make it today. (laughs) Watch out!

BRITTANY: (laughs)

ERIC: So, I think Elouise Westbrook deserves some recognition, don't you?

BRITTANY: Absolutely. Absolutely.

ERIC: All right, so, Elouise Westbrook, welcome to the Peanut Butter Pantheon!

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[THEME MUSIC IN]

ERIC: Can’t get enough of Eloise? We’ll link to some of the amazing archival footage of her speeches and interviews in the show notes. 

And if you want to hear more about what life is like in Hunter’s point/Bayview today, check out our episode called The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It’s about the movie of the same title and features Brittany’s interview with Jimmie Fails, the star of the film.

They talked about the changing tides of Black San Francisco. And it is really good, don’t miss it. You can listen to that episode on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

ERIC: The Nod is produced by me, Eric Eddings, with Brittany Luse, and Kate Parkinson-Morgan. Our senior producer is Sarah Abdurrahman. This episode was edited by Sara Sarasohn. It was fact-checked by Max Gibson. The show was mixed by Cedric Wilson. Our theme music is by Calid B. For additional music credits, check the show notes.

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