Dr. Willie Ratcliff
What made Dr. Willie Ratcliff, owner of a construction company that had more than 500 black employees at its peak, turn away from his business and risk his financial security in order to fight for the rights? civilians in San Francisco? His belief in the power of journalism.
The longtime editor of San Francisco Bay View was also driven by his passion for the black community that once ruled southeast San Francisco.
At 19, with one child and another on the way, Ratcliff moved from Texas to San Francisco in 1950. At that time, the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood was a thriving enclave of black culture. Black-owned businesses filled commercial districts, and home ownership was high, thanks in large part to well-paying jobs at the Hunters Point shipyard, where Ratcliff was employed.
“Hunters Point was the happiest neighborhood I’ve ever seen,” Ratcliff said.
While working at the shipyard, Ratcliff earned $1 an hour – 25 cents more than minimum wage at the time – but needed more money to support his growing family, so he sought a job in Fairbanks, Alaska where he could make $3 an hour on Alaska. North Slope helping build the Remote Early Warning Linea system of radar installations designed to detect incoming Soviet Union bombers during the Cold War.
However, when he arrived at the Fairbanks office, the dispatcher told him, “No blacks on the slope, only whites!” So Ratcliff waved, picketed the office, and protested until he got the job.
He lived in Alaska for 36 years and eventually started Liberty Builders, his own construction company. He continued to mobilize around racial justice issues, such as the fight for equal voting rights for Alaskan blacks and even served as head of the Alaska State Commission to human rights, where he advocated for the LGBTQ+ community and affirmative action in the construction workforce.
When Ratcliff’s wife, Mary, was accepted to law school, the couple returned to San Francisco in 1987. Upon his return, Ratcliff discovered that the city had major development projects underway and that there were discussions about giving contractors color preference in the hiring process. Ratcliff created the African-American Entrepreneurs of San Francisco to advocate for often-promised but rarely-fulfilled contracts.
“This small group of less than a dozen entrepreneurs enabled at least 600 Hunters Point families to prosper for most of the 1990s, until big white entrepreneurs saw black entrepreneurs as a competitive threat” , Ratcliff said.
He continued to work as a political organizer, and in 1990 he learned that the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency – a since renowned local government agency with a shameful history of pursuing projects that destroyed black communities in the name of the economic improvement – had its goal set. on Bayview-Hunters Point.
“To reduce resistance, City Hall had successfully shut down neighborhood organizations that drew hundreds of people to monthly meetings,” Ratcliff said, referring to community groups that empowered black neighborhoods in the city to build a unified opposition. to such projects.
In order to prevent his community from being silenced and to keep his neighbors informed, he decides to get into the press. Having no background in journalism, Ratcliff bought the New Bayview for $2,000 from Muhammed al-Kareem, who had founded the newspaper in 1976. He renamed the publication “San Francisco Bay View” and published the first issue on February 3, 1992.
At the time, there were two other pillars of Bay Area black journalism – the Sun-Reporter in San Francisco and The Oakland post– both of which continue to operate as respected newspapers to this day. Ratcliff continued al-Kareem’s mission to advance racial justice by exposing controversial issues related to the lack of economic opportunity in black neighborhoods. And he invited community activists to use his platform as a sounding board, giving emerging black journalists an opportunity to grow their audience in the process.
Reflecting on his experiences with racism while living in Alaska, Ratcliff expanded the newspaper’s coverage, looking beyond the neighborhood and elevating stories of systemic racism across the country. “The name ‘New Bayview’ didn’t seem expansive enough, so we came up with San Francisco Bay View (two words), implying a perspective, ‘a view’ of the bay,” Ratcliff explained.
With the recent launch SF Bay View Community Journalism Lab, Ratcliff, now 90, is passing the baton and encouraging black writers and photographers to join his latest project. The newspaper wants to hire “community reporters” to hone their writing and photography skills, report on issues that affect their community, and advance their careers. The fellowship will be led by local journalist and Bayview-Hunters Point native, D’Wana Stewart.
Ratcliff still hopes to empower the few remaining Black San Francisco. “I want people to keep pushing, to pool our money so we can put our people to work, get hired and demand reparations and an end to anti-black racism,” he said. “I want black people to be welcomed into San Francisco and the black population to be great again.”