Sargent Johnson and the bohemian life
by Thomas C. Fleming, Feb 3, 1999
In the early 1930s, there were only about 2500 blacks living in San Francisco, or less than 1 percent of the population. You could walk up and down the city's main street, Market Street, all day, and the only black face you'd see was by looking in the big plate glass windows and seeing your own reflection.
For the most part, blacks were barred from attending the nightlife entertainment, and you couldn't eat in "first-class" restaurants, if I can use that term.
Chinatown was a popular tourist area, and some of the fancy restaurants there refused to serve blacks -- even artists like Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes. And naturally the story came back to the black community.
The Chinese in California were segregated more than the blacks. They couldn't buy a home outside of Chinatown. But in some of those restaurants, they would flatly tell you to leave. They did it because they thought the white people wanted it that way.
You never knew when you were going to run up against these unpleasant situations, so you tried to avoid them if you could. Once during the 1930s, I was in Chinatown with another black guy, and we took a chance by going into a bar called the Pagoda. We didn't know what sort of a reception we were going to get.
While we were sitting at the bar, some white tourists walked in. They saw us and said to the Chinese bartender, "There's niggers in here. We ain't coming in." The bartender said, "I serve anybody that comes in." We didn't say anything back, because they weren't talking to us.
Next to Chinatown is the North Beach area, where the Italians lived largely. It's still an Italian neighborhood today. That was the one place in the city where blacks were most welcome. You could eat in almost all the restaurants there, and could go into most places where there was live entertainment, because some entertainers were black.
North Beach is the bohemian part of San Francisco, and has been since way before I arrived in California in 1919, because the Barbary Coast was located there. It was an area known for its brothels, bars and entertainment. It was very international and very cosmopolitan. The government persuaded the city to close down the Barbary Coast in World War I, because it was afraid the servicemen would get infectious diseases from those women.
A lot of artists lived over there. One thing that attracted them was that food and drink were cheap. In the 1920s and '30s, there was a famed barkeep in North Beach named Izzy Gomez, a Latino, who operated a pub even through Prohibition. He always saw that you got a drink or a bowl of soup if you came in there, whether you had money or not.
Top artists from all over the United States would go to Izzy's. Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco, the Mexican muralists, used to hang out there, and that attracted the literary people and the working press.
One of Izzy's best customers was Sargent Claude Johnson, the black sculptor and painter. When I met him in the late 1920s, he had already gained an international reputation. He preferred to be called Claude. He had his studio in a small cottage in the backyard of his Berkeley home, and his work was exhibited in New York and other parts of the country. But guys like he and Rivera lived a sort of hand-to-mouth existence.
Sculptor and painter Sargent Johnson (1887-1967)