While You Were Stoned: SF Continues to Celebrate Racist Dead Mayor

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who see April 20 on the calendar and either do or don't celebrate Adolf Hitler's birthday. (What, you were expecting a marijuana cue? Head-fake!)

If it turns out you're the sort who lights a candle for history's most notorious mass murderer, you might consider an unsavory dictator closer to home. As it happens, April 20 is also the birthday of San Francisco's own white supremacist political leader, James D. Phelan.

You probably know the name. It's hard to miss the big block letters PHELAN plastered across the telltale 1908 triangular building that rises up from the Powell Street BART Station on Market — less than a block from SF Weekly's offices. There are other Phelan markers, too, including a street sign and a University of San Francisco residence hall.

Born April 20, 1861, in San Francisco, James Duval Phelan was the city's mayor from 1897 to 1902; he served in the state legislature from 1915 to 1921. But far from being just another “founding father” of San Francisco, Phelan also bears the distinction of having promoted virulent racism and nativism — a factor that seems hard to fathom now, given the city's long history of political and cultural liberalism. But it is worth looking back at his time leading the city, and questioning whether his particular views and beliefs on race did or didn't leave lingering impressions here.

First, in the interest of fairness, there is a positive side to Phelan's historic ledger: The three-term mayor was smart, resourceful, and creative in helping to rebuild the city after the 1906 earthquake and fire. His choices in the aftermath of that disaster helped him to become a formidable figure and an advocate for San Francisco when he was first elected as a state senator in 1915.

But the downside of Phelan's historic ledger is not to be overlooked: He inveighed often in local speeches and opinion pieces about the supposed “Yellow Peril,” demonizing Chinese and Japanese newcomers. That racist frenzy was the basis of Phelan's unsuccessful re-election campaign, which he dubbed “Keep California White.”

Even years before, he had publicly railed against what he called the “Silent Invasion” of Japanese and Chinese immigration. He told the Boston Herald in 1907 that “California is a white man's country, and the two races cannot live side by side in peace, and inasmuch as we discovered the country first and occupied it, we propose to hold it against either a peaceful or a war-like invasion.”

Political war on Asian immigrants was the path Phelan chose and he was not interested in being subtle about it. In the earthquake's aftermath, Phelan was active in a subcommittee which sought to permanently remove Chinese immigrants from the prime real estate that is now Chinatown. But because many of the Chinese in that part of the city owned much of the land, Phelan had no legal backing and had to drop the plan — for a while.

In 1912, Phelan convinced presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson (who sought Phelan's support) to publicly support exclusionary immigration laws. A year later, Congress passed the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which rendered “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” and was specifically designed to prevent Japanese immigrants from owning agricultural land.

Once Phelan got elected to the state assembly, he took up with the scion of one of California's most powerful newspaper families: With help from V.S. McClatchy, publisher and owner of The Sacramento Bee, Phelan pressured his fellow assembly members to support anti-Asian laws. He was a key force behind the Japanese Exclusion League of California, which successfully lobbied for passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which for a period banned new immigrants from Japan and East Asia.

So, yes, Phelan, the April birthday boy, was very busy during his time in city and state politics. He died in 1930 but there remains plenty of historic reminders of his legacy all around us.

(Check out our list of places that continue to bear Phelan's name.)

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