George R Reilly (1903–1985) was a powerful player in midcentury San Francisco politics who was born and grew up in Sunnyside, a member of one of the first families there. He was on the State Board of Equalization (BOE) for 44 years, the agency that regulated taxes and liquor licenses.
Under his chairmanship, the BOE targeted bars where gay people gathered, in order to revoke their liquor licenses. It was in this capacity that Reilly’s name remains on an important 1951 California Supreme Court case, involving the famous Black Cat bar in North Beach.
The owner, Sol Stoumen, took the BOE to court and fought for the right of his patrons to gather at his bar. The case, Stoumen v Reilly, weighed the basic human right to free association, regardless of sexual preference.
The court ruled against the BOE—although harassment persisted for years after this for other reasons. George R Reilly and the BOE lost the suit. It was therefore an historic win–the first legal victory for LGBTQ rights in US history.
Humble beginnings on Circular Avenue
George R Reilly was born and grew up at 272 Circular Ave in Sunnyside. Despite the fact that his father, James Joseph Reilly, was pleased to move his large family to the new neighborhood in 1893, George never acknowledged this neighborhood as his origin. The Reilly family lived for forty years in the large, prominent house that James built on Circular Avenue.
Later in life George R Reilly claimed he was born and grew up in the Mission District, a lie I’m sure he thought would give him some political points with working-class voters. In the end, it didn’t help his ambitions to power; he lost two bids to become mayor. In 1943 he lost by a huge margin to George Christopher–the largest ever recorded to that date.
Reilly was a part of the midcentury San Francisco Irish political machine, but he was not popular with voters.
Sunnyside Pride, Sunnyside Tragedy
His father, James J Reilly, came from County Meath, Ireland, in the 1860s as a boy. For many years in the 1880s and 1890s he ran saloons South of Market; his last one was in South Park. He was successful to the extent that in 1893, just a year or two after lots went on sale in the new neighborhood of Sunnyside, he bought five lots that fronted Circular Ave near Baden Street and built a house. It was situated on the slope with a view of the hills in the southeast. The Southern Pacific railroad tracks ran through a cut below. (See image above).
George’s parents James and Theresa had many children. In 1898 Theresa gave birth to their sixth, a son they soon named James Whitcomb (obviously to echo the name of the then-popular sentimental poet, James Whitcomb Riley).
When the father James proudly placed a birth announcement for the new baby, he said “In Sunnyside.”
Even if George would never find reason to acknowledge the neighborhood as home, his father had apparently been proud of the new neighborhood–raising his family was the crowning achievement of his life’s hard work.
Tragically, the baby born in 1898 died two years later, hit by a speeding Southern Pacific train near the house, something that happened much too often in this part of the city. (Read more about the dangerous train tracks in Sunnyside.)
The child had crawled through the broken fence. It was a sensation in the newspapers, creating righteous outrage. Southern Pacific was reprimanded by a judge for poor maintenance, but as usual the giant corporation, the ‘Octopus,’ continued to neglect public safety.
Theresa Reilly subsequently gave birth to twins in 1903: George Raphael and the second James Whitcomb.
George R Reilly was a very bright boy. Although both he and his twin brother graduated from Sunnyside School after the 8th Grade in June 1917, George went on to finish four years of high school, while brother James only received two more years’ education. After eighth grade, George was sent to a boarding school near Martinez run by the De La Salle Brothers, a teaching order of Catholic laymen, called the De La Salle Institute. Perhaps the fees were lower for George’s family at a school in a more rural location than Catholic high schools in the City.
Later, during the course of his political career, Reilly said he attended Sacred Heart College in San Francisco (then on Ellis near Franklin), the city mill for influential Irish-Catholic politicians and businessmen; this was also a De La Salle Brothers school, but it was not the school he attended. I suppose most people’s resumes are full of small fibs.
One true thing he did say about his background was that his father, James J Reilly, was active in union organizing. After moving his family to Sunnyside, James worked as a stationary fireman at the Sunnyside Powerhouse, a block up the street from the house on Monterey Blvd. He became a leader in the Stationary Firemen’s Union Local 86, serving as president for several terms between 1909 and 1916. He also organized political meetings locally.
St Patrick’s Day Parade Boss
George R Reilly worked his way up in the Irish San Francisco political system. After serving as state secretary for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a preeminent Irish fraternal organization, he became the youngest-ever state president of the group in 1932, at age 29. In 1939, he became the national president; in 1950, the president of all US and Canada. He led the annual St Patrick’s Day Parade in San Francisco for decades.
Tax Boss, Liquor Boss
Reilly was elected to the State Board of Equalization (BOE) in 1938, after serving as a San Francisco supervisor and on the board of permit appeals. He had had his eye on the post for five years by that time—since the year Prohibition ended and the BOE came into prominence and power. The agency decided who can and cannot have a liquor license.
The BOE also regulated state taxes. Reilly worked to reduced property taxes for homeowners, efforts that helped lead to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.
…and Harassment Boss
The BOE had enormous power over liquor licenses and bar closures. After becoming chairman in 1949, he pushed for crackdowns on illegal activity in bars—everything from selling to minors to the congregation of “undesirables,” a term often used to indicate LGBTQ people who couldn’t or wouldn’t pass.
This set off a campaign of targeting bars that welcomed LGBTQ patrons, an effort that included BOE agents engaging in sting operations—working undercover, using entrapment techniques. Most bar owners could spots these “disguised” agents, and had coded methods for alerting their customers to the presence of danger. There are marvelous accounts of this time in Nan Alamilla Boyd’s book Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965.
Before the age of politically-based activism, bars constituted the first centers of community and solidarity—the basic premise of Boyd’s book.
And so it was that in 1951, the owner of the Black Cat, Sol Stoumen, decided to fight the BOE’s suspension of his liquor license. Stoumen himself wasn’t gay, but his North Beach bar had been a favorite gathering place for LGBTQ patrons. He hired Morris Lowenthal as his lawyer to challenge the BOE’s revocation of his liquor license. He won.
The decision before the California Supreme Court, Stoumen v Reilly, was the first legal case affirming the right to gather, regardless of sexual preference.
By the time of an Examiner article in 1979, the story of the by-then-closed bar was recounted as if ancient history, an unimaginable time before tolerance was the norm in the city.
“Back in the early 1960s, before San Francisco before was as relaxed about homosexuals and their watering places, the Black Cat on Halloween was the scene of the once-a-year out-of-the-closet costume party. Halloween Eve in 1963 marked the closing of the tavern, to turn the party into more of a wake than a bash. The old back bar, the battered piano, and the last of the cats that inhabited the place are now part of San Francisco history.
Oddly enough, Reilly himself liked to party, and was often feted at big celebrations, and was known to enjoy himself, especially at North Beach bars and restaurants.
Reilly was a law-and-order type, clearly in sync with San Francisco’s midcentury anti-hedonistic mood from the 1930s until the rebellious late 1960s.
In 1932 he was part of the efforts of the Catholic Church to halt Margaret Sanger’s movement to decriminalize birth control. In 1943, apparently as part of his role at the BOE, he sent a missive to the newspapers, proposing to round up zoot-suiters and haul them off to labor camps, something mercilessly mocked by Chronicle columnist Royce Brier.
Reilly might have been a champion of law-abiding middle-class values, but his own family failed. In 1959 his wife, Kathryn McGlesson Reilly, divorced him, citing his mental, emotional, and physical abuse of her. I include this newspaper cutting below, because the article on the right shows the continuing efforts of the state to shut down gay bars, using the new Alcohol Beverage Control agency, heir to the BOE’s role in harassing owners of bars that welcomed LGBTQ customers.
In Reilly’s SF Chronicle obituary in 1984, the usual lies he told were reiterated: that he was born in the Mission District and he attended Sacred Heart College. Mayor Feinstein praised his long service to the city and the state.
“Mayor Dianne Feinstein, who got her start in politics when she worked as a volunteer in one of Mr. Reilly’s campaigns in 1955, issued a statement yesterday praising his leadership. “San Francisco is proud of the tremendous public service provided by George Reilly,” she said. “He devoted his life to our city and to California.”
But viewed from the present, Reilly’s legacy in California history is certainly mixed.
His denial of his roots in Sunnyside means the neighborhood—now home to many LGBTQ families, and others who support their rights—can perhaps return the favor and repudiate him as one of its own.
LINKS for further reading
- Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 by Nan Alamilla Boyd. (2005) https://www.amazon.com/Wide-Open-Town-History-Queer-Francisco/dp/0520244745
- Gaylaw: Challenging the Apartheid of the Closet by William N. Eskridge Jr. (2009) https://www.amazon.com/Gaylaw-Challenging-William-Eskridge-Jr/dp/0674008049/
- Church and State in the City: Catholics and Politics in Twentieth-Century San Francisco by William Issel. (2012) https://www.amazon.com/Church-State-City-Catholics-Twentieth-Century/dp/143990992X
- The Streets of San Francisco: Policing and the Creation of a Cosmopolitan Liberal Politics, 1950-1972 by Christopher Lowen Agee. (2014) https://www.amazon.com/Streets-San-Francisco-Cosmopolitan-Historical/dp/022612228X/
- Read the legal decision Stoumen v Reilly here: https://scocal.stanford.edu/opinion/stoumen-v-reilly-29515
- Wikipedia on LGBT rights in the 1950s: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1950s_in_LGBT_rights
- SF Chronicle, 9 June 1917, p5. ↑
- As per the self-reported data on the 1940 US Census for George R Reilly and James W Reilly. By that year George’s annual income was more than twice what his brother’s was. ↑
- When the land on which the school was founded there was bought by the order in the 1880s it had acres of grape vines, from which the brothers made wine; this became Christian Brothers Winery (relocated in the 1930s. A short history here: http://stcatherinemartinez.com/history ↑
- “George R. Reilly Dead at 82 – Venerable S.F. Politician,” SF Chronicle, 7 Aug 1985. ↑
- Job Description for Stationary Engineers and Boiler Operators: Operate or maintain stationary engines, boilers, or other mechanical equipment to provide utilities for buildings or industrial processes. Operate equipment, such as steam engines, generators, motors, turbines, and steam boilers. ↑
- SF Chronicle, 19 Jun 1908; SF Call, 10 June 1910, p7; SF Chronicle, 19 Jan 1911; SF Chronicle, 7 Jun 1912; SF Chronicle, 4 July 1915, p30. ↑
- “Tubbs wires he’s not in race for equalizer,” SF Chronicle, 15 Oct 1933. ↑
- “A gallery with a colorful past and a youthful future,” SF Examiner, 14 Aug 1979, p19. ↑
- “George R. Reilly Dead at 82: Venerable S.F. Politician,” SF Chronicle 7 Aug 1985. ↑