50 Years On: The Ingleside Police Station Ambush and the Black Liberation Army

This story contains accounts of violence and racism.

This week marks fifty years since the night a nationwide network of clandestine violence touched down in the quiet center of Balboa Park, across the freeway from Sunnyside. The ambush on the Ingleside Police Station left one officer dead, Sergeant John V Young, and a civilian clerk wounded. It was one of a great number of armed actions taken in cities during the 1970s by self-proclaimed revolutionaries identifying with different causes.

While much has been written and dramatized about more sensational actions by radical groups then, such as the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the campaign of the Black Liberation Army against the police in San Francisco has not seen nearly as much print. The 1970s was a time of intense political violence, resulting in considerably more deaths by terrorism than the post-9/11 period.[1] The passage of fifty years is a chance to reflect on what has changed—and what has not changed—in policing, anti-Black racism, and domestic terrorism.

The legal proceedings related to the attack played out over almost the entire intervening five decades—a messy and incomplete case. The last man implicated in the ambush who was still incarcerated was only released on parole this last October, after 49 years in prison; for some his sentence was too short.

The Ambush

On the evening of Sunday 29 August 1971, two men entered the Ingleside Police Station at 9:40 p.m. armed with a 12-gauge shotgun and a 9mm pistol.[2] The station had only three people working there at the time; just an hour before a bomb had gone off at a bank branch in Stonestown, planted as a diversion by the attackers, and most officers were elsewhere in response. The attackers had been given an all-clear signal by a woman who entered the station in disguise to make a false report and scope out the situation a half-hour beforehand.

Once inside, one of the attackers pushed the shotgun into the speaking hole in the barrier at the front counter, and fired multiple shots, killing Sergeant Young and wounding a clerk, Ellen Nina Lipney. A third officer was not hit; he crawled over and dragged the wounded Young out of the line of fire. The attackers continued to fire shots, at the window and an armored door. Accounts vary, but as many as 18 shots were fired from the shotgun, and more from the pistol.

Some reports state that the gunmen intended to set a bomb to detonate after they left, to destroy the station, but it failed to go off. Outside perhaps three accomplices were on look-out duty. After the attack, which took only moments, all those involved escaped from the station grounds through an opening that had been previously cut in the chain-link fence that separated the station from the adjacent Interstate 280 freeway. On the verge of the freeway waited two cars, which left both live shells and skid marks on the road when they sped off northbound.

Before I give an account of the Black Liberation Army and the legal cases that resulted in the 1970s and 2000s, here is a recollection of the life of the officer who died that night.

‘A Very Good Man’

Sergeant John Victor Young had served twenty-two years with the force, and when he died he left behind a beloved wife, Geraldine; they’d been married for twenty-four years. He also left behind a great deal of good will and the respect of seemingly everyone who knew him. Those who worked with him widely acknowledged his compassion, even temper, fairness, and religious devotion. “He treated cranks and superior officers alike, with the same kindness and understanding.” Another officer who worked with him said: “He was careful with his language and a good listener.” Young had a commitment to helping people, no matter what their history or circumstances. Among his desk duties before he was assigned to Ingleside was helping ex-convicts who sought legal rehabilitation that could lead to having their records expunged; sometimes he went further, even digging into his own pocket to help one who needed a bit of cash. [3]

Sergeant John V Young. About 1970. SFPD/AP.
Sergeant John V Young. About 1970. SFPD/AP.

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Mary Ellen Pleasant in Ingleside: Stories of Geneva Cottage

As an innovative entrepreneur whose heart was set on righteous social justice, Mary Ellen Pleasant belongs to San Francisco; now Ingleside can lay a claim to her remarkable legacy as well. Pleasant had far grander properties than her modest ranch on San Jose Avenue, set among the expansive vegetable fields of the nineteenth century. But this was where she built a business important to her early career, and the place she retreated to at the end of her life when her empire was crumbling. In between, she used the land and the house there she named Geneva Cottage for many different purposes—from a brief stint as a sex-party venue, to a ranch for hogs and cattle, to a home she extended to her Black friends and family members in times of need. In 1900, she sold the whole block, under duress, to the engineer and architect who built the Geneva Car Barn, Office Building, and Powerhouse.[1] It was one of the last of her many properties that she sold as her fortunes dwindled before her death in January 1904.

Outpost on the Old San Jose Road

The property Pleasant held at San Jose and Geneva Avenues has not before this had the documentation it is due. The large cottage there was located where the landmarked Geneva Office Building now sits, which is currently being developed as a community arts center. The area is a major transit hub, with Balboa Park Station across the street, as well as Balboa Park Upper Yard, an eight-story affordable housing building to begin construction soon. Like the long agricultural history for this area, Pleasant’s presence here has been erased.

Modest as it may have been, the land was important to her, both personally and to the course of her career. In the late 1880s, this ranch was listed among her major assets in a newspaper feature about the wealthiest Black people in the US.[2] It was probably at the bottom of her portfolio in terms of value, certainly in her wealthiest years. But her attachment to it is evidenced by the roles it played in her work and life. More than once she had to go to court to defend her ownership; once she sued her own daughter to get control of it.[3]

Photo of Mary Ellen Pleasant on the veranda of Geneva Cottage, SF Chronicle, 9 Jul 1899.
Photo of Mary Ellen Pleasant on the veranda of Geneva Cottage, SF Chronicle, 9 Jul 1899.

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Sargent Johnson and the City College Gym Reliefs

When the old gymnasiums at the City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus were torn down in 2008, as the new Wellness Center was built, three pieces of artwork by Sargent Johnson attached to the structures had to come down too. Fortunately they were preserved, though their destiny remains undetermined.

Mounted over the entrances of the old gyms were three bas-reliefs Johnson created when it was built in 1940. Architect Timothy Pflueger commissioned the works, just as he commissioned art for almost every building he designed, even something as modest as a gym.

The gyms (one for women, one for men) were two of the first three buildings designed by Pflueger and constructed for the campus, the third being Science Hall. That building’s colorful murals are much better known as public art, and still stand. Johnson’s works were removed before the gyms were demolished, and have been in storage since then.

The Sports Figures

The three reliefs depict sports-related subjects: a group of female ball players; a female tennis player; and a group of male athletes. They are made of cast concrete.

On the South Gymnasium (women’s) there were two figures. First, a set of three women playing medicine ball. (See the end of this article for an explanation of medicine ball.)

Sargent Johnson, medicine ball players, cast concrete relief, 7’4” x 9’, 1940. City College of San Francisco. Photo: Will Maynez.
Sargent Johnson, medicine ball players, cast concrete relief, 7’4” x 9’, 1940. City College of San Francisco. Photo: Will Maynez.

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The Congo in Sunnyside

One of a series of posts about Sunnyside streets and street names.

Congo Street in the Sunnyside neighborhood runs nine blocks, from Circular Avenue to Bosworth Street, from the edge of the I-280 freeway to the edge of Glen Canyon Park. It makes the ‘C’ in the short run of alphabetical street names that begins with Acadia Street on the east and ends with Hamburg Street on the west (changed to Ridgewood Avenue in 1927).

The name has been a mystery of sorts to many. A scooter messenger I once knew who liked to contemplate the city’s enigmas used to find himself pleasantly puzzled when stopped at Congo on his way out Monterey Boulevard. If you live in the neighborhood, it’s easy for the name to become part of the furniture—used but not noticed.

Unlike the picturesque set of river-themed street names in a Sacramento suburb, where ‘Congo’ sits next to ‘Klamath’ and ‘Nile,’ Sunnyside’s Congo seems without meaningful context, being next to streets named Detroit and Baden. How it came to be the choice of the Sunnyside Land Company when the district was laid out in 1891 is the story of idealized capitalist aspirations that would soon meet the realities of imperialist atrocities against indigenous peoples in the heart of Africa.

In the two decades following the naming of the street in Sunnyside, the Congo in Africa was the site of a genocide of staggering proportions. Many people have told the story; this article highlights only some of it, including a few heroes of humanitarian reform of the time who should be better known, as well as an African American poet who evoked the Congo throughout his long working life.

And the Congo has resonance in the immediate present: the recent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement in Belgium may finally knock the villain responsible for the atrocities, King Leopold II, off his plinth. Better a century too late than never.

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The First Black Family in Glen Park

One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco.

In researching the real history of the Poole-Bell house in Fairmount, I discovered an untold chapter in its story. In 1918, after Teresa Bell moved out of her “gloomy old house,”[1] she rented to a family named Tyrrel. They turned out to be the first African-American family in the Glen Park-Fairmount district.[2] They stayed for three decades, finally settling in a house on Chenery.

Their lives tell us something of what it was to be Black in San Francisco in the decades before WWII. Fortunately, the family archivist has shared with me many photos of the Tyrrels, some of which were taken at the Poole-Bell house, as well as family stories. The Tyrrels were in the public record for their church and fraternal group activities. These fortunate gifts have made it possible to tell a story of the family.

Bertram and Frances Tyrrel moved to the big house at the corner of Laidley and Fairmount Streets during the last years of Teresa Bell’s ownership. They had two children still living with them, Irma, then 22, and Wendell, 21. Frances also had two older children from a previous marriage who had both since started their own families: Pearl Hinds, who had three small daughters and kept a farm in Tulare County with her husband; and James Barber, who had a wife and young daughter in San Mateo County.

The family was very close, including Frances’ sister’s and brother’s families. Photographs during these years bear out the family’s sense of belonging and their pleasure and pride in their shared lives.

1920c. Group photo in front of the Laidley Street house. From left: Bertram Tyrrel, Irma Tyrrel, Marjorie Lake with Eleanor Hinds, Harriet Cady Lake in back, and next to her Frances Tyrrel, and Wendell Tyrrel with Marian and Frances Hinds in front.
1920c. Group photo in front of the Laidley Street house. From left to right: Bertram Tyrrel, Irma Tyrrel, Marjorie Lake with Eleanor Hinds in front, Harriet Cady Lake in back, and next to her Frances Tyrrel, and Wendell Tyrrel with Marian and Frances Hinds in front. Courtesy Charles Reid/Ivy Reid Collection.

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