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. 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. 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.
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.)
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.
Blood on his hands. Many statues King Leopold II were defaced and removed during Black Lives Matter protests in Belgium, June 2020. The (UK) Independent.
One of many statues King Leopold II , being removed from its public location in Brussels, Belgium, June 2020. Reuters.
Statue of King Leopold II in Brussels, Belgium, smeared with red paint during the Black Lives Matter protests. in June 2020. Photo: John Thys. Getty Images.
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,” she rented to a family named Tyrrel. They turned out to be the first African-American family in the Glen Park-Fairmount district. 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.