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.
The Poole-Bell House once sat alone on a massive lot on the hillside above Laidley Street, overlooking the city—a large elegant home built in 1887 by attorney John P Poole. It was subsequently owned by Teresa Bell, the widow of nineteenth-century financier Thomas Bell. But many other people have lived there since she left in 1918. In the 1930s, it was subdivided into three flats, and later into four units.
The sensational and now rather tired legends about the house are due for retirement; there are better stories to tell about this local landmark. In 1967, it was acquired by another widow, Polly Gilmore. She and her adult son Read Gilmore lived there for twenty years; they had a big impact on the life of this historic house, and on the life of the city.
Polly GIlmore. 1988c. Photo: Francisco Gutierrez. Courtesy Roger Heffner.
Read Gilmore. 1988c. Photo: Francisco Gutierrez. Courtesy Roger Heffner.
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. The position gave him a lot of power in the state, and he used some of that power to sanction regular harassment of gay people in public places.
Under his chairmanship, the BOE targeted bars where gay people gathered, in order to revoke their liquor licenses. Reilly’s program of hate and harassment failed; the legacy he ended up leaving was his name on the important 1951 California Supreme Court case, Stoumen v Reilly, the first victory in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights.
The case involved 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 weighed the basic human right to free association, regardless of sexual preference. The court ruled against the BOE. George R Reilly lost the suit, lost the right to use liquor-licensing to enforce harassment and deprivation of basic rights for LGBTQ people. It was an historic win—although harassment persisted for years after this for other reasons.