90-year-old San Franciscan Dorothy Lathan keeps Black history in the city

Monday, February 27, 2023
90-year-old San Franciscan keeps Black history in the city
ABC7 News anchor Jobina Fortson spent a few hours with Dorothy Lathan to hear about her life and contributions to the city's Black community.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Dorothy Lathan has been living in her home right along San Francisco's Ocean Beach since 1960.

It makes sense why she knows a lot of people. She is someone who exudes kindness and joy. Over the years, she's gotten to know Senator Diane Feinstein, and meet visionaries like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

Lathan made San Francisco's 80 over 80 list. She's contributed to the city in so many ways. However, you'd likely have no idea unless you sat down for a chat. So, ABC7 News anchor Jobina Fortson spent a few hours with Lathan to hear her story.

Dorothy Lathan was born in Forrest City, Arkansas, in 1932.

"I have to always tell people Forrest City, Arkansas was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan," Lathan said. "My city reflected everything that he would have wanted. It was very, very racist, very rigidly segregated."

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It was so bad that Lathan's birth was never documented. Her family was too poor for a camera, so she has no early childhood photos. Lathan didn't get a birth certificate until her 20's. Her family left Arkansas in hopes of a better life in St. Louis. Despite having little money and opportunities, she went on to college at Lincoln University. She met the love of her life at school.

"I met Arthur Lathan," she went on. "He was a big man on campus, very highly respected. He was a super nice guy."

Dorothy and Arthur Lathan were married from 1953 until his passing last year. The military moved them to San Francisco in 1954. While he fought overseas in the Korean War, Dorothy began building a life in the city. There's a lot that's stayed the same.

"Here they have pastel colored houses," Lathan said. "Beige, blue, and yellow. I just thought they were so beautiful and then you could hop on the street car and go to the zoo."

There are some things we expect to change from the 1950's.

"My rent was $39 a month because my husband was in service," Lathan replied. "When he got out of service, the rent went up to $69 dollars a month."

Other elements of San Francisco almost feel like they've vanished.

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"You can go all day long and not see a Black person in the bank, in the grocery store, on the streets," Lathan continued. "There's hardly any Black presence in this city. But back then, there was. We had the Fillmore, Hunter's Point, and Ingleside."

Lathan and the history books agree that "redevelopment," or "urban renewal" as some call it, led to the rapid decline of Black and low-income people living in San Francisco. The 1949 Housing Act signed by President Truman cleared the way for the demolition and rebuilding of urban neighborhoods the government considered slums. The Western Addition was ground zero for this on the west coast. It resulted in roughly 20,000 people being displaced from the Fillmore District.

"Then right behind that they started closing up the housing projects," Lathan said. "Then San Francisco became so expensive and valuable, they started offering people huge amounts of money to sell their property."

According to Bay Area Census Data, Black people made up about 10% of San Francisco's population in 1960, 13% in 1970, and 5% today. The Lathans have dedicated themselves to keeping a Black imprint on San Francisco. Among many roles, Arthur was the president of the city's NAACP Chapter.

"I was very politically active," Lathan said. "Even the teachers were segregated in terms of where you got your assignment. We were sent to Hunter's Point."

In 1963, Lathan fought the San Francisco Unified School District and became the first Black teacher at Columbus Elementary School. After 32 years, she retired as a principal in the district.

"Out of all the things I've done, what gave me the greatest joy and the greatest pleasure was being in the classroom," Lathan said. "I loved working with those kids."

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Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was mayor at the time, appointed Lathan to the first rent control board, and brought her along to Abidjan when it became a sister city to San Francisco. Lathan was the first female president of Youth for Service, a city organization to help teens in need. One of her most impactful contributions can be spotted right downtown.

"We were just thinking that Africans are everywhere and not only that, everybody came from Africa," Lathan said. "That was the seed of humanity, of life and that we should have a museum that reflects that."

In 2000, Lathan, along with a team that included former Mayor Willie Brown, began developing San Francisco's Museum of the African Diaspora, or MOAD. It opened in 2005.

"It was intended to be a Black presence," Lathan replied. "To make sure there was a Black component attached to the redevelopment of the city after you've had urban renewal that displaced so many Black people. Can't you at least have one thing that gives some permanence?"

Kitsaun King has been working with the museum almost since its inception. She is a born and raised San Franciscan and knows Lathan well.

"I was very excited because we don't have anything like this in San Francisco and never have," King said.

"When I saw this place, I saw it was a serious exploration of the diaspora," King continued. "In 2015, we changed our focus to being a contemporary art museum. That really set us on the path we are now and where we want to go, which is to support and amplify contemporary artists from the African diaspora wherever they may be."

Lathan's involvement with MOAD is a dream of her ancestors' realized.

"I'm just so thrilled that is has survived because so many things die, but MOAD is very vibrant."

At 90, Lathan is still vibrant, too.

See more stories related to Black History Month here.

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