AN APPRECIATION | Elizabeth Pepin Silva
IN MAY 2013 the Fillmore lost a special man with the passing of Reggie Pettus, 73, longtime proprietor of the New Chicago Barbershop and unofficial archivist of the area.
Reggie moved to the Fillmore District from his home in Mobile, Alabama, in 1958 to attend City College of San Francisco. He began working in the New Chicago Barbershop in 1968, eventually taking over the business from his uncle.
The barbershop and many other businesses and residents were adversely affected by the redevelopment of the neighborhood. Like many others, Reggie was given a certificate from the Redevelopment Agency to relocate his shop back to the neighborhood once the rebuilding was over. But unlike most businesses and their African American clientele displaced by redevelopment, the New Chicago Barbershop never went away. The bulldozers stopped just a few doors south, and Reggie and his barbershop remained a fixture at 1551 Fillmore until it finally closed earlier this year — just a few weeks before he died.
In many ways, there would have been no revival of the “Harlem of the West” era, as Fillmore was once known, without Reggie. His collection of historical photographs and memorabilia, much of which he rescued on its way to a dumpster across the street from his shop, sparked an interest in many people to learn more about the area’s past. His photographs and memorabilia formed the basis for Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era, the book Lewis Watts and I published in 2006. His collection also became the backbone of KQED’s Emmy Award winning documentary, The Fillmore, in which Reggie appeared and offered up some of the more memorable quotes.
“They used to call it the Fillmore,” Reggie says in the documentary. “I call it the No More. Redevelopment just came in and wiped it all out.” He added: “We don’t have too much color down here — not my color, anyway.”
His prophetic words concluded the film. “It won’t come back,” Reggie said. “The flavor is gone. Fillmore, no more.”
HISTORIC FILLMORE PHOTOGRAPHS? “IN MY BACK ROOM”
FIRST PERSON | Lewis Watts
By 1990 I was a photographer, and I began looking at the Fillmore as a part of my general interest in a visual examination of history and contemporary experience in African American communities.
Walking through the neighborhood, I also came across Red’s shoe shine parlor across from the Fillmore Auditorium. I went in and inquired about photographing the gallery on the walls that represented many who had lived and performed in the Fillmore. The owner of the shop, Elgin “Red” Powell, said that he was busy but that I might come back another time to talk about it.
A few months passed, and when I returned, Red’s shop was empty, and there was no trace of the pictures. No one in the neighborhood seemed to know what happened to Red and the photos in his shop. I was afraid that this valuable collection of history was lost. I continued to ask after its whereabouts for years.
In 1996 I was doing research for a report on the cultural past of the Fillmore, and I again asked around the neighborhood about Red and his photographs. When I went into the New Chicago Barbershop, across the street from Red’s parlor, and asked one of the barbers, Reggie Pettus, I was thrilled by his response: “They’re in my back room.”
Reggie filled in the blanks about what had happened. Red Powell had a stroke not long after we met in the early 1990s, lost his lease, and died soon afterward. When the parlor closed, everything was taken from the walls and was about to be tossed into a dumpster by the landlord. Reggie rescued the photographs and memorabilia and had kept the materials ever since.
VIDEO: Reggie Pettus was the star of the public television documentary, The Fillmore.