King obtained two certificates, and attempts to later redeem them both devolved into costly legal wrangling with the agency that lasted more than two decades. She has never regained what she lost.
Leola King's story is about more than certificates of preference. It's a story about the troubling legacy of urban renewal.
King welcomes guests into her home on Eddy Street near Fillmore with ease. The living room in what is little more than a two-bedroom converted garage apartment swells unimaginably with antiques - three stuffed chairs with vinyl slips, crystal chandeliers, an ornate dining-room table, lamps, a fur throw.
She insists that she's just 39 years old, but public records put her closer to 84.
When the Guardian first visited with her in person, she was dressed in black cotton leisure attire. Two chestnut braids cascaded from a gray Kangol-style cap, which she smoothed with her hands as they hugged a pair of light-skinned cherub cheeks.
King made her way west after spending her earliest years behind the barbed wire of a Cherokee reservation in Haskell, Ok. Her mother died when King was young, and her restless father had meandered off to Los Angeles. Her grandparents oversaw her adolescence before she trailed after her father to California, where he was establishing a chain of barbecue restaurants. She married a man at just 14, and a year later, she was a mother. Tony Tyler, her son, is a San Francisco tour guide today and remains a close confidant and business partner.
It was 1946 when she first landed in San Francisco and eventually started her own barbecue pit at 1601 Geary St., near Buchanan, historic building inspection records show. She called it Oklahoma King's, and hungry San Franciscans were lured to the smell of exotic buffalo, deer and quail meats.
"That end of Fillmore was very popular all the way down until you got almost to Pacific [Avenue]," she said. "Heavily populated. There was at one time in that area of Fillmore over 100 bars alone. Lots of hamburger places. That's where I had the barbecue pit."
By 1949, however, Congress had made urban renewal federal law with the goal of leveling slums and deleting general "blight," still the most popular and awkwardly defined threshold for determining where the government can clear homes and businesses using eminent domain.
The first redevelopment zone in the Western Addition, known as A-1, included Oklahoma King's. She was paid approximately $25,000 for the property, but offered no relocation assistance or other compensation for the revenue she lost as a result of ceasing her day-to-day business.
Forging ahead, she opened in 1953 what became a hub of jazz and blues entertainment in the Fillmore, the Blue Mirror, at 935 Fillmore Street. The place was decorated with brass Greek figurines on the walls, a circular bar and velvet festoons. King spent a year hopping onto buses full of tourists and begging the driver to drop them by her nightclub for a drink. Before long, her brassy personality had attracted world-class performers, each of them adding electricity to the club's reputation.
"She was the type of woman who knew how to handle people," a Blue Mirror regular later said in the 2006 collection of Fillmore jazz-era photography, Harlem of the West. "She could talk to the pimps and hustlers. She didn't play around, and they knew how to conduct themselves in her club."
A musician who formerly worked there told the Guardian the Blue Mirror was one of the few places on Fillmore that actually provided live entertainment at that time. Bobbie Webb backed up B.B. King, Little Willie John, T-Bone Walker and others as a young saxophonist at the Blue Mirror with his band the Rhythm Rockers. He said the other establishments nearby on Fillmore were mostly bars except for headlining auditoriums where mainstream acts like James Brown and the Temptations performed.
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