Facing Our Past, Changing Our Future, Part I: A Century of Segregation in San Francisco Unified School District (1851–1971)

Facing Our Past, Changing Our Future, Part I: A Century of Segregation in San Francisco Unified School District (1851–1971)

September 16, 2020: Blog post #2

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Student protests on Fillmore St
Students Protest Against Segregation — Fillmore Street, 1963, (The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)


“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” - James Baldwin

This is the first of a two part series on the history of SFUSD’s student assignment plans. Part I spans the early days of public schools in San Francisco, from 1851 to 1971. Part II covers our more recent history, from 1971 to the present day.

In last week’s blog post, we outlined the top reasons why we’re redesigning our elementary school student assignment system: school segregation, inequitable access to school choice, stress and anxiety for families, lack of community connections, undermined confidence in school quality, and under-enrollment in some schools. Many of these problems are rooted in historical inequities, and we believe it is crucial to understand our past in order to create a more just and equitable future.

In this week’s post, we’ll explore San Francisco’s early educational history — from 1851 through 1971 — so that we can understand the origins of these inequities, and our community’s early efforts to dismantle segregation in San Francisco schools.

Early History: Legalized (De Jure) Segregation in San Francisco (1851–1947)

  • 1851: The first public schools open in San Francisco, but they are only for white children.
  • 1854: The first segregated public school for Black children opens.
  • 1859: The first segregated public school for Chinese children opens.
  • 1860: California’s Education Code explicitly prohibits Black, Asian, and American Indian students from attending public schools with white students.
  • 1870: SFUSD closes the segregated Chinese school. For the next fifteen years, there are no public schools for Chinese students, since they were barred from attending the white public schools.
  • 1875: Following Black community organizing, the San Francisco School Board votes to allow Black students to attend schools with white children. Despite this symbolic step forward, the vast majority of Black students in San Francisco remain enrolled in segregated schools.
  • 1885: Chinese American community activism leads to the California Supreme Court decision in Tape v. Hurley that Chinese students have a right to attend public schools. In response, SFUSD reopens the segregated Chinese school as a way to avoid integrating white schools.
  • 1906: As Japanese and Korean immigration to San Francisco increases, SFUSD responds by assigning all Asian students to the Chinese School.
  • 1920s: Waves of Mexican immigrants arrive in California, and Mexican students across the state — including San Francisco — face high levels of school segregation.
  • 1937: Redlining maps were created for San Francisco and other Bay Area cities. These maps, which used the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic makeup of neighborhoods to determine financial “risk”, were used as justification to systematically deny home loans and insurance to residents of certain neighborhoods (those outlined in red on the map). This practice contributed patterns of residential segregation and community disinvestment in San Francisco that persist to this day.
  • 1947: Mexican-American families win a legal battle against school segregation in Mendez v. Westminster. Two months later, Governor Earl Warren signs a bill officially ending de jure (legal) school segregation of any kind in California, making it the first state in the country to do so.

Recent History: De Facto Segregation (1947–1971)

  • 1954: The Supreme Court (led by former California governor Earl Warren) finds school segregation unconstitutional across the nation in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
  • 1950s-60s: Legally segregated schools are a thing of the past in San Francisco, yet segregation and discrimination continue, especially against Black, Asian, and Latinx students.
  • 1964: Seventeen schools in SFUSD are more than 90% white, even though the district’s overall enrollment is only 57% white. Nine schools are more than 90% Black, though Black students comprise only 28% of the district.
  • 1967: Latinx students almost exclusively attend schools in the Mission, where they make up the majority of students, despite being only 13% of SFUSD’s overall student body.
  • 1968–69: Chicanx and other Latinx students lead walkouts and other protests against cultural and racial discrimination — and, in a precursor to the current protest movement, overpolicing in their schools and neighborhoods. This Chicanx-led student protest movement was a moment of multiracial coalition-building, as Black, Pacific Islander, and Filipino students were encouraged to join in.
  • 1971: Years of organizing by the San Francisco branch of the NAACP culminate in Johnson v. SFUSD, where the U.S. District Court ruled that SFUSD violated the law by intentionally drawing segregated student assignment zones, and assigning Black teachers only to majority-Black schools. Furthermore, teachers in the segregated Black schools were systematically less experienced and more poorly paid compared to teachers in San Francisco’s majority white schools.
  • 1971: SFUSD responds to Johnson v. SFUSD by adopting our very first elementary school desegregation plan — called the “Horseshoe Plan” because of its shape on the map.


From 1851, when San Francisco’s first public school opened, to 1971, the first year of the Horseshoe Plan, our city’s schools were continuously segregated and inequitably resourced. Tune in next week for Part II to learn about the successes — and setbacks — of the past fifty years of desegregation efforts and what we can all do together to make the next chapter of our city’s educational history the best one yet.

This is the second of five posts in SFUSD’s Student Assignment Blog.

The Student Assignment Blog is written and edited by Reed Levitt (SFUSD Communications Intern & Master of Public Policy Candidate, Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley) and Henry O’Connell (Student Assignment Project Manager, SFUSD).

If you are interested in learning more about the history of San Francisco’s student assignment policies, please check out Rand Quinn’s Class Action: Desegregation and Diversity in San Francisco Schools, the comprehensive book that formed the backbone of this post. Other sources are hyperlinked throughout the post.

This page was last updated on July 26, 2021