Black People's Free Store
Fillmore District, San Francisco,
Roy Ballard was a longtime Black civil rights organizer in San Francisco's Fillmore neighborhood in the 1960s. His name appears in numerous SF Chronicle articles
protesting segregated hiring practices in the early 1960s. Then suddenly, in early 1967, Roy appeared alongside Arthur Lisch
representing the Diggers at an Episcopalian
conference discussing the Haight-Ashbury's booming youth insurgency. Roy and
Arthur predicted that 100,000 young people were expected to arrive during the summer to experience the freedom of the Haight.
(This was the first public prediction of the coming tidal wave making pilgrimage to San Francisco.) They called upon the local religious community to help plan for this inundation.
For his part, Roy founded the Black People's Free Store on McAllister Street in
the Fillmore that spring. This is the story of how Digger Free diffused into the
Black community in San Francisco. It is one of the clearest, purest visions of
the Free Store concept.
The following text is from the Glide Foundation publication
Venture (August 1967).
In the Spring of 1967, Roy Ballard proposed to Larry Mamiya that
a free store be established in San Francisco's Fillmore ghetto. Roy had worked
as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizer in the Deep South and
had become an ardent follower of Malcolm X in the Organization for Afro-American
Unity. Living in the Haight-Ashbury in late 1966, he became involved with the
Diggers who were soon to open a free store on Cole Street. Contrary to popular
conceptions, there are deep social and political motives at work in the Haight,
and Roy saw the possibility of applying Digger concepts and philosophy to the
poverty and depravity of the black ghetto.
As Glide's Intern to Young Adults, Larry was in a position to
seek the financial support necessary for such a project, having the potential
backing of Glide Church and Urban Center. While Roy enlisted the help of other
civil rights activists and people in the ghetto, Larry conveyed the excitement
and importance of the idea to Ted Mcilvenna and Cecil Williams at Glide. It was
agreed to go ahead.
In April, then, Larry and Roy set out to locate and lease a
large store-front which would become the Black People's Free Store. They
discovered that most vacant, prime locations are owned by the San Francisco
Redevelopment Agency and are thus unavailable. Such properties will be razed to
make way for middle income housing. But at the corner of McAllister & Webster, a
store was found and leased. With the necessary cleaning and repairs completed,
the Black People's Free Store opened its doors in early May.
What is a free store? Its first principle is to give whatever
can be obtained to those who will take. This means clothing, furniture,
appliances, food. In a ghetto area where physical and emotional needs are
critical, where American Opportunity is an outworn joke, where the ravages of
racism are as real as the pavement, a free store means revolution. Much more
than the distribution of free goods is involved. In the case of the Black
People's Free Store, the fundamental revolutionary function is to communicate
love to fellow human beings. With love feeling, understanding, respect,
communication people are allowed to believe in themselves, to love themselves,
to become themselves.
Such communication happens in many ways. Each Saturday the Store
prepares and serves a free meal in Malcolm X Park, Turk & Laguna Streets. Over a
thousand people have attended this event, the primary function of which is to
bring people together with a focus upon themselves. Creating this focus means
affirming individual worth. Smaller quantities of food are given out at the
store daily [the Ukrainian Bakery provides bread regularly] and the process of
communication through a basic necessity is thus continued.
In another direction, a basement dark room has been installed,
and volunteers are available to teach the fundamentals of photography. It is
felt that the camera can become a means of profound expression for people denied
almost all forms of public expression save violence. Also, Mitch the Drummaker
is ready to begin instruction in the craft of drum construction. But these and
other projects cannot begin until money is donated.
A one-ton truck was purchased three weeks ago, enabling the
store to pick up donated goods and to transport people into the country. Relief
from the deadly oppression of ghetto living is literally life-saving. On the
weekend of July 22-23, twenty-five kids and store workers camped in the Sierra
Mountains. Upon returning, one youth, who had never seen the wilderness before,
said the trip had been more fun than shooting up the city. Other trips are
planned as money becomes available, and efforts are being made to use some of
the extensive Methodist Church camp facilities later in the summer.
The Store's guiding spirit has been Roy Ballard, but he is the
first to say that the people have taken over. It is their store. No one believes
in the idea of leaders, and everyone seems to have had enough of
leader-follower patterns. The Digger motto, do your thing, is the key to
the Store, and black people are beginning to discover their thing at 1099
Eight representatives of San Francisco-Bay Area foundations
recently met with a group of men from the Black People's Free Store. The meeting
was held in the Store's basement Meditation Room. Cushions are scattered on the
cold cement floor, people lean against the brick walls. A psychedelic
light-sculpture flashes changing colors, and the air is tense, heated. One of
the black men, Mitch, has been arguing with the foundation people, among whom is
Glide's Lewis Durham. The purpose of the meeting has been to familiarize the
foundations with the Free Store program and to engage their support. Subjects at
hand are black liberation, white liberalism, the problems of operating a free
store, the philosophy of giving. Suddenly Mitch looks at Durham and commands:
"Give me your watch, man!" Durham nods in agreement, understanding the point
property is things, people are human beings with immediate wants and needs;
black people are owed these by white America. But Mitch continues: "No man,
don't nod! Give me your watch!"
VENTURE: Who has been giving the store the goods being
ROY: So far it's been mostly white people, but we have people
from the community here bringing things in on their own. But first of all, white
people are the only ones who have got it. There's no one else that has it. You
have the black bourgeoisie, but brother, they're not going to give it up and you
know that. We know that there are liberal whites that'll give it, because they
recognize that they owe it to black people.
VENTURE: What do you mean by owe?
OLDER MAN: The average girl of my time and I'm in my fifties
could have an education, where the fellas had to get out and go to work because
there wasn't no relief at that time. You had to work, you had to forget about an
education. You had to get out there and dig ditches, make your living. Now how
in the world you going to explain education with digging ditches? You can't read
a book and dig a ditch at the same time. Their intention is to keep you low. Mop
the floor and all. Then when you get as old as I am, then you go down and apply
for some job and they say, "You got an education?" Where was I going to get an
education when I was out there digging ditches? Here I'm about ready for old-age
pension, you want to tell me to go to school for ten years?
YOUNG MAN: White people ask, "Why should you get anything free?"
That's the reason!
ARTHUR: I'm sick and tired of talking I'm ready to do,
regardless of whatever it costs. I'll pay the biggest penalty I got which is my
life! That's where I'm at.
YOUNG MAN: That's the way I feel myself. If my kids are going to
be killed, I'd rather kill them myself than have them come up under something
like this. Living as a fifth of a man. You know, jobs where you have to bend
over and cop-out. It's the same with white collar jobs on Market St. They're
copping out too. It doesn't matter what level, you're copping out on yourself.
I'm teaching kids from nine to fifteen how to fire weapons. It's nothing but a
suicidal matter, I know this. But it's a suicidal matter to be black!
ROY: Black people have always been castrated. We're being
castrated in the jails, in Vietnam, on the damn street! You name it, we get the
short end of the stick. Even the Mexican-Americans, who I consider equally poor
with blacks, even that cat is two or three steps higher than I am. Therefore,
the only thing we can do is ask for what's due us. We have to take it the best
way we can.
YOUNG MAN: Either we're going to get total peace and recognition
and respect or else we're going to have to go down and die!
ROY: Our thing in the store is not the black and white issue
we're far from that. Here in the store we welcome everybody. The only way we're
going to bring about change is people communicating. Once a person closes his
mind, that's it. Things become one-sided. Brother, I'm going to keep my mind
open! This store is bringing about a hellava lot of wisdom. It's helping a lot
of young ones on the street who are coming in here. And it's opening their minds
to where it's really at. That's our whole thing here in this store. Opening
minds to share, to make understanding, to feel for each other.
What I'm thinking is what would happen if black people could
disaffiliate from money altogether. Black people by nature were born to
understand each other and to share with each other. They did this even in
slavery time when they was sharing the juice from the greens. They were sincere
about each other. In Louisiana that's still the way it is. When I came up here
to California, hell! I was surprised. I met some of the very same people I went
to school with, but they acted like they didn't know me. I said, "Hey, buddy,
don't you know me? I know you. Aren't you so and so?" "Ya, I'm in a hurry right
now, I gotta go." But down in the South everybody shares with each other,
because down South everybody's so poor they say that's the only way we can live.
ARTHUR: Let's face it, people say it takes money to live. If you
look at money itself it's the money that causes confusion, man. Those that got
want more, those that don't have want whatever they can get.
OLDER MAN: When I first heard about the store, I thought it was
a whole lot of bull. I'll come truthfully out and say it. When I come here and
pick up something, I walked out, and nobody said nothing and I got to wondering
is this true. Because it sounds so funny, walking in and getting something you
need, and it didn't cost you nothing. And I really needed it. So I started
telling my other friends about it. I brought different people here. A pregnant
girl, she came down and got some baby clothes because she knows that Welfare
won't help her get those clothes.
ROY: What I'm saying is that this whole store centers around
this basic reality of understanding and sharing with each other. And you'll
notice that there's a whole lot of black people from the community who know
where it's at. They're not digging this stuff about black people black people
gotta do this, we gotta do that. No! None of that stuff! We're people from the
black community who feel the poorness, who feel the poorness of being knocked
down and slapped down every time we turn around. The whole store is a center of
bringing about that kind of communication of understanding and sharing with each
OLDER MAN: In my apartment building I got an ironing board one
day. I come over here and left it. Boy, I didn't even get out of the store
before a woman comes in and takes the ironing board. She needed it!
ROY: Somebody said, "How long that ironing board gonna be here?"
I said, "You just stand there and see how long." It wasn't hardly two minutes
before that woman walks in and says, "Do you know where I can get an ironing
board?" "There's one there." She said, "Here's a dollar." But no! We don't
accept no money here.
OLDER MAN: She just picked it up and ran out the door, afraid he
might change his mind.
OLDER WOMAN: A white lady came in one time, do you remember her?
She needed things. I said, "Here lady, you can wear these. Take them." We don't
make any exceptions because of color. When the whites come in here we help them.
Poor is poor.
ARTHUR: We got twenty keys out in the community. Many people
have them. We have several prostitutes that stand out on the corner. They have a
key too. Our whole basis is not only to be giving things away free, but trust
and charity and truth. It's really getting down to it. A question was asked,
"How do you know that people need these things they're taking?" Well, it's like
this. People come in and take things. It's all free. Now, they have to suffer
with their own conscience, because my conscience is clear. I know I let them get
it. Now if they go do something else with it, that's them.
ROY: We got a number of people that come in and pick up clothes
and sell them. We don't worry about that. But maybe that guy got to sell those
clothes because he got two or three kids at home and he can't work. Maybe the
guy's selling clothes because he wants to have some extra money in his pocket.
We're not concerned about that. We got four or five cats that come over here and
sit every day and take out two or three boxes of clothes. Good clothes. And we
know that they're selling them. But at least that cat is not walking down the
street to Littleman's Market, taking all the meat from the counter and then
going to jail for four or five years.
ARTHUR: He ain't standing around no dark alleyway waiting for
nobody to come by and knock him on the head.
OLDER MAN: Others pick up things because they have friends that
are shame-faced and won't come into the store. I do quite a bit of that
delivery. And I know girls who are ashamed to come in. They want it. On their
own, they don't got the nerve to come in.
ROY: They're afraid to get caught. And when I say afraid to
get caught, I'm talking about caught in the sense of getting caught
in what's really happening in this store brotherhood and communication and the
whole bit. Because once you walk into this store and really start talking to the
people, you finally get caught and you start coming every day. Before you know
it, you come here every day.
ARTHUR: When Roy and them was first getting ready to open up,
Roy walks up to me and says, "Hey, baby, I need you." I said okay. And I was
working then on an eight hour job. I went down to pick up my check in the
personnel office. Been here ever since.
VENTURE: What are some of the other ways you're communicating
with the people?
ROY: We got some alcoholics. One man, we call him Pops when he
came in here, that man couldn't walk. People who knew that cat used to watch him
drink down ten or fifteen bottles of wine every day. He walked in that door, sat
down, heard what was going on. He was swollen up, could just barely move. You
look at Pops now, Jack, Pops is down there poppin' his fingers. And done cut
ARTHUR: He was sitting around telling me: "You know one thing,
little brother, I used to be lonely. I'd sit up in my room, look at them four
walls, and I didn't have no place to go. Since you came and opened up this
store, I ain't lonely no more. I know where I can come, and I can enjoy myself
when I get there." This, right here, means more to me than all the money in the
world. To hear him say this and know and see him standing up on his own. 'Cause
I'm not doing it, he's doing it. All we done was just open up his mind and say,
"You can do it, baby! It's not impossible. You're a man!"
ROY: We got little radio speakers outside the store. One night
we were standing outside, playing around with each other. And the prostitutes
are usually standing out there. They said, "How come you don't have no music out
here for us?" Next day we had a speaker out there. And all the other prostitutes
are beginning to come here. One by one, they're peeking in, coming in. We got
hot coffee for them at night, any food that's here they eat. They even buy food
for us which is unusual. Prostitutes don't get up off any money, Jack, they
take that money to their man. But these prostitutes get up off their money,
Jack, so we can buy food for these people in here and them too.
OLDER MAN: Roy, I want to ask you one question. What makes a lot
of prostitutes? Because they can't get the money they need to get the clothes
and furniture that they need? You're cutting it down because the store's giving
ROY: Right. You see, brother, first of all a prostitute becomes
a prostitute because she fears the man who put her out there. That's the way he
runs his game. To me, a pimp is nothing but another white man. A slavedriver.
Driving those black sisters out there who are selling themselves. When you start
cleaning it up, you got to start from the pimp on up. We got six women so far
that wants to cut it a-loose, but they are scared of those men.
ARTHUR: I take and stand back sometimes, walking up and down
Fillmore. I stand back and look at that pimp. Just like I'm saying, "O yes,
baby, my time's gonna come when I blow out your brains too!"
ROY: And we got alcoholics coming here. They kept saying, "Man,
we get tired of drinking on the corner." I said, "Look, man, there's room right
there for you to come and sit, play cards or drink your wine whatever you want
to do, there's the place to do it." Now we got a whole bunch of alcoholics that
come in, lie down there and do their thing. There's never been anything like
this in the district before. Sometimes they get too drunk and can't go home
and fall asleep right there. And they feel free. We had one guy who fell in here
and had $150 on him. When I looked up he was down on the couch. When he woke up,
the first thing he looked for his wallet. He started counting the money about 3
a.m. He counted it out and said, "All my money's here! Where am I?" I said,
"You're in the Black Man's Free Store." "You mean nobody's gonna take my money?"
"Hey, brother, we don't do no stealing in here. Whenever you walk in these doors
here, Jack, you're protected, you're safe." That cat put his wallet in his
pocket and laid right back down and went to sleep. Didn't wake up till morning.
Got up and bought something like four dozen eggs, some bread and sausage. He
said he never in his life been in a place where he could just lay down and feel
like home. When you're at home, you know you can be at ease, nobody's going to
We gave another man a refrigerator. He came in the store and
said, "This here is a free store? You must be kidding. I want that
refrigerator." We said, "You can have it." "I want the stove." "You can have
it." "I want a couch." "You can have it too." He was playing, you understand. He
went back home, got his wife, brought a truck. We helped load the stuff on. The
man was crying at the same time and he tried to give us twenty dollars. We said,
"No man, we don't want no money." That man cried more and more and went. down
and got a case of beer. He said, "I just got to get you something. I don't feel
right. I got to get you something."
ARTHUR: Not only that, but Saturday night we got some teenagers
who got wasted. A couple of policemen stopped them and they came over here to
the store and asked us to help them out. We said to the police, "Hey, man, any
other young fellas that you see drunk or whatever, bring them here. Don't take
them downtown." They said okay. Later on that morning, the police brought a
couple of prostitutes by and dropped them off and walked them to the door and
said, "We brought them home."
As I see it, what we're doing now is getting people back to
basic realities and showing that there is still love and sincerity for our own.
After the civil war they took the chains off our arms and legs. Sure we were
free, but they put chains around our minds. Now the chains are breaking loose
from our minds. That's what scares them, because we're thinking for ourselves
and not letting somebody else do our thinking.
VENTURE: I understand you haven't received much help from
churches in the area. What are the ministers afraid of?
ROY: Hey, this is the trick, man. The man ain't afraid of
nothing. The cat is in there for greed! The cat don't do nothing but take the
bible the whites given him and use it on us. Most of these ministers got greed
in their hearts. That means money! As long as they can keep a sister in the
church and jump and shout Amen!, saying God is here, God is there and putting
money in his pocket, he's groovy, he don't want nothing to do with outside
trouble. If he gets into a political scene, he wants his name to go as high as
it can so he can become some diplomat or president. The only ministers that does
anything for black people are these little one horse shoe ministers, these
store-front ministers. Now they are the nitty-gritty ministers, the only ones
I've seen who'll get out in the community and say, "Sister, do you need
something for your house?" And this cat here ain't got no big church, he's just
got a room with a few chairs. And that cat has got an extra job on the side.
Whereas you got this big church, and we asked them for this brewery they own
down here. An empty brewery. We were going to have a whole complete service
for teenagers, for older people, everybody. A whole block square. This big
church owns it. What they're going to do is tear it down within five years, now
listen to this, tear it down within five years and put up apartment
houses. Now what is that? Exploitation again. As far as the ministers, ministers
is about the worst enemy a man can have. All he wants is money!
VENTURE: Well, what would you like to ask of our readers? What
can they do?
JOHNNY: Simple. Tell them to donate to us. Let them give us the
clothes they don't use. We don't want rags if they don't want them, nobody
else wants them. But if they outgrow them, or they got them to spare, bring them
to the people who really needs them. We don't sell them like the Salvation Army
it's free. And the same with furniture. Let someone down here use it instead
of putting it away in a basement.
VENTURE: And money? I see that you aren't taking money from the
ARTHUR: Our money is coming through Glide. When we need
something, we go down and ask for the money. When they got it, they give it.
When we get money, we give it to them, and they pass it back when, we need it.
I was on the street the other day. There was a white girl
standing there. This poor white man stood there, and he was hungry. He asked
this white girl for a dime to get him a cup of coffee, and she said she didn't
have it. I'm standing there, looking at her. I said, "Girl, you should be
ashamed of yourself, turning that old man down for a dime." I gave him a dime. I
say, a dime won't make me rich. Poor's poor.
"Do people take advantage of the store?", This is a question
frequently asked when a free store is first encountered. The question is, do
people take things they don't need, do they take more than they need, do they
cheat on the store? This is rather Iike asking of a businessman, "Do you have
much trouble with shoplifting?" Such questions turn out to be more mirrors of
the questioner's mind and attitudes than real queries about a store's operation.
Taking advantage is an attitude grown from the money-and-profit culture. It is
sister to such capitalistic rules of thumb as you get what you pay for. The
questioner is speaking for himself, making it clear that if he were allowed to
take whatever he wished from a store, free and with impunity, he would take
everything he could get his hands on. With a free store, such questions become
irrelevant, leftovers from the old way. When the profit motive is removed,
people remain. It is a fact that some people come in to the Free Store and take
more than they need this is discussed on pages 5-6. [Ed. note: see above
transcribed interview.] Some people believe that the Store is not real, that
they had better get what they can while they can. Stock up, get ahead. These,
too, are o l d ways. When a person realizes that he can always get what he needs
when he needs it, that the store is not going to empty or disappear in a day or
two, he usually begins bringing extra items back, feeling that other people,
Iike himself, aIso need. Instead of a maze of fears about acquisition and
possession, people find themselves feeling responsibility towards other people.
A free store is about people now. Each person carries a vision
of what he or she would Iike to be. But today people need. It is natural to
give, it is natural to take.
WOMAN: Hello, this is the Glide?
ME: Yes, this is Glide Church, can I help you?
WOMAN: You support this black people's store?
ME: Yes, Glide helps with the rent of the Black People's Free
WOMAN: Then, Mr. Glide, you can tell them to shut-up with the
noise. Music I like, but not day and night in the streets. We live across the
street and our nerves can't take it it's your money, you can stop them.
ME: Well, why don ' t you go across the street and talk with the
people who ' re bothering you?
WOMAN: Listen, you, I've complained to the real estate, to the
owner not the police, they got more important things to do. Now you control
them, so you stop them!
ME: Well, I'd suggest that you go talk with the people who are
making the noise just talk with them yourself, maybe that's the best way.
WOMAN: And who's in charge, may I ask? Who can tell who's in
ME: Maybe you could find Mr. Ballard.
WOMAN: Mr. Ballard, you say, Mr. Ballard and his green beret!
ME: Yes, Mr. Roy Ballard. Why don't you talk with him?
WOMAN: Mr. Glide, Mr. Ballard is dancing in the street.
by JOHNNY BELL
There are some places on this
More alien than any in the
And it don't take a rocket ship
Or a satallite to make the trip....
Where a humans life is cheaper than
And people being
fenced in like
This story is true not an old
Some know it and
knows it well....
You can help the Black People's Free Store continue
and expand its work by contributing . . .
1 Clothing of alI types in good condition
2 Furniture and working appliances of all kinds
3 Food or money for the purchase of food in bulk
4 Money for camp and craft projects
5 Whatever you can give
This month's VENTURE is unlike any previously published by Glide
Memorial Methodist Church. It is an experimental format, and we invite your
suggestions, criticisms and general reactions.
Editor: Jim Ekedal
Photos: Bill Owens
[video clip from the Black People's Free Store]
In 1967, filmmaker Jack O'Connell came to San Francisco with the
idea of making a movie about the hippies. The resulting film is one of the
strangest documents that came out of that period. In its first incarnation, the
film's distributor (United Artists) publicized Revolution as a shocking
exposé (absolutely no one under 16 admitted). Then in 1986, O'Connell decided to
do a remake but with updated interviews of some of the subjects who appeared in
the first release. He wasn't able to release this version for another ten years.
When he did (in 1996) it was called Hippie Revolution. O'Connell
obviously approached both versions with a sympathetic view to the hippie
lifestyle, even though he included testimony about the seamier aspects of life
in the Haight. One of the strangest things about the film is that many of the
interviewees are not identified. Which brings me to the clip above. This is a
short interview with someone that I think is closely associated with the Black
People's Free Store. There is no identification in the film. At first I thought
it might be Roy Ballard but the resemblance to Roy's pictures is slight at best.
Then I was talking with Ronnie Davis and asked him if he remembered Roy. Ronnie
remembered him but he also recalled his brother. They ("the Ballard brothers"
according to Ronnie) auditioned for the SF Mime Troupe's Minstrel Show. So now I
am convinced that this must be Roy's brother. I don't have any proof, and would
love if anyone who knows the truth of the matter were to contact me.
Both versions are available on Youtube.