SF's First Black-Owned Gay Bar Offered Refuge from Racism in the '90s Queer Scene

"The New Eagle Creek Saloon" is on view Wednesday evenings until it's hoisted onto a float for the San Francisco Pride parade.  (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Editor's Note: This article is part of KQED Arts' story series Pride as Protest, which chronicles the past and present of LGBTQ+ activism in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Learn more about the series here.

One Saturday evening last month, dozens of people hovered around a horseshoe-shaped bar in the Mission District of San Francisco. Diffuse blue and fuchsia lights shone on white patent leather sofas, and a DJ played vinyl—mostly throwback funk and disco beating with a steady pulse. Arched over the scene was a pink neon sign with the words "Eagle Creek."

As the music quieted, Sadie Barnette and her father Rodney sat on stools beneath the neon, and explained why this art space, usually known as the Lab, looked and felt like a nightclub. In the 1970s and 1980s, Rodney recalled, gay bars were among the least hospitable places in San Francisco for black people such as himself. There was hardly a place for gay black people to dance, let alone throw a fundraiser for a gay black political candidate.

"That’s why I bought the Eagle Creek," he said.

Sadie Barnette (L) used her residency at The Lab to honor San Francisco's first black-owned gay bar the Eagle Creek Saloon, which her father Rodney (R) opened in 1990.
Sadie Barnette (L) used her residency at The Lab to honor San Francisco's first black-owned gay bar the Eagle Creek Saloon, which her father Rodney (R) opened in 1990. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Sadie was five years old in 1990 when her father acquired the bar that for the next three years provided gay people of color a site of protest, refuge and revelry on Market Street—"a friendly place with a funky bass for every race," as its slogan went. Now the Oakland artist is using her residency at the Lab to to honor her father’s venture with "something living, something more than a referential archive," she said. "I want this to channel Eagle Creek, not just be about it."

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Sadie's most vivid memory of the city’s first black-owned gay bar is from 1992, when the Eagle Creek sponsored what Rodney calls the first black float in the San Francisco Pride parade. The theme was black people through the ages, and Sadie stood alongside pharaohs and astronauts in an ornately tasseled ensemble created by a bar regular. Her residency at the Lab culminates with this year's parade on June 30, when the entire bar will be hoisted onto a float. Until then, the bar is on view every Wednesday 5-8pm.

"The New Eagle Creek Saloon" is not a reproduction of Eagle Creek so much as a fondly embellished memory. Sadie called the aesthetic "disco limbo," saying in a recent interview that it connects to her work in terms of familiar objects or scenes portrayed with a hyperbolic grandeur to suggest their liberatory potential. The bar is part altar, with photos of the Barnette family from the time, and part sculpture, with crushed cans and stereo equipment enameled in glitter. There are branded matchbooks and coasters, and the bar itself is sturdy enough for people to dance on.

L to R: Alvin and Carl Barnette, Eagle Creek regulars Sammy "La Creek" and Frank "Lady F," and Rodney Barnette.
L to R: Alvin and Carl Barnette, Eagle Creek regulars Sammy "La Creek" and Frank "Lady F," and Rodney Barnette. (Courtesy Sadie Barnette)

Sadie aims for the installation to also be a queer social space, inviting organizations such as the Black Aesthetic film collective to contribute programming. This way, the project at once enhances the historical record, gathering memories and materials related to a little-documented bar, and addresses a still-urgent need for black-centered queer spaces. "Discrimination at clubs doesn't take the same forms now," she said. "But we shouldn't relegate the struggle to the past."

Rodney was wounded in the Vietnam War, and upon returning to Los Angeles realized American police occupied the black community the way American soldiers occupied Vietnam. He founded the Compton chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1968, landing on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) watchlist.

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Sadie incorporated his FBI file, acquired via a public records request, into her installation My Father's FBI File, Project I, which debuted in 2016 at the Oakland Museum of California’s exhibition All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50. She had in mind a piece inspired by Eagle Creek even before that project, but it wasn’t until the Lab residency that she had the opportunity. "Something that’s as much performance as shrine or nightclub needs somewhere as flexible as the Lab," she said.

The bar is part altar, with photos of the Barnette family from the time, and part sculpture, with crushed cans and stereo equipment enameled in glitter.
The bar is part altar, with photos of the Barnette family from the time, and part sculpture, with crushed cans and stereo equipment enameled in glitter. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

Rodney, who moved to San Francisco in 1969, said he was surprised to find racism in the gay scene to be more pronounced than in the city over all. As he recalls, the Rendezvous cut the music when black people started to dance, citing a rule against bodily contact, and the Stud removed the black music from the jukebox. At the Mineshaft, like other gay bars, black people were often asked for three forms of identification at the door. "And the bigger the community got, the worse the discrimination was," Rodney said. "I started avoiding even driving through the Castro."

Even the opening of the Eagle Creek, in 1990, was followed by what Rodney considered a racist smear in San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ newspaper, Bay Area Reporter. A news item on a white gay man found strangled to death at home noted that he was an Eagle Creek regular with a "sexual preference for black males," unsubtly implying a connection. Rodney wrote the newspaper expressing sympathy for the victim and outrage at the innuendo, prompting a retraction.

Sadie Barnette aims for "The New Eagle Creek Saloon" to be a queer social space.
Sadie Barnette aims for "The New Eagle Creek Saloon" to be a queer social space. (Sam Lefebvre/KQED)

A hub of gay rights activism, the bar hosted fundraisers for groups such as Lesbians and Gays of African Descent for Democratic Action, which in turn pressured the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass legislation forestalling the discriminatory identification checks. The bar closed during candlelight vigils on Market Street for community members lost to the AIDS epidemic. Rodney said it also brought him closer to his two straight brothers.

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The Eagle Creek shuttered in 1993 because business tapered during an economic downturn, and another short-lived bar aimed at straight people, The Drunk Tank, opened in its place. But it left deep impressions on its patrons, many of whom turned out to the opening last month at the Lab. After the Barnettes' presentation, one former regular lyrically recalled a muscular bartender with a tiny chihuahua. Another, choking up, remembered himself as painfully closeted, at all times withdrawn into his hoodie.

"I was hiding," he said. "At the Eagle Creek, I opened up."

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