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The Oakland Tribune’s First Black Photojournalist Captured the ‘Black Aesthetic’ of the ’60s and ’70s

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A woman wearing black boots and holding a bag stand on the sidewalk surrounded by buildings.
Woman in downtown San Francisco on Market Street. (Kenneth P. Green Sr.)

You know that curiosity that pops up sometimes when you’re in a gallery and you’re looking at a really good photo of a stranger? And the spirit of it, the everyday-ness of it, makes you want to know the person’s story? Were they happy in life? What were their struggles? What was their day like before and after that picture was taken? Are they still alive?

That’s the feeling I had looking at Kenneth P. Green Sr.’s photographs, now on display at the Jewett Gallery in San Francisco’s Main Public Library. The exhibition, titled Toward a Black Aesthetic and on view through April 21, features Green Sr.’s mostly never-before-seen images capturing Bay Area Black women’s beauty and style in the 1960s and ’70s.

“There was a certain charisma and fashion that they left the house with, knowing that they had to represent themselves. Otherwise they were going to be ignored,” says Kenneth P. Green Jr., Green Sr.’s son and co-curator of the exhibition. 

Black and white photo of a Black women in a white hat and stylish clothes draping a fur over her shoulder
Joan modeling fashion. (Kenneth P. Green Sr.)

Green Jr. manages an archive of 80-plus-thousand negatives of his father’s photographs (and has digitized over 11,000 of them to date). Many are from Green Sr.’s time as the first Black staff photographer at the Oakland Tribune — a role he held from 1968 until his untimely death in 1982 at age 40 while on a photo assignment. 

Green Jr. has done exhibitions and projects involving his father’s collection before, mainly involving his father’s photographs of the Black Panther Party — some of which are part of the ongoing Black Power exhibition at the Oakland Museum. But the woman-centered theme of this exhibition emerged when Green Jr. noticed something when looking through his father’s body of work.  

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“I had more images, independent profile shots of Black women, than I had most anything,” Green Jr. says.

Images like a group of Black women, young and old, dressed for church service in West Oakland. Black women running on Ocean Beach with the Cliff House visible in the background. A Black woman in a leopard-print jacket and knee-high boots sitting in the Merritt College cafeteria.

Seven nicely dressed Black women of various ages stand in a row on the street outside a building.
Multiple women attending West Oakland Methodist Church in 1967. (Kenneth P. Green Sr.)

“I can definitely tell that my dad wanted to leave a record that white America wasn’t focused on documenting Black women in the ’60s and ’70s,” Green Jr. says. “But he made sure that he documented them at their best so that we could have a real record of what a Black woman and the aesthetic looks like.” 

Shawna Sherman, manager of the library’s African American Center, says greenlighting the exhibition was a no-brainer once the team saw the images. 

“You could tell that Kenneth Green Sr. really loved the Black community in these photos,” she says.

Green Sr. knew the community well, too. He grew up in San Francisco, graduating from Balboa High School in 1958 before getting his photography degree from Laney College. He later settled in Oakland on Fruitvale Avenue and 19th Street with his family.

The African American Center, on the library’s third floor, displays more of Green Sr.’s photos — specifically, rare photos of the African Liberation Day demonstration in San Francisco in 1972 that further underline the significance of his work in capturing Bay Area history. 

“I haven’t been able to find other images of African Liberation Day in San Francisco, you know, besides these photographs,” Sherman says. “We’re very lucky that he was there.”

A Black woman holds a sign that reads African Liberation Day May 27, 1972.
A woman holds a sign for African Liberation Day on May 27, 1972. (Kenneth P. Green Sr.)

When I ask Green Jr. what he believes his father would think about this exhibition and all the work his son has been doing to keep his memory alive, he says his father would “be speechless.”

“I think he would literally be shocked and in awe of celebrating the life work of Ken Green,” he adds. “Something that he did from his heart, that was a passion, that led to being really a very important memory and jewel of Bay Area, Oakland, San Francisco history.”

A history anyone can now see and enjoy, for free.

Toward a Black Aesthetic: Kenneth P. Green Sr.’s Photographs of the 1960s and 70s” is on view at San Francisco’s Main Public Library through April 21. A related author talk between Dr. Tanisha Ford and Dr. Tiffany E. Barber will be held at the library on Feb. 28.

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