San Francisco State has long held a reputation for student activism, especially for its 1968 student protest and strike against the college administration for their refusal to incorporate a Black Studies Program into the regular curriculum. A part of the revolutionary fervor that swept the world that year, the protest closed the college for four months and pitted students, faculty and administration against each other. The outcome was the first Ethnic Studies Department in the country.
However, 1968 was not the first time San Francisco State students had staged a protest. In 1947, two-thirds of the student body demonstrated against the City of San Francisco and the State of California. That time, a different generation fully supported the college president in his plan for campus expansion.
The college, originally a state normal school for teacher education, had been located on four-fifths of an acre at Waller and Buchanan Streets since 1908, and its buildings were “cramped, ramshackle and dangerous,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle. State legislators who came to view the college’s facilities pronounced themselves “shocked and repulsed” by the conditions. (They may have visited the cafeteria when the manager, who kept a loaded shotgun near her desk, blasted one of the huge resident rats who had scurried across her sights.) In 1939, the State Legislature had willingly allocated the money to the college to buy land near Lake Merced from the City of San Francisco for a new campus. However, World War II had intervened, and construction funds were not forthcoming.
By 1947, student enrollment had increased dramatically, swelled by returning war veterans studying on the GI Bill and students who wanted to pursue the liberal arts degree now offered in addition to teacher training. Under the leadership of President J. Paul Leonard (after whom the college’s library is named), San Francisco State set out to obtain additional land to accommodate the projected increase of students over the next ten years.
President Leonard quickly ran afoul of the prominent residential builders, the Stoneson Brothers, who were developing Stonestown Mall and Apartments on 19th Avenue. Leonard had his eye on property contiguous with the land already purchased by the college. The Stonesons wanted the exact same acreage from the city, on which they planned to build 1,000 homes to sell for $10,000 apiece.
The Brothers used their considerable influence as well-known developers to lobby the State Legislature, the city’s Board of Supervisors, and the mayor of San Francisco to prevent the college from obtaining the rights to buy the land. The Board of Supervisors demanded that the State Legislature defeat a pending bill allowing funds for the college to buy the property. Mayor Roger Lapham agreed with the decision, and the bill was defeated in the Legislature.
On February 27, 1947, when students heard the results of the vote, they organized the college’s first mass student demonstration.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported, in an article titled “Siege at City Hall,” that over 2,000 students of the 3,300 enrolled at the time crowded into the City Hall Rotunda to politely protest the mayor’s decision. They sang popular songs like “Open the Door, Richard” (changing the name to “Roger” in the mayor’s honor), and “Don’t Fence Me In (“Give me land, lots of land…).”
However, the mayor declined to speak with the students and remained locked in his office with President Leonard and Izzy Pivnick, student body president and veteran of the war in France. Mayor Lapham angrily asked Leonard what “those kids” were doing out there, and according to the Chronicle, was “patently piqued” by the protest and “huffed” at the singing.
Izzy Pivnick informed the mayor that the students had organized the protest themselves. President Leonard advised him that half the students present were of voting age and the other half were World War II veterans. Leonard also told the mayor that the land bought in 1939 had been assumed to be adequate at the time, but it would not accommodate the projected growth of up to 6,000 students by 1960. Despite this, Mayor Lapham made it clear he would not support San Francisco State’s request to purchase the land from the city because the city urgently needed more housing for families. When informed of his decision, the students “sang the school song, and then departed quietly.”
However, President Leonard had some powerful friends of his own in Sacramento and worked with the state finance director for several months to force a condemnation of all the Stoneson Brothers’ land earmarked for their shopping center and apartments. Finding themselves thwarted, the Brothers at last removed their objection to the college’s expansion in exchange for the lifting of the condemnation. As a Chronicle editorial declared, “While the need for more housing is valid, the added homes do not have to be all on the same integral block of land, but State College does.” This time, the Board of Supervisors and the Legislature approved the funds for the land purchase. The new campus was up and running by 1956.
Sixty years later, student enrollment has reached nearly 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students. In 2005, San Francisco State University bought Stonestown Apartments and renamed them “University Park North.” In a move that surely would have the Stoneson Brothers churning in their urns, today the University is turning many vacated apartments in the complex into dormitory rooms to house the growing number of residential students.
Sources: Biography of San Francisco State University, Arthur Chandler; San Francisco State University, Meredith Eliassen; San Francisco Chronicle; Golden Gater.
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