Some 300 people from the local Black community last week attended Charlie Walker’s funeral, with city, state and even national political establishment figures delivering eulogies for the “Mayor of Bayview Hunters Point.”
A famed advocate of the community, as well as a widely influential businessman and power broker, Walker died on Jan. 26 of dementia. He was 89.
“Charlie was a trailblazer who tirelessly transformed the Bay Area, California and the nation,” wrote Vice President Kamala Harris, whose letter of condolence was followed by a letter from Gov. Gavin Newsom. “I am grateful for his unwavering commitment to centering the voices and the experience of Black people in the battle of equal rights.”
Attendants unanimously agreed the goal of the funeral was: “To make sure the legacy of Brother Charlie never dies from this Black community.”
Mayor London Breed described Walker as her “partner” at the funeral. “It was a time where Black folks really didn’t stand up to white people. Because there was a lot of fear, concern, and consequences. He made it look easy. He made people feel like anything was possible,” she said.
District 10 supervisor Shamann Walton agreed. “Charlie taught me how to be unapologetic. He would walk in a room and make demands. He didn’t ask for stuff,” said Walton, who also brought a proclamation signed by the entire board of supervisors to the funeral.
From son of sharecroppers to power player
Walker was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 24, 1933, to two sharecroppers. When he turned 10, his family settled in San Francisco, seeking a better life. Early on, he mostly worked odd jobs, but while working as a trucker in his 30s, Walker began leading frequent protests to push for contracts for Black contractors and truckers.
In 1969, with Walker’s organizing, a number of local Black truckers chained their trucks around a local BART job site to protest alleged discrimination. It worked. Walker made headlines, won projects with BART, and broke ground by gaining access for a few Black contractors to the public bidding process of the construction industry.
“I suspect the biggest contract any African American had with BART was Charlie’s,” said Willie Brown, former mayor of San Francisco, Assembly speaker and one of Walker’s closest friends and attorney, at the funeral.
Walker “got things done that the real mayor couldn’t get done right then,” and earned the nickname “Robin Hood,” according to his nephew, Kenneth Walker, a trucker and contractor.
In 1971, two Standard Oil tankers collided under the Golden Gate Bridge and spilled 800,000 gallons of oil, the largest oil spill in Bay Area history. Walker and his one-truck company were originally assigned to clean up a small beach other contractors didn’t especially want. The wind and tide pattern, however, suddenly changed, and brought Walker $5 million in 30 days. He wrote about his experiences in “America is Still the Place,” and a film remake of the book was released in 2022 in which Mike Colter, Marvel’s Luke Cage, played Walker.
Walker always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He helped protect Brown on Nov. 27, 1978, the day Dan White shot and killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Brown, who was in City Hall that day for a court case, emerged from the building to find Walker and five other armed men waiting to guard him, he wrote in 2008. “Charlie was like my older brother,” Brown said Friday, “like my bodyguard.”
But he was also a controversial man who found himself in serious trouble with the law. In 1984, he was convicted of 23 felonies for grand theft, attempted extortion, perjury and tax evasion. He spent three years in Folsom Prison, and emerged in 1987. But even this did not derail his prominent place in public life.
A patriarch of the family and community
Walker is survived by his wife, four children, seven grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren.
“We always knew that if we had a problem, he would solve it. If someone was bothering us, he would stand up for us,” said Lyn-Tise Jones, 37, a granddaughter and an Amazon delivery service partner with 200 employees. “I work predominantly around white men. He told me not to be afraid of being a Black woman. Don’t be afraid of being a woman.”
Growing up, Walker kept a strong hold on the family, according to Kevin Kelley Jr, 42, who once believed Walker was too strict on them. “He tell you, ‘You don’t have no friends. I’m your only friend,” said Kelley, who attended the funeral. “In the long run, growing up in the environment we came up here, he was right.”
Living in Hunters Point, Kelley grew up surrounded by violence and gunfire, but Walker emphasized the family should never be involved with the police. “You don’t tell no snitching,” Kelley said. “This is a community where calling 911 is not an option.”
Instead, Walker “always believed in community. I remember him always instilling in us like he wanted to buy everyone with a home in the same area, my aunties, my uncles,” Kelley said.
Renae Wilborn, Walker’s great-great-great-niece, attributes everything in her career to Walker. Collette Walker, Walker’s granddaughter and a program manager at Boeing, recalls sitting on his lap around the house. Walker, who always had cash on him, would take a few dollars and give it to her.
Many believe Walker’s life is inseparable from the Bayview. “This community was totally built on our parents,” said Darryl Bishop, 63, a builder who had known Walker for his whole life. “We are witnesses to what they fought for. And Charlie fought for everything that we’re sitting in right now.”
“It’s like a 50-year plan to redevelop Third Street, Hunters Point, the shipyard,” said Bishop, who recalls Walker’s demeanor and the assertive way he talked. “People will listen to him; people step behind him. But we step behind all our parents,” he said. “We follow all of them religiously.”
“I’d say Bayview is the last African American community in the city. We are still hanging on,” said Natalie Berry, the daughter of one of Walker’s best friends. Walker won the community’s trust because he “got people jobs that no one else would hire,” including those workers who needed a job after leaving prison.
Granddaughter Lyn-Tise Jones referenced James Baldwin’s famous saying about being Black in this country “is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time.” Walker “turned that rage into a power. He turned that into transforming our families and communities,” Jones said.
“When money comes into the neighborhood, gentrification comes. What they do is try to pit people of color against each other. And for him, he always believed there was enough for everyone, but everyone should deserve their own spaces,” she said. Walker respected other races, Jones said — but to him, Bayview was a Black space.
“America didn’t really respect Black businessmen in particular, even though Black businessmen developed most of the cities in America,” said artist Malik Seneferu, who curated an exhibit about Walker at the Southeast Community Center this month. “From San Diego to San Francisco, Black businessmen developed these towns, and they later became taken over by others who would come in and usurp their positions.”
Filmmaker Kevin Epps, 55, compared Walker’s life to “The Sopranos” and “The Godfather,” partially referring to his nice suits and Bentley automobile. It “made people in the Black community proud that they see a guy in the community that looks positive like a businessman,” said Epps. Also, 16 years ago, when “some underworld dark guys” accused Epps of theft and wanted to harm him, Walker came and picked Epps in his car. If Walker hadn’t come, “I would probably have gotten killed or beat up very bad. Because I’m a little guy,” said Epps.
Walker managed to extend his influence from the Bayview to the Fillmore. This was a notable achievement because of the historical distance between these two districts. “San Francisco is a really funny area; people who live in the Bayview don’t go across town to the Fillmore, and vice versa,” said Linda Parker Pennington, a longtime Bayview resident and commissioner of the San Francisco Arts Commission who met Walker in his later years.
The checkered history
Walker’s legacy also includes a stint in Folsom Prison. In 1984, Walker was convicted of 23 felonies, including grand theft, attempted extortion, perjury and tax evasion. Among them, 17 charges were later thrown out by the appeals court — but the court still accused Walker of selling out the interests of the impoverished in Hunters Point to enrich himself.
In 1999, Walker was also probed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations for his run of city contracts awarded under his friend, Mayor Brown. Investigators asked how Walker “managed to land lucrative trucking subcontracts at San Francisco International Airport since Brown took office.”
The ascent of Walker’s great friend and attorney, Brown, was certainly a godsend for Charlie Walker. After Brown won the mayor’s race in 1995, Walker purportedly walked into the city’s minority contracting office and told the staff, “It looks like you are going to be working for me now.”
Looking back at these controversies, Walker wrote a decade and a half ago, “Now, I don’t play coy and act like everything I did was by the book. I may have ‘over-interpreted’ gray areas of construction rules and laws a time or two, but so did my white competitors, who constantly tried to undermine me or cut me out of work and financial opportunities.”
Kevin Kelley, Jr., Walker’s grandson, believes these practices were necessary, to a certain extent. “Unfortunately, in today’s Black culture, when you are in an urban area, if you’re not willing to protect your life at all costs … Some people are genuinely protecting their lives,” he said.
Black men are always under a lot of scrutiny, said Sophie Maxwell, former District 10 supervisor. “White men do the same practices all the time, every day … No doubt he was a rascal. But we appreciated that about him.”
“I think, for me, his contributions were that he had businesses here,” continued Maxwell. “Young people could see, ‘Hey, I can be there. I can do that someday.’ He has a lot of money and he’s still here. ‘I don’t have to leave.’”
“If this had really been a village, he would have been a king,” she said.
In 2019, Walker was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the African American Chamber of Commerce.
In celebration of his life, the place where 10-year-old Walker and his family first lived in California — Donner Avenue between Arelious Walker Drive and West Harney Way — will be renamed Charlie Way.