Black People's Free Store

Fillmore District, San Francisco, 1967-68

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).

The Black People's Free Store

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 McAllister Street.


Don't Nod !

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 distributed?

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 other.

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 alcohol a-loose.

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 things free.

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 take nothing.

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 black community.

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.


Sharing & Taking Is Natural

"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.


Telephone Conversation

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 Store.

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 charge?

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.




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
      a dogs
And people being fenced in like
This story is true not an old
      folks tale
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


What Is A Digger?

[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.


Click on images to view larger version.

Roy Ballard (3rd from left) at the announcement of a settlement with the Hotel Owners Association, 1964.

Black People's Free Store, 1967. Roy Ballard (2nd from l.)




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