BLACK OAKLAND’S STORY
African Americans have been a part of Oakland throughout most of its 167-year history, contributing to its rise from mid-nineteenth century fledgling railroad town to the major West Coast port city, thriving tech hub, and trendy tourist attraction it is today. In 1869, thirteen years after its incorporation as a town, Oakland became the western terminus for the Transcontinental Railroad, a development that led to the steady arrival of African Americans who came to work as porters, maids, cooks, redcaps and waiters on the railroads and as employees in the growing hospitality industry. Black Americans also operated businesses such as restaurants, livery stables, grocery stores, and furniture stores. By 1900, the black population of Oakland – which was around 14 out of 1,500 people at the town’s inception in 1852 – had grown to about 1,026 out of 66,960 people. The community was still just a tiny fraction of the overwhelmingly white city but had developed an impressive network of cultural and economic institutions such as schools, funeral homes, real estate firms, recreation centers, and music venues.
The Second Great Migration
The largest influx of African Americans into Oakland came during the Second Great Migration. Between 1940 and 1970, an estimated 5 million blacks fled the constraints of the Jim Crow South to seek better opportunities in the Northeast, Midwest, and Western states. Tens of thousands of these migrants came to Oakland, drawn by the promise of plentiful jobs in a city at the center of the region’s rapidly expanding wartime economy, bolstered by an infusion of federal defense sector spending for shipbuilding and the construction of the Oakland Army base and Naval Supply Center. A wartime labor shortage, coupled with a directive by Franklin Roosevelt ordering federal contractors to integrate their workforces, prompted blacks to flood into the city to take jobs on the railroads, shipyards, ports, docks, and military supply centers that were an integral part of the war effort.
The availability of plentiful and relatively lucrative jobs engendered a new Bay Area black middle class, many of whom settled in West Oakland, where most of the maritime jobs were centered and where several housing projects had been constructed. The spike in new African American residents with disposable income led to the development of West Oakland’s historic Seventh Street corridor, a centerpiece of black commerce and culture in the 1940s that included a bustling commercial district lined with black-owned businesses and a vibrant nightlife scene that drew nationally known musicians such as B.B. King and Sarah Vaugh and helped foster the city’s legendary jazz scene and the birth of West Coast blues.
After the war, the shipbuilding and automobile industries went into decline, leading to layoffs and racially charged economic competition. Despite the immediate post-war slump, the black population continued to grow and thrive into the following decades, continuing to work on the railroads and docks, as well as in the robust manufacturing sector and the automobile industry, which became such a major part of the city’s economy that Oakland became known as the “Detroit of the West.” Eventually, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals joined high skilled blue-collar workers as the face of the city’s black middle class. The years of the Second Great Migration precipitated rapid growth in the African American population: by 1970, 35 percent of Oakland’s population was black – up from 3 percent in 1940.
The expansion of the city’s black population coincided with the Civil Rights era. Oakland took center stage in the Pan-African Movement spreading across the nation when, in 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Movement for Self Defense in response to the ongoing brutality inflicted by the disproportionately white police force on the city’s African American residents, who made up a third of the city’s population. The Black Panther Party – its members, clad in black leather jackets and black berets and openly carrying loaded rifles, pistols, and shotguns while patrolling their streets to safeguard their neighborhoods against violently abusive police officers – became an iconic symbol of the increasingly volatile Civil Rights era and the country’s escalating racial strife.
The ascent of the Black Panthers and its radical Afrocentric politics spilled over into black America’s creative communities. Artists inspired by both the rise of black nationalism in the U.S. and the anti-colonial African Independence uprisings sweeping the Motherland gave birth to the Black Arts Movement, an outpouring of creative activity beginning in the mid-1960s which featured the work of visual artists, writers, poets, musicians, and dancers that was colored by the designs, hairstyles, fashion, themes, and rhythms of Pan Africanism. New galleries, cultural centers, and arts organizations sprang up across Oakland and the East Bay.
Civil rights reforms and the post-war economic spurt of the 1960s boosted educational and employment opportunities for middle class blacks in Oakland and in the U.S. at large, but the African American underclass in Oakland still suffered under the yoke of discrimination, entrenched poverty, and housing segregation, problems deepened throughout the succeeding decades by various development projects which eroded the vitality some of Oakland’s black neighborhoods.
By the 1970s, the euphoric aura generated by the Black Panthers’ electrifying message of black self-sufficiency and solidarity had given way to the scourge of heroin, destabilizing families and communities and bringing about a surge in serious violence and gang warfare. A decade later crack cocaine appeared on the streets, with destructive and far-reaching consequences that mingled tragically with the supply side economic policies of the Ronald Reagan presidential years.
As the crack epidemic started to take hold in the early 1980s, African Americans outnumbered whites for the first time in Oakland’s history, with blacks making up 47 percent of the population and whites constituting 39 percent. By 2000, the black portion of the population had dropped to 35 percent. And by 2010, the city’s African American population fell below the white population for the first time since 1970. Of the city’s 390,700 total population, 28 percent was black, and 35 percent was white, with non-Hispanic whites making up 26 percent of the overall population. Latinos made up 25 percent of the total, continuing the group’s decades-long population growth in Oakland.
By 2018, black Oaklanders were no longer the single largest ethnic group in the city. Census Bureau estimates indicate African Americans make up 24 percent of the population, while non-Latino whites account for 27 percent and Latinos of all races make up 27 percent of the total. Asians, whose numbers have steadily increased since the 1960s, are 16 percent of the population.
If current trends continue – based on an average loss of about 6 percentage points per year since 2000 – the African American population in Oakland could shrink to 18 percent of the total by 2030, and to a mere 11 percent by 2040.
From Cash Out to Push Out
Oakland’s demographic shift – black exodus and an increase in the number of white, Asian and Latino residents – mirrors those occurring all over the region’s urbanized inner region, especially in Berkeley, Richmond, and San Francisco, the latter of which saw a dramatic 25 percent decline in its black population from 2000 to 2010.
The out-migration of African Americans has two primary impetuses. The first mainly occurred in the 1990s through 2000s, when middle-class blacks began moving out of the city into the suburbs to escape crime and find better schools and employment opportunities, cashing out their homes’ values in a Bay Area market jolted by the dot-com boom and just beginning to gentrify.
The second dynamic, intensifying over the past decade with the advent of the Silicon Valley-based tech industry, is the involuntary displacement of African American and Latino residents who are being squeezed out of a market flooded with newly arrived affluent white and Asian residents who can afford to pay the skyrocketing rent costs and home prices. With wages nationwide failing to keep up with the cost of living, most working-class residents – most of whom work in the growing low-wage fields of retail, food services, health care, and social assistance – can’t compete with the highly educated and skilled new residents. This is especially true for the Bay Area’s African American community, whose poverty rate has increased in the last fifteen years.
The number of evictions has soared, as landlords use the Ellis Act, owner move-in provisions, capital improvement projects, and other tactics to circumvent Oakland’s rent control and tenant protection ordinances. The eviction crisis has led to unprecedented double-digit increases in homelessness, spurring activists and lawmakers to call for a tightening up of loopholes and a repeal of the Costa-Hawkins Act, a state law that exempts buildings constructed after 1995 from municipal rent control ordinances.
Many of the residents being pushed out have fled the state altogether, resulting in a loss of 22,000 blacks between 2000 and 2014. Others have fled to the outer Bay Area region, an area that includes east Contra Costa, Stanislaus, Solano, and San Joaquin counties. And as those counties receive more of these priced-out people, poverty in those areas has increased. White flight reversal into the inner city has concentrated affluence in urban centers, prompting experts to sound the alarm over the region’s slide into an era of re-segregation.
Black Oakland’s preeminent role in shaping African American identity was made possible by its sheer numbers— its community is the second largest black population in California behind Los Angeles. The concentration of African Americans here nurtured an environment wherein black Americans could create and thrive. Notable politicians, artists, musicians, writers, business leaders, and athletes hail from the extended families and neighborhoods that blossomed from the first migrants who traveled West to forge a better life. Black Oaklanders’ stories are weaved into the story of Oakland itself, defining much of the character and soul of this major West Coast port city, third largest in the Bay Area and largest in the East Bay.
Despite Oakland’s historic and continuing status as one of the most culturally heterogeneous cities in the nation, the dwindling of its black population diminishes that diversity and means the inevitable disappearance of a cultural treasure. This film is in part a meditation on that cultural treasure through observation of its demise and the resistance to its demise, one that might spark the energy, enterprise, and love required to address the root causes of this tragic loss. One that might eventually lead to recovery and rebirth.
Angela Rowen, Contributing Writer