The history of African Americans in Alameda came to life last week when Rasheed Shabazz shared some of his research with several dozen Islanders at Eagles Hall on Sept. 28. Shabazz, who grew up in the West End and studied at UC Berkeley, described the roots of this community in Alameda, focusing mainly on the pre-World War II era. “It’s great to see some familiar faces and the faces of those I haven’t seen before,” said Shabazz at the start of his talk. Parts of his presentation, he said, would focus on “conflicts tied to housing” and “the often misconstrued, overlooked and misinterpreted history” of African Americans and other ethnic groups on the Island. The Alameda resident described the different ways that blacks have been categorized or labeled over time by the U.S. Census Bureau. He learned this by reviewing documents kept at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland.
On the Island, other parts of the Bay Area and beyond, “Housing discrimination increased as the population grew through racial zoning,” he explained. This practice was found to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court but continued through some real-estate practices and homeowner-association covenants, for instance, and through lending discrimination and related practices known as redlining. In Alameda’s early days, some domestic laborers and other workers of African descent lived on the Island “and they gradually became more independent in the jobs and lives,” Shabazz said. Three blacks were listed as residents in 1860, for instance, including one from Jamaica. One black resident registered to vote in 1871 — when there were eight people of African-American heritage living in town. By the 1880s, non-whites were living in homes away from the white residents who employed them in Alameda. Many lived together, a pattern that Shabazz referred to as “residential solidarity.” There was a family from Georgia with three children, for example, who lived on Oak Street.
Restrictive residential covenants
Around the turn of the century, eight black families owned houses in town, five of which included members who worked on the Island. “Many of them built their own homes and supported other immigrants,” Shabazz said. There were no black schools or churches in town, though, “so their homes served as community centers.” The Hackett family included three brothers — James Alexander, Sylvester, and Charles — one of whom built a cottage on Union Street and another who owned property on Grand Street. Shabazz is researching how the Hackett residence at the intersection of Grand and Eagle Avenue became the site of the city’s new power substation in 1936. After the turn of the century, restrictive residential covenants began to become more pervasive in town, he explained. For instance, the Fernside district prohibited those of African, Japanese, Chinese and Mongolian descent from buying, owning or leasing property. The rules became unenforceable in 1948, but remained on the books until 1969, according to Shabazz.