Black History Month

Author’s collection This 1935 map shows areas which were supposedly good for investment. Homogenous (White-only) areas received the highest ratings.

Early Black migrants to Alameda establish community

Samuel G. Kimbrough fled Mississippi with his wife Mary and their children in 1915, fearing violence from the Ku Klux Klan. The family moved in with relatives in Alameda. By 1920, Samuel, a blacksmith, bought a home for the family on Lincoln Avenue near Grand Street. 

The couple’s oldest son, Jack Johnson, graduated from Alameda High School in 1926. After attending Sacramento Junior College, he transferred to University of California (Berkeley) and graduated with a degree in chemistry. He later became a dentist. As a leader with the San Diego branch chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and founder of the San Diego Urban League Chapter, Kimbrough advocated for racial integration in San Diego and has an elementary school named after him.

The Kimbroughs’ story illustrates how violence forced Black migrants from their homes and how the promises of opportunities in education, housing and work pulled Black migrants to other destinations. Much of the racist sentiment in California at the turn of the century was directed at the Chinese, providing some space for the small Black migrant community to develop. Despite the existence of anti-Black attitudes in their new home, Alameda’s early Black migrants still persisted in the struggle for racial justice. 

The first Black migrants came to Alameda from throughout the African diaspora as early as 1860. Alameda’s Black population grew slowly. Most Black migrants to Northern California in the early 1900s moved to areas like West Oakland or San Francisco, or South Berkeley if they had a bit more money. By 1900, 144 people identified as “Black” or “Mulatto” called Alameda home, including migrants from the West Indies and Cape Verde. By 1940, that number had slowly increased to 249, according to the U.S. Census.

Racist housing practices in Alameda like restrictive racial covenants, zoning and “redlining” excluded Black migrants from calling the Island home. Realtors, homeowners and community builders placed racially restrictive covenants in deeds and homeowners associations that excluded non-White people from living in certain areas of Alameda. “There are restrictions against Japanese, Chinese and Negroes…” states a 1913 advertisement for Waterside Terrace. According to the advertisement, “These restrictions are thrown about this property, as it is the intent of the owners to make this the modern high-class home place of the city.” The false association that Black people lowered property values continued to impact the racial geography of Alameda for decades. 

Homeowners that purchased property in the Fernside around 1925 agreed to uphold Clause 16: “No person of African, Japanese, Chinese or of any Mongolian descent shall be allowed to purchase, own or lease said property or any part thereof.” An exception was made for domestic servants. Similar restrictions were imposed in Fernside Marina in 1938 and the Bayview Tract across the street from Encinal High School in 1939. 

Zoning ordinances adopted by the city during and after World War I further codified segregation by citing industrial uses on the north side of the Island and protecting White-only, single-family districts. Today, many of these subdivisions are in census tracts which have the highest concentrations of White residents in Alameda.

Racist lending policies also impacted Black migration. In 1935, the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) created “residential security maps.” The maps evaluated the risk of making real estate investments for 239 areas in the country. The Residential Security Map for Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda “redlined” the flatlands of East Bay where non-White people lived while rating White-only areas in the hills and shoreline as green and blue, or better for lending.

In Alameda, the entire northern waterfront was “redlined.” According to the HOLC description, “Red areas represent those neighborhoods ... characterized by detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or infiltration of it.” On the East End, one neighborhood received a “C” grade, or low yellow “because of infiltration of colored families.” 

Three families. Another area received a yellow grade in central Alameda due to the “threat” of Negroes nearby. Discrimination in lending continued until at least 1977 with the passage of the  Community Reinvestment Act. 

Covenants, zoning and redlining all contributed to the segregation of Black migrants. Prior to World War II, Black Alamedans primarily lived on the north side of the Island, somewhat affirming the urban legend that Black people could once not buy property south of Buena Vista Avenue. 

In 1940, just 249 of the Island’s 36,256 residents were identified as Black, and 76 percent of all Black Alamedans lived on the north side of Alameda. 

With U.S. entry into World War II, the racial geography Alameda was permanently altered. The illusionary pre-war racial harmony of Alameda would be exposed as a new generation of migrants built on the foundation of the early Black migrant community and challenged racial segregation on the Island. 

Editor’s note: In celebration of Black History Month and the national theme of “Black Migrations,” local writer Rasheed Shabazz has contributed a four-part series focused on Black migrants to Alameda during the 20th century. 

Rasheed Shabazz is a writer and West Alameda resident. He is currently writing a history of African Americans in Alameda, titled Alameda is our Home. To support his current oral history project, contribute to the Kickstarter at: bit.ly/rootedinalameda.