Black History Month

Does Alameda Still Have a ‘Black Community’?

I am often asked questions like, “What does the Black community think about [insert some random issue]?” I usually respond, “I am not Alameda’s Negro spokesman.” And, I don’t know if Alameda still has a Black community. 

Since the 1990s, forced migration, displacement, along with class dynamics and demographic changes, have complicated the continuity and sense of a “Black community” in Alameda.

In 2000, 4,488 Black people lived in Alameda, according to the federal census taken every 10 years. While Black people represented 6.2 percent of the total city population, more than one-third lived in just one section of West Alameda: Census Tract 4276. This area — bounded by Webster and Main streets between Lincoln Avenue, Marshall Way and Pacific and Atlantic avenues — had a concentration of Black folk, as well as refugee immigrant groups, elderly, youth, and people with disabilities. 

This dense, diverse, working class neighborhood was very dynamic. With three public schools and a park within the tract, cultural events like Black History Month celebrations and multicultural events regularly occurred — despite popular assertions the area was a “ghost town.”

The 1997 closure of the Naval Air Station and redevelopment put the neighborhood in the crosshairs of speculative investors. In 2004 — just weeks after new residents began moving into the Bayport development — all families living in the 615-unit Harbor Island Apartments on Buena Vista Avenue were forced to move. Some have called the crisis “mass evictions.” 

Of the nearly 400 families forced out by Florida-based Fifteen Group, about 70 percent were African American. Residents protested, formed the Harbor Island Tenants Association, and appealed to city officials. Ultimately, all had to move. 

Many residents faced housing discrimination, Sentinel Fair Housing found. Nearly two-thirds of school children who lived in the apartments left Alameda schools as many Black families were unable to find housing elsewhere in Alameda. By 2010, while Alameda’s Black population increased by 271, according to the census, Black population decreased by 50 percent in Census Tract 4276. 

Perhaps with irony, on the same day Black families moved out of Harbor Island in 2004, Alameda elected its first Black woman Councilmember, Marie Gilmore. She had been appointed to the Council in 2003 to complete the term of former vice-mayor Al DeWitt after he passed away. In 2010, Gilmore became Alameda’s first African American elected mayor. This contrast of displacement and perceived political representation illustrates the complexities of Black identity, internal class orientation and spatial separation that exists in Alameda.

Over the past 150 years, Alameda’s Black population has changed. Not only are Black people more dispersed, although largely still on the Northside and West End, who is even considered “Black” or “African American” has changed. Alameda’s Black population has never been homogenous, as early Black migrants came from Cape Verde, the West Indies and states throughout the Southern U.S.  

In recent decades, there have been noticeable increases in inter- and multi-racial families as well as African migrants from Eritrea and Somalia who identify as or are categorized as Black and call Alameda home. This cultural and ethnic diversity, in addition to class divisions and dispersion, complicates the notions of community, and requires more nuance for the “unity” within community.

One way most Black people are commonly impacted in Alameda is homeownership. While 53 percent of all Alamedans rent, Black Alamedans are the least likely to own their homes, according to Policylink and the National Equity Atlas; 93 percent of Black residents are renters. Weak rental laws likely disproportionately impact Black people. 

Many Black families also lack access to intergenerational wealth created through homeownership. Finally, as families spend more of their incomes on rent, many cannot save money or even contemplate buying a home. Black residents remain disproportionately vulnerable to exploitation, eviction and what public health researchers call, “serial forced displacement,” always having to move.

Another way in which Black dispersion has impacted Alameda’s Black community is organization. There are no Black members of City Council in Alameda, but a few commissioners. There are two African-American school board members. And rarely are Black people in leadership or represented on boards of Alameda’s civic groups. Yet, instead of representation, a better measure of community might be institutions. 

Alameda has two primarily Black churches, both located on the West End, although it’s unclear if most congregants are able to live on the Island. The local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1953, has been defunct since at least 2003. In 2016, Alameda Unified School District launched the Black Achievers Alliance, but the group separated from the district by 2018. 

Today, the only Black organizations appear to be the Black student unions at Alameda and Encinal high schools and the College of Alameda. Despite potential political representation, this lack of Black-led organizations in Alameda and an explicit policy agenda addressing historic and contemporary inequality reflects the lack of community. 

Perhaps the last Black community in the city, geographically, is at Alameda Point. Residents there, including survivors of domestic violence, military veterans and formerly unhoused people, are isolated deep on the West End. With plans to redevelop Alameda Point finally moving forward, it is to be seen how Black people are impacted by this most recent round of redevelopment. 

While it appears that Alameda’s past policies and practices that have excluded and expelled Black people are no more, it is uncertain whether Black people have been integrated into Alameda or become more isolated. The 2020 Census will provide some answers, in numbers, but it will be the answers from actions taken to truly develop “community.” 

 

 

The last of a four-part series commemorating the 2019 Black History Month theme, “Black Migrations” focused on Black migration to Alameda during the 20th century. The previous three parts appeared Feb. 14, 21 and 28. 

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.