Black History Month: How War Transformed Island’s Population

 

In 1943, Edwin Leon Coleman boarded a segregated train with his parents in El Dorado, Ark., and headed to Alameda. Since White soldiers and passengers occupied all the seats in the “colored” area of the train, Coleman, his mother and sister rode in the vestibule between cars most of the way to California. Despite the uncomfortable half-week journey, the family held out hope that better opportunities would await them in California. Little did the Colemans know that segregation awaited them in the Golden State.

During and after World War II, Alameda officials segregated Black wartime workers in housing projects on the West End. On March 16, 1943, Mayor Milton Godfrey called on Alameda’s City Manager to report “on the problem of the increased negro population” due to the influx of war workers and the housing shortage. 

Mayor Godfrey said the issue of Negro migration “would receive the unceasing vigilance of the Council and the Alameda Housing Authority.” The city and the White businessmen that ran the Housing Authority, placed all wartime housing projects away from white areas like the Gold Coast and East End. With one exception, the Pacific Projects on what is now Littlejohn Park, all wartime projects were located on the West End. 

The Alameda Housing Authority segregated residents through multiple means. First, the Authority maintained extensive racial data (White, Negro, other) in its tenant selection process, and maintained two separate waiting list, one White, one Negro, with White residents receiving priority for housing. The Authority claimed “segregation of tenants” by building would reduce friction among racialized groups. Black tenants hoped to avoid “objection or criticism from White tenants.” On multiple occasions, White tenants within relatively integrated projects petitioned to be relocated away from Black tenants and transferred to all-White projects. 

In private housing, the federal government asked residents to open their homes to wartime workers. While White residents appeared reluctant in housing migrants aiding the fight against fascism, pre-war Black families opened their homes to migrants. 

During the 1950s and 1960s, officials demolished most of the wartime projects, like Encinal, Chipman and the Atlantic Trailer Park, for other private uses. As White residents were able to relocate to the suburbs of southern Alameda County and other areas of Alameda, like the new South Shore development, Alameda’s housing projects became predominantly Black over time. The Housing Authority failed to maintain the projects, further stigmatizing the residents. 

Due to widespread housing discrimination throughout the rest of Alameda, Black residents either moved to different projects or left the Island completely. Black residents protested their massive displacement. Through organizations like the local branch of the NAACP and with allies like Housing Opportunities Provided Equally (HOPE), housing advocates picketed Atlantic Apartments on Poggi Street (now VUE Alameda) for its racist policies and challenged the Housing Authority. Over time, Black protest grew increasingly militant. 

In 1963, families in the Estuary projects, one of the few remaining wartime projects that housed Black people, faced eviction. Few could find housing elsewhere. Officials attempted to harass residents to convince them to move, according to a pamphlet published by the Low-Cost Housing Committee.

Various harassing techniques were undertaken by the Alameda Housing Authority. Mailboxes were removed. Garbage disposal units were taken out. Laundry services were discontinued. The store within the project was vacated. Bus service into and through the project was discontinued. All of these measures tended to work unnecessary hardships on the remaining tenants, and a continuous evacuation of families from the project into neighboring Bay Area cities began, and, to a greater or lesser degree, has continued ever since.

Estuary residents fought back. They targeted the chairman of the Housing Authority Commission who was the branch manager of a local Bank of America. In 1964, residents picketed the local bank branch and marched on the Authority’s headquarters. Residents also held a three-day boycott of the schools, resulting in an extension.

Estuary residents faced eviction again in June 1966. About 25 families launched a “Tent In,” or Tent City at Franklin Park. More than 100 people camped out. They held an interfaith service on Sunday morning, and that afternoon, more than 200 people marched through the Gold Coast neighborhood to Mayor William Godfrey’s home. This activism led to another extension. 

Ultimately, tenants were forced to move by a court order. Many project residents moved into Western, before it was replaced with Esperanza, and Makassar Straits, before it was replaced with Parrot and Eagle Village. Some of those residents faced serial forced displacement and eventually had to move again, unable to find housing in Alameda.

In 1940, just 249 Black people called Alameda home. By 1945, that number rose to more than 6,000. 

By 1970, fewer than 2,000 Black people remained. An internal memo to Alameda’s Planning Board stated, “The only significant change in Alameda’s ethnic make-up appears in the decline in the number of Blacks from 3,127 in 1960 to 1,869 in 1970.” According to the city, “This reduction … was caused by the elimination of wartime housing projects during the 1960s, and the inability of the project residents to relocate in Alameda.” 

As Alameda grappled with the implications of wartime and postwar changes to the Island’s population and geography, more sophisticated battles over race and power lay ahead.

 

Editor’s note: This column is part two of a four-part series commemorating the 2019 Black History Month theme, “Black Migrations” focused on Black migration 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.