Lifting as They Climbed: Making a Home for African American Seniors

African Americans worked to feed, clothe, and house their seniors in early Oakland.

The forgotten community of Beulah was a district of large, beautiful homes, many of which provided social services to the orphaned, poor and elderly. It was located in what is now East Oakland, just north and east of Mills College. One of Beulah’s most prominent institutions at the turn of the 20th century was the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People. Retirement homes at the time were racially segregated, accepting whites only, so Oakland’s African American civic and religious leaders came together to establish a home for its seniors and aged homeless.

The Old Peoples Home Association incorporated in 1892 for the purpose of building such a home. Its founding board included several prominent Oakland-based African American women such as Hettie Tilghman, Julia Shorey (shown here with her family), Harriet E. Smith, Ann S. Purnell, and Mary C. Washington. This early board of directors—and those who followed them—sponsored festivals, dances, and concerts to raise money to cover building costs. Land for the home was donated by a white Christian missionary, George S. Montgomery, who had settled in Beulah with his wife Carrie in 1890. Carrie Judd Montgomery called the sun-soaked, hilly setting above Mills Seminary “Beulah Heights.”

The Home was completed and receiving “inmates” (as residents were called) in October 1897, a mere two months after the cornerstone was laid. Alvin A. Coffey, a former Kentucky-born slave who made his fortune during the California Gold Rush, was the home's first resident. This California pioneer had bought his freedom and set about to purchase the freedom of his wife and seven children. By 1860 the family was reunited in Northern California. In his later years Mr. Coffey moved to Oakland and contributed $500.00 to the Old People Home Association to help finance the home’s completion. Located at 5245 Harrison (now Underwood Avenue), it bordered the northern side of Mills. The two-story Victorian originally had sixteen rooms. By 1905, after an eight-room addition was built, the home could accommodate nineteen residents. The seniors, who were charged a $500.00 lifetime membership fee, were kept busy with tasks such as sewing, knitting and gardening. The use of alcohol and drugs were strictly prohibited and living quarters were sex-segregated.

Mr. Coffey, who was a major benefactor and supporter of the home, died there in October 1902 at the age of 80. 

Money was always an issue for the Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored People. The directors of the home hosted “Donation Days” to garner much-needed funds and supplies for the maintenance of the building and services. The staff accepted not only monetary contributions, but linens, cooking utensils, supplies, volunteer labor, and food.

As California's first institution to serve African American seniors, most of whom were former slaves, the home is historically significant. Beulah, once a suburb of Oakland, was annexed to the city in 1909, along with the towns of Fruit Vale, Melrose and Elmhurst. As a result, some of the social services that once occupied the small community relocated to more central parts of Oakland while others folded due to financial constraints. The Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People remained in Beulah and closed in 1938. Mills College purchased the property on which the home sat, and shortly thereafter, in 1939, Mills administrators ordered the home razed. 

The Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People is just one example of how Oakland's African Americans, through hard work, cooperation, and determination sustained their community. To learn more about the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People, visit the Library's Oakland History Room and the African American Museum and Library at Oakland.

To keep this and similar stories about African Americans alive, Oakland History Room Librarian Dorothy Lazard will present a workshop, "Conducting African American Research," on Wednesday, February 28 at 6 pm in the Main Library's Walters Auditorium. All students, writers, and scholars are welcome. This is a free program. Please attend and tell a friend!


Thank you for this ! Just so

Thank you for this !
Just so honored to know the history Growing up in the Eastmont area that bordered Mills I was amazed at the beauty of the area My father bought a house via Cal Vet loan and we integrated our street
Aware of covenants throughout the area so can relate to there niot being places for black seniors
Just so grateful for this history
Ashe —praise for the ancestors
Honoring their memory
Keep doing the good work telling our story in Oakland

Dorothy, thank you for this posting. I have a question you may be able to answer!

In the 1915 directory, Julia Shorey is associated with "Home for the Aged and Infirm" in relation to the large multi-unit structure at 1782 8th Street. I wonder if that building was purchased or developed as an addition for the organization's (and the Shoreys') senior housing efforts? But also, in several directories around that time (and in the 1915 one), it appears the actual Shorey residence was 1774 8th Street, which would make more sense as a single unit home for such a family.

In "The Pullman Porters" Arcadia book, the image of two men sitting on the steps of a house with an address of either 785 or 1785 is shown, and labeled as "Believed to be the family home" of the Shoreys. But I find no listing of the Shoreys having had an odd-numbered address in the area, and this house in the picture looks nothing like the structures that survive on the north side of 8th Street. Have you encountered this question before and can explain the disagreement in the directories?

Thank you if you have time!

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