Oakland's Long View of History

The study of African American history has engaged generations of Oaklanders and East Bay residents.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the student movement to institute Black Studies into college curricula. The drive to learn the history of African Americans, a history brutally suppressed during slavery and denied and ignored for decades after slavery, was always present. Decades before the Black Power Movement of the 1960s inspired San Francisco State College students to demand the curriculum be representative, Oaklanders were passing along African American history in formal and informal settings.

Journalist Delilah Beasley, the mother of Black California history, published her groundbreaking book, “Negro Trail Blazers of California” in 1919.  This masterfully documented work includes interviews with former slaves, profiles of civic groups and prominent citizens, and reports from national conferences. Ms. Beasley also wrote for the Oakland Sunshine (an early African American newspaper) and the Oakland Tribune. As a Tribune columnist (1923-1934), she reported on local, state and national news pertaining to the African American community. She wrote to dispel the hateful rhetoric and racial stereotypes of the time.

In 1915 Carter G. Woodson, Howard University professor, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the same year that Oakland opened California’s second chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1926 he established Negro History Week to celebrate the history and advancement of African Americans. Local African American churches, such as Beth Eden Baptist Church and First AME Church, sponsored Negro History Week lectures throughout the 1930s. The Northern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and the local chapter of the National Council of Negro Women also hosted speakers on a variety of topics concerning African American history.

A local branch of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, named the Carter G. Woodson Historical Society, was established in 1956 with E. Harold Mason serving as its first president. The group’s purpose was to preserve African American folklore, poetry, and music; to conduct classes in African American history; and to establish a history museum. The group held meetings in various places, including the Golden Gate Branch Library on San Pablo Avenue.

By the mid-1960s, Oaklanders had enjoyed a half-century of free, accessible African American history programming and courses offered by churches, adult evening schools, educators, and civic groups like the Linden Street YWCA in West Oakland. Mr. Mason, along with Eugene and Ruth Lasartemay, Morrie Turner, Madison Harvey, and Marcella Ford (who had been teaching Negro history courses at Beth Eden for many years) founded the East Bay Negro Historical Society (EBNHS) in 1965.

These lay historians (and collectors) were feeding an urgent need for African Americans to learn and understand their history. They knew that the African American story was integral to understanding American history and its social and political implications for the race. Given this legacy, the students demanding curricular reform in the late 1960s and later were not beginning but continuing a long struggle for representation in education. The students raised the bar by taking their demands to the ivy towers of academe. 

The East Bay Negro Historical Society did establish that archive Mr. Mason and his colleagues had hoped to establish years earlier. Their collection was housed at the Golden Gate Library and, in 1988, was renamed the Northern California Center for Afro-American History & Life. The popular center merged with the Oakland Public Library system in 1994 and was renamed (once again) the African American Museum and Library at Oakland. In 2002 the collection was moved to the historic Carnegie Library at 14th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr., Way., a facility that contains a library, archive and a museum.  This important community resource is dedicated to the discovery, preservation, interpretation and sharing of historical and cultural experiences of African Americans in California and the West for present and future generations.

The Oakland Public Library works daily to keep the history of African Americans alive. OWednesday, February 28 at 6 pm in the Main Library's Walters Auditorium, Oakland History Room Librarian Dorothy Lazard will present a workshop, "Conducting African American Research." All students, writers, and scholars are welcome. This is a free program. We hope to see you there!