For most of us, the story of African Americans in Oakland begins with the westward migration during World War II. And while that is an amazing history, the story really began nearly 100 years before when Oakland was little more than dirt roads and clapboard buildings. The original town ran along 14th Street over to the estuary, from the tidal slough we know as Lake Merritt to West Street.
The same dreams of personal and economic freedoms that brought whites west drew African Americans to the state. They had come to California to start new lives unharnessed by tradition and restriction. They had come in search of gold. They had come accompanying slave masters. They had come to set down new roots. The first East Bay census, taken in 1852 when the city was founded, recorded that five African American men and one African American woman, and eight foreign-born African American men lived in Oakland. In those early days, African Americans in Oakland worked as sailors, laborers, draymen, barbers, maids, dressmakers, railroad porters, hotel workers, cooks, and waiters.