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Black History Month: Oakland’s Trail Blazers

Thinking about Black History Month in Oakland, one could argue that without African American history, Oakland’s history would seem to have some MAJOR gaps. This month, Oaklanders have been able to see art shows, listen in on lectures, or go on tours of historical sights all focusing on different aspects of the African American experience. Here at Oaklandish, we want to focus on a few trail blazers that have shaped the Town, paving the way for some of the most important movements of our time. In digging into the Black History of Oakland, it is no surprise to hear phrases such as perseverance, revolution, and innovation, time and time again.


Throughout Oakland’s history, there have been a wide range of inspiring Black women figures sculpting discourse and creating a rich cultural landscape. Angela Davis and Barbara Lee are just two prevalent names in today’s collective subconscious, but the woman who quite literally wrote the book on African American trail blazers in California, is journalist Delilah L. Beasley. Beasley grew up in Cincinnati in the years following the Civil War, and began her journalism career at the early age of 12. She moved to Oakland in 1910 and between her day job as a masseuse, began researching what would be the definitive work of her career.


Published in 1919, Negro Trail Blazers of California is widely regarded as the authority on early African American history in the state. Beasley compiled the personal writings, business & state records, newspaper accounts, photos, and interviews into a historical record of how Blacks helped settle the West. The book’s popularity and critical acclaim helped land her a column at the Oakland Tribune, where she reported on the African American community to the largely white reader base. She used the column to showcase the positive happenings within the community in order to bridge the disconnect between the races. She also used her notoriety in person, lobbying for California’s first anti-lynching bill in 1933, and being an active member within the NAACP and League of Women Voters. Beasley passed away in 1934 and is buried in Saint Mary Cemetery.


When thinking of Oakland’s revolutionary past, people are quick to jump to Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, & The Black Panther Party. However looking back 20-30 years from the birth of the Panthers, you come across C.L. Dellums, who laid the groundwork and expectations of the later civil rights movements. The uncle of former Oakland Mayor and Congressman Ron Dellums, C.L. was born in 1900 about an hour outside of Dallas, Texas. Dellums moved to Oakland in his early 20’s in the hopes to attend law school at UC Berkeley. When he realized the cost of such an education would be too great for him to attain, he got a job as a Pullman porter for the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Upon Dellums joining the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, he was fired from his job and ended up organizing for the first all-black union as their Vice President under A. Philip Randolph.


In 1937, Dellums and Randolph successfully negotiated a contract with the Pullman company to secure living wages, a standard work week, basic benefits, and collective bargaining powers. He expanded his goals past the Pullman porters’ union, and as a leader of the Porters’ Union, and western regional director of the NAACP, worked tirelessly for equality in the workplace.


Turning to Oakland’s musical history– everyone knows how classic names like Too $hortMC Hammer, and Digital Underground are synonymous with Oakland’s hip hop legacy, yet throw on a sample of Jazz legend Earl “Fatha” Hines later recordings and you’ll hit a next level Town slapper. By the time he settled down with his family in Oakland in the early 60’s, Hines had already experienced an entire career’s worth of success across the world. Getting his start in the Pittsburgh and New York jazz scenes of the 1920’s, Hines was one of the innovators of modern jazz in Chicago through the 30’s and 40’s. As band leader, Hines was the musical director for such heavyweights as Louis ArmstrongCharlie ParkerSarah Vaughn, & Dizzie Gilespe. Through those early years, he hit milestones as one of the first African Americans on national radio, and his big band was among the first African Americans to tour the South, pre-dating the Freedom Riders by 30 years.


With early rock ‘n’ roll dominating the clubs and pop culture’s attention of the early 60’s, Hines moved to Oakland with his wife and two daughters to retire from music. He ran a tobacco shop for a while, yet was pulled back onto the piano in 1964 when he gave a recital in New York to rave reviews. The critical acclaim rejuvenated his creative juices, and he began recording and touring regularly once again. Gathering other all-stars, he played throughout the 60’s and 70’s, and finally in 1983, Hines was laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery.


Thick with legacy, Oakland’s Black History features a huge cast of pioneers and legends that have always contributed heavily in the national discussion of equality, justice, and merit. Take some time to investigate, all year round, at the Oakland History Room at the Oakland Library.

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