Black History Month Wrap Up…

Can you believe February is almost over?! I realize it’s a short month – I’m sure some comedian’s done a riff about how African Americans got their own history month, but dammit if they didn’t get the shortest month of the year!  In any case, this is likely my last post of the month so I want to write just a bit more about some of the Black History of our city…

For those who want to research more of the contributions of Oakland’s influential African American leaders on their own, tomorrow is the last chance till summer rolls around to take the New Era / New Politics walking tour offered by the City of Oakland.  If interested,  meet on steps of AAMLO tomorrow, Saturday the 27th at 10 am.

I already wrote about the Pullman Porters, the union they ultimately organized – The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and their West Coast leader, C. L. Dellums.  Today I’ll talk just briefly about our current city mayor Ron Dellums (C.L.’s nephew), as he is exemplary of the second generation of blacks in the Bay Area.

Born here in 1935, he is truly one of Oakland’s native sons.  He attended Oakland Technical High School and McClymond’s High School, served two years active duty in the United States Marine Corps, then received his A.A. degree from Oakland City College, a B.A. from San Francisco State University, and later his Masters degree in Social Work from U.C. Berkeley.

He worked as a social worker in Berkeley before running for City Council there, serving 3 years, and later ran for Congress (one of few non-lawyers to do so).  He was the first African American elected to Congress from Northern California. Representing Oakland, Berkeley and surrounding areas, he was re-elected 13 times before retiring mid-term, to be replaced by appointment by his first assistant Barbara Lee.

Known for his opposition to the Vietnam War, his politics earned him a place on the so-called Nixon’s Enemies List. “In January, 1971, just weeks into his first term, Dellums set up an exhibit of Vietnam war crimes in an annex to his Congressional office. The exhibit featured four large posters depicting atrocities committed by American soldiers, embellished with red paint.” (Wikipedia)

During his 28 years in Congress, he became known as an expert in military and foreign policy, and was the first African American ever to serve on the Armed Services Committee, ultimately rising to Chair of the Committee.

“[He] used his leadership positions to question US policy and brought about the first real strategic debates on military policy in the post-Cold War world. He led successful fights to stop the misguided MX missile system, to limit the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) and B-2 bomber programs, as well as other expensive and unusable nuclear war-fighting weaponry. As important, his leadership resulted in substantially improvements in the working and living conditions of those serving in the military and their families. Despite opposition to US military policies, Ron continually fought to better the conditions of the men and women who were the instrument of these policies.” (

After retiring from Congress, Dellums worked as a legislative lobbyist for years before throwing his hat into the Oakland Mayoral race in 2006.  Defeating Councilpersons Ignacio De La Fuente and Nancy Nadel, he assumed office in January 2007.  I’m not going to offer up much commentary on his accomplishments to date (and there are some, including bringing millions of dollars in stimulus funds to our city)…  many others are far more qualified to do so, but in general I would have to say that, in my humble opinion, he has been less effective than his predecessor Jerry Brown.

I’ll just leave it at that, and move on to a bit more history, including the creation of the Federal Building below that bears his name…

oakland city federal building, ron dellums


“In the postwar decades, Oakland suffered through many of the same urban crises that afflicted other cities: chronic unemployment, racial tensions, physical deterioration of the central district and some once-proud neighborhoods… Oakland’s decline seemed self-perpetuating, since a lack of faith in the city meant an acceleration of its abandonment.” (Oakland: The Story of a City, Beth Bagwell)  Let’s just say things looked pretty bleak back then.  But two significant things happened in the re-development of Oakland:

  1. BART
  2. City Center

The Bay Area Rapid Transit System was conceived in the early 1950’s to replace the already demolished Key Rail System.  “In 1951, the State Legislature created the 26-member San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit Commission, comprised of representatives from each of the nine counties which touch the Bay. The Commission’s charge was to study the Bay Area’s long range transportation needs in the context of environmental problems and then recommend the best solution.” (BART History) After years of study, the commission recommended development of high-speed rapid rail network linking commercial and suburban centers in five counties (San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin and San Mateo – who both would later withdraw).

I won’t go into all the history of BART’s development, because it is extensive and you can find exhaustive information on their website (see link above).  But according to our tour guide Renate, it was relatively easy to build BART through the heart of downtown Oakland in the late 60’s and early 70’s because so many buildings at the time had become neglected and/or abandoned.

Passenger service began on September 11, 1972 and the importance of this transportation system to Oakland’s eventual revitalization cannot be understated.  In fact, it is still being touted today… “Oakland’s central business district has 10 million square feet of Class A office space and is served by two BART stops.  By comparison, San Francisco’s central business district has 40 million square feet of Class A office product and is served by two BART stations.  The foundation is in place for Oakland to experience tremendous growth.” (2009 Oakland’s Uptown/Downtown CBD pamphlet)

After BART came City Center. Initially consisting of just two buildings (the Wells Fargo building built in 1973 and the Clorox building opened later in 1976), City Center now comprises five buildings and 1.5 million square feet of Class A office and retail development, including the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building complex which was opened in 1994.

Consisting of two identical towers connected by an elevated sky-bridge, the Federal Building, though bearing the name of our current mayor, can really be attributed to the efforts of Lionel Wilson, the first African American mayor of Oakland, who served from 1978 until 1990.  In the early 1980’s, the federal government decided they needed a West Coast presence and it was Mayor Wilson who sold them on Oakland… namely for the price of free.  Though BART then provided easy access, much of downtown Oakland was still deserted at the time.  Where the new Federal Building now stands, an old abandoned department store once existed, sold to the federal government for something like a single dollar.  Who could refuse that deal?

With its opening in 1994, including an IRS office and Veteran’s Administration office, the new Federal Building brought 1700 new employees to downtown Oakland, virtually overnight. Thus began the revitalization of Oaktown…