Tag Archives: california

The rise of a black middle class…

I took a city walking tour about a week ago in honor of Black History Month… titled “New Era / New Politics” and offered by the city of Oakland free of charge, it’s one of eight walking tours covering different topics in Oakland’s history.  The tours typically only run during summer months from May through October, but this one exclusively is offered three times during February to celebrate the contributions of influential African American leaders to Oakland’s development.  In fact, this tour was developed and first offered in conjunction with the opening of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO) in 2002.  We met on the steps of the AAMLO to begin our tour…

Our guide, Renate, began with a broad statement…  that Oakland, as a medium-sized American city, is unique in its diversity, and specifically its history of diversity. And she attributed this difference primarily to the success of the Pullman Porters.

For those not familiar with the Pullman Porters, a bit of history… In the late 1800’s, Oakland was designated as the western terminus of the Transcontinental Railway.  This railway system connected the eastern portion of the United States with the new western states, and more specifically the burgeoning city of Oakland directly with the more established metropolis of Chicago.  Around this same time, George Pullman, an inventor and entrepeneur based in Chicago, developed railway sleeping cars, designed to offer trans-continental transport in a manner of luxury previously unavailable.  His first cars – containing sleeping berths, curtains, carpeting, upholstered chairs, and washrooms at each end – were called Palace Cars, and were marketed with the motto “luxury for the middle classes.”

To complement this experience of luxury, Pullman exclusively hired African American men to staff his cars as porters and wait-staff, believing that they were well-suited for these positions as “people who had been trained to be the perfect servant[s].” Though the jobs were not particularly well-paying and advancement was limited, they afforded many steady employment and income, as well as the ability to travel… novel concepts for blacks in that day and age in America.  By the 1920’s and 30’s the Pullman Company was one of the largest employers of blacks in America, many of whom lived and worked in West Oakland around the now defunct 16th Street Central Station.

When California joined the ranks of the “united” states in 1850, it did so as a free state with a constitution that abolished slavery.  But despite this, our tour guide Renate informed us that prior to the 1920’s, there were very few blacks in California.  It wasn’t until the railway system was completed and the relative prosperity of the early 20th century offered greater mobility that the first migratory wave of African Americans settled in California, many coming to Oakland in search of greater opportunities.  Throughout our tour, Renate emphasized the differences between this first generation of blacks in the Bay Area, those who had roots in the east and south, and the second generation, their offspring born and raised in California.  The opportunities available to the first generation would be fewer than expected… those coming with hopes of obtaining university educations to establish careers as doctors and lawyers were frustrated to find themselves excluded in ways that had not been expected in the reputedly liberal state of California.

But the Pullman Porters jobs allowed many families to settle in West Oakland… employees were actually required to establish residency within running distance of the train station. These early entrants into the formal blue collar workforce of America took hold of a rung from which they propelled themselves into the mainstream middle class of American Society (Rising From The Rails by Larry Tye).  One of my favorite quotes from the tour was something along the lines of the following:

Once you have an educated middle class,”historical consciousness” comes into being.

With that consciousness, a slew of early black leaders were able to assess the quality and context of their current station in life, and envision a different future possible.  A handful of these visionaries formed the East Bay Negro Historical Society, the remnants of whose archives now form the foundation of AAMLO’s archives.

There is much more to tell, but I am finding it exceedingly difficult to write this from Mexico.  Lo siento.  You can imagine how the gently swaying palms and lapping turquoise waters do distract… Forgive me.

For those interested in delving into this on their own (or too impatient to wait for my vacation-scheduled recap – can you say mañana?), the New Era / New Politics tour will be offered one more time this month… on Saturday the 27th, meets at AAMLO, starts at 10 am.

May all the beings in all the worlds become Happy…

Ok kids… so I’m going to continue the focus on murals for the next few days because:

  1. I am swamped with work and this writing stuff takes time
  2. The murals are so amazing they speak for themselves, so I don’t have to say much
  3. There are bunch of ’em in the Broadway and 40th vicinity we’ve been exploring lately

Here’s the next… it’s at the corner of Broadway and 49th, right in my old hood.  It kind of reminds me of the one I featured a couple weeks ago next to Ghost Town Farm… similar message of peace & happiness between all peoples, and an interesting mix of iconography… the moon, the earth, the sun, egyptian pharaohs, and the buddha… not to mention the classic graffiti style writing.  It’s pretty cool.

Oakland Mural at Broadway and 49th

The left side of the mural reads “Lokah Samasah Sukhino Bhavantu” which apparently is Sanskrit.
How do I know this? Google. Thanks Google! The phrase translates to the title of this post, which you will also see painted on the far right side of the mural.

lokah samasah sukhino bhavantu, Oakland Mural

lokah samasah sukhino bhavantu Mural

egyptian, oakland mural, lokah samasah sukhino bhavantu

The buddha depicted in the center looks almost female to me, resting on her lotus flower, floating above the Earth. The words “Infinite Potential” are painted across.

oakland mural, Infinite Possibility

oakland mural, community rejuvination project, broadway and 49th

As you can see here, the mural was created as part of a Community Rejuvenation Project by Little Village MAS students: Abicus, Daz, Dési, Fact, Jinx, and Raven. Nice work kids!

Ella Baker Center Murals

Just a stone’s throw from Mama’s Royal Cafe is the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an action center working for justice, opportunity, and peace in urban America.  There are some wonderful murals on the exterior of their space, depicting the themes and goals on which their organization is focused.

ella baker center building

Co-founded in 1996 by Diana Frappier and now famous Van Jones of Green for All, the Ella Baker Center has grown in a little over 10 years from a small-scale operation with only one full time staff person, to a “grassroots powerhouse” with 24 “world-class” human rights activists.  Their work is focused through four primary campaigns designed to promote positive alternatives to violence and incarceration:

  • Books not Bars works towards redirecting California resources away from youth incarceration facilities and towards youth opportunities
  • Green Collar Jobs works towards promoting California as a leader in creating a thriving and equitable green collar economy, strong enough to provide employment opportunities for all
  • Soul of the City “works to transform Oakland into a socially just, spiritually connected, ecologically sustainable city with shared prosperity for all”
  • Heal the Streets as an outgrowth of Silence the Violence, works to provide hands on training for future social justice leaders through a 10 month fellowship program for Oakland youth and young adults (ages 15 – 18)

Ella Baker, Oakland Icons

Ella Baker is pictured above. Born in 1903 in Norfolk, VA, she grew up listening to her grandmother, a previous slave, tell stories of slave revolts. She graduated valedictorian of her college class in 1927 in North Carolina, moved to New York, and became a leading African-American civil rights leader and human rights activist for over five decades. What an incredible woman!

Black Panthers, Green Jobs Not Jails, Ella Baker Center Murals

The Ella Baker Center continues her important work into the 21st century. Please check them out… They’ve got a blog, multi-media page with music, videos, and podcasts, volunteer opportunities, and could really put your tax-deductible donations to fantastic work here in Oakland.

Ella Baker Center Mural

Green Jobs Mural in Oakland

The murals were created in 2007 through the Precita Eyes Mural Arts Center based in San Francisco, with funding from the Oakland Redevelopment Agency. Artists include: Fred Alvarado, Eli Lipppert, Gerry Chow, Anna Szumowski, Ronnie Freeman, and others.

Ella Baker Center Mural Artists

Mmmm… Mama’s

I said it was deserving of its own post, so here it is: Mama’s Royal Cafe!

outside Mama's Royal Cafe

Located on the border of the Temescal and Piedmont neighborhood’s in Oakland at Broadway and 40th, Mama’s is an Oakland institution. They opened their doors over 35 years ago in this same spot and have been going strong ever since.

I went Saturday morning after a brief discussion with a friend who lives close by:

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!” I said. “There are already folks lining up outside.”

He said, “Well maybe we should go somewhere else…”

And I replied, “I want my Mama’s!!!

End of discussion. And so we walked, and we waited, and as I’ve said before, it’s always worth it!

mama's royal cafe art

The thing that makes Mama’s unique is their combo of vintage eclectic decor with today’s fancy farm-fresh local produce. You’re in this classic diner-feeling establishment, eating Niman Ranch meats, Petaluma eggs, Acme bread (which is out of this world… when they ask you what kind of toast you want, the correct answer is “Acme”), and amazing seasonal fruits and veggies, typically featured in their specials of the day.

I had one of their specials on this visit: a roasted fennel frittata with carmelized onions, parmesan cheese and a few other yummy ingredients. Served with perfect potatoes crispy-cooked  (it amazes me how many breakfast places have mediocre potatoes), and that incredible Acme toast. I made my way through my entire platter of food and was munching on my last piece of toast when my friend said, “That bread is the best!” I only had three bites left, slathered in butter and jam, but I offered it to him. I was already over-stuffed, and in general, am working on being a better sharer. He was grateful.

One of my favorite Summer Specials is their fresh fruit crepes. They only serve this when the most amazing berries, mangoes, nectarines, and kiwis are available, all tucked into delectable crepes with a créme fraîche sauce to die for. If you’re like me – you have a hard time deciding between sweet and savory and are always trying to talk your friends into getting both and splitting them – this is a great one to get. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait about 8 months before it’s available again. It’s worth the wait!

The restaurant has 3 rooms… the main entrance leads you into the sign-up area, coffee station, counter seating, and small tables near the window. Next over is a narrow room filled with wooden bench booths… this is a cool spot if you want a little privacy. Each booth has possesses one of these quaint little jukeboxes (unfortunately now inoperable) which back in the day, played two songs for a nickel… “the equivalent of two complete records!

mama's royal cafe, mixmaster vintage advertisement

vintage aprons at mama's royal cafe

The farthest room is the largest… ideal for bigger groups and great people watching.

The entire restaurant is filled with quirky art… vintage aprons and teacups galore, boomer era advertising (I love the Mixmaster poster above – “it even polishes silverware!”), Poodle with a Mohawk, and of course, the wonderful napkin art.


Every spring, Mama’s hosts their annual Napkin Art Contest with real cash prizes… this is no joke! Top napkin takes four hundred smackerooos, second and third get $200 and $100 respectively, plus more complimentary breakfasts and kids prizes too. Only requirement is that a paper napkin must be used. 2010 entries due March 31st… prizes distributed April 15th. You can see original winning entries displayed at the restaurant, and photos of winners in Mama’s online photo gallery. This stuff is amazing!

sign at mama's royal cafe