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.