Just the other day I was on my way to visit a cousin in West Oakland and missed my turn and wound up on 7th Street. Amidst the urban renewal, the U. S. Post Office, the Bart station, and modern apartments still stand some of the old reminders of a grander time for Black businesses and the Black community in West Oakland during the 1940s and 50s.. While I am too young to remember its glory days, my cousin tells me that 7th street was a real “happening place” back in the day. Given what I see now, I wonder how this could have ever been true. What brought Black people to 7th Street and what changed this “happening place?”
The story of Black people in West Oakland and on 7th Street is tied to the Transcontinental Railroad terminal, navel shipyards, industrial development and a war. These factors pulled Blacks from the south, but they were also pushed by the brutalities of racism and economic oppression.
Scene showing the famed Lincoln Theater during the 60’s.
The coming of the Transcontinental Railroad terminal to the foot of 7th Street in West Oakland in the 1890s is considered one of greatest technological achievements in the history of the world. However, when it comes to the resilience of the human spirit, few stories can match that of the arrival and entrenchment of the children of the storm in West Oakland during the 1940s. By children of the storm, I refer to the Black Americans who came west, pushed by the brutality of racism and oppression and pulled by the hope of freedom, economic opportunity and social justice.
Before World War II, Black Americans accounted for less than 3 percent of Oakland’s population, but by 1942 West Oakland became the home of the largest African American middle class in the county outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Both the Southern Pacific and the Western Pacific railroad companies, along with the shipyards and the military were major employers of the newly arriving Black American refugees from the south.
California style racism denied Blacks freedom of movement. Housing and employment discrimination strangled Black mobility and facilitated a reliance on back home connections, economic necessity and the security of an all Black community in West Oakland. While the children of the storm were soon to find that West Oakland was “no crystal stair,” it did prove for most to be a significant improvement over life in the south.
First thoughts about Black migration to West Oakland may focus on the labor the children of the storm provided for the railroads, shipyards, and the military and light industry. However, 7th Street congers up a broader and more holistic picture of life beyond the confines of that labor. The children of the storm had needs to be filled. They needed shelter, food, religious fulfillment, entertainment and other social outlets. Because they were denied full access to the wider society, they formed parallel economic, religious, social and political institutions to meet their particular needs. As early as 1867, a Black entrepreneur named William Humphreys Scott established a grocery store on 7th Street. His effort marks the inception of a thriving Black business district developed to support the needs of the Black community.