Hayward apologizes for racist policies, destruction of Russell City

HAYWARD – More than half a century ago, a 12-block area near Hayward’s coastline thrived as a cultural hub for about 1,400 mostly black and Latino residents, a place where blues legends regularly popped in to play clubs and walk in the Sunday church was a family. affair.

The dense community was known as Russell City, named in 1853 after Joel Russell, a teacher in New England who came to California during the gold rush. It was originally home to Danish immigrants, and around World War II, a wave of people migrated there from the southern United States and Mexico.

“Love and care and mutual encouragement” helped keep it a thriving community despite widespread poverty, said María Ochoa, a professor at San Jose State University emerita, who wrote a book about Russell City.

Children play basketball on a plot of land in Russell City, circa 1950. (Photo courtesy of the Hayward Area Historical Society)

The idyllic setting was shattered in the late 1950s when Alameda County and Haywards city officials declared the area a disease better suited to an industrial park. After protests from some residents, the city and county began a “forced relocation” of Russell City residents several years later.

“They took the whole damn city. They changed every street name. They tried to erase it,” said Ronnie Stewart, leader of the West Coast Blues Society.

On November 16, Haywards City Council tried to at least partially correct the great injustice by issuing an apology to Russell City residents, descendants and other groups harmed by the city’s history with racist policies and decisions.

By issuing his apology, Hayward became the latest in a small but growing list of cities across the nation swept up in the race inventory triggered by police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.

Several weeks ago, the San Jose City Council apologized to Chinese immigrants and their descendants for past discriminatory actions. One of the most horrific was the deliberate arson of a fire that flared through San Jose’s Chinatown in 1887, destroying homes and businesses and displacing 1,400 people.

And this summer, Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe and city council members signed the nation’s first apology for driving Chinese immigrants out and burning their homes in 1876.

“For me, as an African-American woman, it’s really, really meaningful,” Artavia Berry said of Hayward’s apology. Berry, a Hayward resident who chairs the city’s Community Services Commission that drafted the apology, said: “It’s been a very tearful week for me.”

The apology is important, she said, because it clearly admits past injustices and includes a 10-part plan that commits the city to addressing the damage done.

“Even though it does not fix the past, it is what makes it begin a healing process,” she said. “We burned your community down. We bulldozed your community. And here we are decades later, and your community is still suffering because of these policies,” Berry said. “We recognize that.”

Former Russell City residents, their family members and local historians said in interviews that when Russell City was wiped out, more was lost than just a collection of family-built homes, businesses and mostly unpaved roads.

Russell Citys Sixth Street. The unincorporated area near Hayward was the only one in Alameda County without storm and sewer services, as well as lacking fresh water. Its inhabitants were primarily minorities. The area was taken over by Alameda County as an eminent domain and rebuilt into an industrial area. (Oakland Tribune Photo)

“It was not just a small unincorporated town with blacks and Mexicans and a few others. It had a real function as far as being a contributor to the West Coast Blues,” Stewart said, recalling the famous musicians who played at venues as Country Club.

“Ray Charles played over there once. T-Bone Walker was a regular. And they honed their skills there,” added Stewart, who is also the founder of the Russell City Blues Festival, held annually at Hayward City Hall in honor of it. lost society for two decades until it ended in 2019.

Toni Wynn, 67, of Vacaville, said as a young girl living in Oakland that she and her family used to visit her great-grandfather, Phyls Sanders, over the weekend in Russell City, where he owned about 80 acres that included a pig farm.

Wynn remembered the day she and her sister were sitting in a shed, and her sister fell into the pigsty. “You should have seen those pigs coming. My grandfather had to get a shovel and knock the mess out of them to get them back while someone else grabbed her out of the trough. And she was soaked. “

VACAVILLE, CA – NOVEMBER 26: Toni Wynn, born and raised in Oakland, holds a funeral program featuring a picture of her late mother Charlie Bell Sanders at her home in Vacaville, California, Wednesday, November 24, 2021. (Ray Chavez / Bay Area News Group)

As for Russell City itself, “it was a big community. There were lots of families and it was just so hot there,” she said.

Wynn’s mother, Charlie Bell Sanders, sang at blues clubs there as well as in Oakland and San Francisco. Sanders’ picture is shown on a mural on A Street and Maple Court in Hayward, singing in a flowing white dress with a band in Russell City.

However, it was not just the blues that made Russell City special. The area had several worship services that offered services in English and Spanish that brought neighbors together.

Ochoa, who grew up in Hayward, also remembers often going to Russell City with her family to attend church.

Although residents asked Alameda County officials at least three times to incorporate the community and provide sewer and electricity connections, they were denied, she said.

“Look what they had done with almost no money,” Wynn said. “Think of where it would be today if they would have let the small town thrive,” Wynn said.

Russell City “was not just a unique community,” said Diane Curry, executive director of the Hayward Area Historical Society. “It had markets, it had farms and businesses, bars and clubs. It was generally a place where people took care of each other.”

The community was located just south of West Winton Avenue – then called Russell City Road – largely west of the railroad tracks.

“I would not trade them for years for nothing,” said Sam Nava, the grandson of Pancho Villa, who grew up in Russell City before leaving at the age of 20.

HAYWARD, CA – NOVEMBER 24: Former Russell City resident Sam Nava, 82, of Hayward poses for a portrait at his home in Hayward on November 24, 2021. (Dai Sugano / Bay Area News Group)

Until a few years ago, Nava, now 82, helped keep alive a tradition of former Russell City residents and their families that gathered annually in Haywards Kennedy Park to commemorate their once common community.

“You had a lot of good people out there, a lot of camaraderie,” Nava said.

HAYWARD, CA – NOVEMBER 24: Former Russell City resident Sam Nava, 82, of Hayward, is photographed with a photo taken in the late 1940s of himself as a child, for a portrait on November 24, 2021. (Dai Sugano / Bay Area News Group)

Nava’s father, Ernesto Nava, claimed to be one of the last people to leave Russell City when officials ousted residents. The home he had plastered was burned down shortly after he left, Sam Nava said.

Today, the area is packed with industrial buildings.

HAYWARD, CALIFORNIA – NOVEMBER 24: Former Russell City resident Sam Nava, 82, of Hayward still owns this neighborhood of Russell City that he built around 1970. He and former residents marked where they lived. (Dai Sugano / Bay Area News Group)

Wynn said Hayward’s apology seems sincere, but she is skeptical.

“Yes, it looks good on paper, but what about money? Give us more money than the little bit you gave my family when we were there. It’s not like we could not have said, ‘No, we do not want move or sell. ‘ You took it over, “Wynn said.

“You can not give us that land back, you can not give us those memories back, so do it better for us. It’s almost like asking you to finally give us our 40 acres and a mule,” she added.

Hayward Councilwoman Sara Lamnin said the skepticism is “completely understandable”, but added that the city is “strongly committed” to repealing decades of “pervasive” racist and harmful policies.

The famous blues singer, Dottie Ivory (r., No idea about saxophonist) sings and dances in a club in Russell City in the 1950s. Russell City, a lost city in Hayward, paved in 1964, was once known as Little Copenhagen, Germantown and later as one of the birthplaces of the West Coast Blues. (Courtesy of Hayward Area Historical Society museum)

Some steps have already begun, such as planning a new series of public art installations at Heritage Plaza in recognition of indigenous peoples, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the eviction of Russell City residents. The city has also trained city employees in using a lens for racialism in their daily work.

Upcoming efforts could include collaborating with Russell City’s descendants to “determine appropriate restitution” and set up a first-aid program for home buyers, according to city reports.

Berry said she is optimistic that real change is on the way.

“You have to go beyond just the words, and the city of Hayward rose,” she said. “I want to see other cities look at little Hayward and say, ‘Wow, how did you do that?’ ”

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