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The City of Oakland was incorporated in 1852. It has a rich and multicultural history with a number of periods characterized by different fortunes for the city. A great deal of historical scholarship already exists about the city with “accepted” periodization. This space allows us to (perhaps) reconceptualize how we understand and write Oakland’s history.
The earliest known inhabitants were the Huchiun tribe, who lived there for thousands of years. The Huchiun belonged to a linguistic grouping later called the Ohlone (a Miwok word meaning “western people”). In Oakland, they were concentrated around Lake Merritt and Temescal Creek, a stream that enters the San Francisco Bay at Emeryville.
Conquistadors from New Spain claimed Oakland, and other Ohlone lands of the East Bay, along with the rest of California, for the king of Spain in 1772. In the early 19th century, the Spanish crown deeded the East Bay area to Luis Maria Peralta for his Rancho San Antonio. The grant was confirmed by the successor Mexican republic upon its independence from Spain. The ranch included a stand of Oak trees that stretched from the land that is today Oakland’s downtown area to the adjacent part of Alameda, then a peninsula. The Peraltas called the area encinal, a Spanish word that means “oak grove.” Upon his death in 1842, Peralta divided his land among his four sons. Most of Oakland fell within the shares given to Antonio Maria and Vicente, who opened the land to American settlers, loggers, European whalers, and fur-traders.
Continued development occurred after 1848 when, as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo following the Mexican-American War, the Mexican government ceded 525,000 square miles (1,360,000 km2); 55% of its pre-war territory (excluding Texas) to the US in exchange for $15 million. The original settlement in what is now the downtown was initially called “Contra Costa” (”opposite shore”, the Spanish name for the lands on the east side of the Bay) and was included in Contra Costa County before Alameda County was established on March 25, 1853. The California state legislature incorporated the town of Oakland on May 4, 1852. In 1853, Jack Coffee Hays, a famous Texas Ranger, was one of the first to establish residence in Oakland while performing his duties as sheriff of San Francisco.
The town and its environs quickly grew with the railroads, becoming a major rail terminal in the late 1860s and 1870s. In 1868, the Central Pacific constructed the Oakland Long Wharf at Oakland Point, the site of today’s Port of Oakland. The Long Wharf served as the terminus both for the Transcontinental Railroad and for local commuter trains of the Central (later, Southern) Pacific. The Central Pacific also established one of its largest rail yards and servicing facilities in West Oakland, which continued to be a major local employer under the Southern Pacific well into the 20th century. The principal depot of the Southern Pacific in Oakland was the 16th street station located at 16th and Wood, which is currently being restored as part of a Redevelopment project. In 1871, Cyrus and Susan Mills paid $5,000 for the Young Ladies’ Seminary in Benicia, renamed it Mills College, and moved it to its current location in Oakland, adjacent to what is now Seminary Boulevard. In 1872, the town of Brooklyn was incorporated into Oakland. Brooklyn, a large municipality southeast of Lake Merritt, was part of what was then called the Brooklyn Township.
A number of horsecar and cable car lines were constructed in Oakland during the latter half of the 19th century. The first electric streetcar set out from Oakland to Berkeley in 1891, and other lines were converted and added over the course of the 1890s. The various streetcar companies operating in Oakland were acquired by Francis “Borax” Smith and consolidated into what eventually became known as the Key System, the predecessor of today’s publicly owned AC Transit. In addition to its system of streetcars in the East Bay, the Key System also operated commuter trains to its own pier and ferry boats to San Francisco, in competition with the Southern Pacific. Upon completion of the Bay Bridge, both companies ran their commuter trains on the south side of the lower deck, directly to San Francisco. The Key System in its earliest years was actually in part a real estate venture, with the transit part serving to help open up new tracts for buyers. The Key System’s investors (incorporated as the “Realty Syndicate”) also established two large hotels in Oakland, one of which survives as the Claremont Resort. The other, which burned down in the early 1930s, was the Key Route Inn, at what is now West Grand and Broadway. From 1904 to 1929, the Realty Syndicate also operated a major amusement park in north Oakland called Idora Park.
All of the area that now includes Oakland was part of a land grant from Spain to Don Antonio Maria Peralta in 1820. According to the Chinatown and Central District Neighborhood Profile (Oakland Citizens Committee for Urban Renewal, 1988, available in Oakland History Room):
”During the gold rush, Edson Adams (an unsuccessful prospector), laid claim to 160 acres on either side of Broadway. His partners, Horace Carpentier and Andrew Moon, claimed adjacent Parcels. They consolidated their claims, surveyed the land, laid out and incorporated the Town of Oakland, and sold subdivisions before Peralta took legal action to challenge the claims. Peralta’s challenge was upheld in the US Supreme Court, but impoverished by attorney’s fees, he sold most of his land at a low price.
Development began around the foot of Broadway as a center for shipping products such as redwood and cattle to San Francisco. Broadway ran to the mouth of what was then called San Antonio Creek (now the Oakland Estuary) and provided a natural harbor.”
During World War II, the East Bay Area was home to many war-related industries. Among these were the Kaiser shipyards in nearby Richmond. The medical system devised for shipyard workers became the basis for the giant Kaiser Permanente HMO, which has a large medical center at MacArthur and Broadway, the first to be established by Kaiser. Oakland’s Moore Dry Dock Company expanded its shipbuilding capabilities and built over 100 ships.
Valued at $100 million in 1943, Oakland’s canning industry was its second-most-valuable war contribution after shipbuilding. Sited at both a major rail terminus and an important sea port, Oakland was a natural location for food processing plants, whose preserved products fed domestic, foreign, and military consumers. The largest canneries were in the Fruitvale District and included the Josiah Lusk Canning Company, the Oakland Preserving Company (which started the Del Monte brand), and the California Packing Company.
Prior to World War II, blacks constituted about 3% of Oakland’s population. Aside from restrictive covenants pertaining to some Oakland Hills properties (invalidated after 1948), Jim Crow Laws mandating racial segregation did not exist in Oakland, and relations between the races were mostly harmonious. What segregation did exist was voluntary; blacks could, and did, live in all parts of the city.
The war attracted tens of thousands of laborers from around the country, though most were poor whites and blacks from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas— Sharecroppers and tenant Farmers who had been recruited by Henry J. Kaiser to work in his shipyards. These immigrants from the Jim Crow South brought their racial attitudes with them, and the (comparative) racial harmony that Oakland blacks had been accustomed to prior to the war evaporated. Southern whites expected deference from their black co-workers, and initially Southern blacks were conditioned to grant it. As Southern blacks became aware of their more equal standing under California law, they began to reject subservient roles; the new immigrants prospered, though they were affected by rising racial discrimination and informal post-war neighborhood redlining.
Many Latinos - especially Mexican Americans from southwestern states like New Mexico, Texas, and Colorado - came to Oakland to work wartime jobs, as did many Mexican workers who came under the Bracero Program. Five thousand Braceros came to Oakland during the war, many of whom worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad yard in West Oakland. A small Mexican community had formed in West Oakland around 7th St. and Market St. Racial tensions were also high against Mexicans and Latinos. Zoot Suit Riots erupted in Downtown Oakland in 1943 and 1944, and police discrimination against Mexican American war workers was common (especially toward young Mexicans in Zoot Suits, or Pachucos as they were called). Sweets Ball Room had become popular with the Mexican and Latino Community during the war years, especially on Sundays when Sweets hosted the Mexican Tardeada parties where famous Mexican artists like Pedro Infante and Perez Prado performed.
Oakland was the center of a General Strike during the first week of December 1946, one of six cities across the country that experienced such a strike after World War II. It was one of the largest strike movements in American history, as workers were determined not to let management repeat the Union Busting that followed the first World War.
In 1946 National City Lines (NCL), a General Motors Holding Company, acquired 64% of Key System stock; during the next several years NCL engaged in the Conspiratorial Dissolution of Oakland’s electric Streetcar system. NCL converted the Key System’s electric streetcar fleet to diesel buses, tracks were removed from Oakland’s streets, and the lower deck of the Bay Bridge was converted to automobile traffic, which reduced the passenger carrying capacity of the bridge. Freeways were constructed, which partitioned the social and retail fabric of neighborhoods. In the 1948 federal case “United States v. National City Lines Inc.,” the defendants were found guilty on a count of conspiring to monopolize the provision of parts and supplies to their subsidiary companies. The companies were each fined $5,000, and the directors were each fined one dollar. The verdicts were upheld on appeal in 1951. The state Legislature created the Alameda and Contra Costa Transit District in 1955, which still exists today as AC Transit, the third-largest bus-only transit system in the nation.
Soon after the war, with the disappearance of Oakland’s shipbuilding industry and the decline of its automobile industry, jobs became scarce. Many of the poor blacks who had come to the city from the South decided to stay in Oakland, and longstanding black residents complained that the new Southern arrivals “tended towards public disorder.” The segregationist attitudes that some Southern migrants brought with them disrupted the racial harmony that Oaklanders had been accustomed to before the war. Many of the city’s more affluent residents, both black and white, left the city after the war, moving to neighboring Alameda,Berkeley, Albany and El Cerrito to the north; to San Leandro, Hayward, Castro Valley and Fremont in Southern Alameda County; and to the newly developing East Bay suburbs,Orinda, Lafayette, Pleasant Hill, Walnut Creek and Concord. Between 1950 and 1960, about 100,000 white property owners moved out of Oakland—part of a nationwide phenomenon called White Flight.
By the end of World War II, blacks constituted about 12% of Oakland’s population, and the years following the war saw this percentage rise. There was also an increase in racial tension.Starting in the late 1940s, the Oakland Police Department began recruiting white officers from the South to deal with the expanding black population and changing racial attitudes; many were openly racist, and their repressive police tactics exacerbated racial tensions.
Beginning in the Mid 1950’s much of West Oakland was destroyed after then Highway 17 (now I-880 or the Nimitz Freeway) was built. Many homes and businesses were destroyed to build the the Cypress Viaduct and the rest of the Nimitz Freeway. Also Urban Renewal like the destruction of the area around Market street and 7th street was destroyed to make way for the Acorn High Rise apartments. This Urban Renewal of West Oakland continued into the 1960’s with the Construction of BART and the construction Main Post Office Building on 1675 7th Street. Many families were displaced Out of West Oakland by the Construction of the Nimitz Freeway and the Urban Renewal of West Oakland the Majority of them Black and Latino. Oakland First Latino Community in West Oakland was completely Destroyed. This forced many Latinos to relocate to the Fruitvale district and East Oakland, African Americans relocated to East Oakland as well especially the Elmhurst district and surrounding areas.
In 1960, Kaiser Corporation erected its headquarters at the former site of Holy names University, at the corner of 20th and Harrison Streets. It was the largest skyscraper in Oakland, as well as “the largest office tower west of Chicago” up to that time.During this era, the oldest section of Oakland at the foot of Broadway, Jack London square, was Redeveloped into a hotel and outdoor retail district. During the 1960s, the city was home to an innovative funk music scene that produced well-known bands like Sly and the Family Stone, Graham Central Station, Tower of power, Cold Blood, Azteca, and The Headhunters. Larry Graham, the bass player for both Sly and the Family Stone and Graham Central Station, is credited with the creation of the influential slap and pop sound still widely used by bassists in many musical idioms today.
By 1966, only 16 of the city’s 661 police officers were black. Tensions between the black community and the largely white police force were high, and police malfeasance against blacks was common. The Black Panther party was founded by students Huey Newton and Bobby Seale at Oakland City College (now Merritt College).
In the Late 1960s and Early 1970s the Fruitvale District was part of the Chicano Movement. In 1968 the Oakland Police Murdered a Young Chicano Named Charles (Pinky) De Baca on 35th ave in East Oakland a group called Latinos united for Justice organized to combat Police Brutality after MR De Baca’s murder. Chicano Radical militant’s like the Chicano Revolutionary Party and the Brown Berets also Organized and Began doing work in the Fruitvale District to Protect the Chicano and Latino Community from Police Brutality and had a Free Breakfast Program in the Fruitvale area with the help of the Black Panthers. in July 26, 1970 the Fruitvale District held the Chicano Moratorium against Chicanos Going to fight in the Vietnam war. La Clinica de La Raza was also formed on Fruitvale ave in 1970 by Chicano students to have a free Clinic for the Chicano and Latino Community in East Oakland. La Raza Unida party also had a Chapter in Oakland. The Chicano movement was also part of Oakland’s Radical History in the 60s and 70s.
It was also during the 1960s that the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club began to grow into a formidable motor cycle gang and organized Crime syndicate.The Hells Angels clubhouse is still located on Oakland’s Foothill Boulevard.