Sad to miss the joyous, jammin’ Juneteenth Event again this year, but there’s a richly meaningful, if more muted, substitute at the Berkeley Historical Society until Oct. 10: African Americans in Berkeley’s History and Legacy, an exhibit curated by Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson and Harvey Smith! The exhibit is also on-line. It is open Thursday – Saturday, 1-4 pm, hours of BHS’ opening in the Veterans Memorial Building, 1931 Center Street, across from the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park. An in-person visit is worth the effort, however, as it offers much more than an on-line experience.
Part 2 of a 3-part series of exhibits spans the post WWII striving and thriving of African American migrants to Berkeley to the realization of Black political empowerment in the 70’s to 2000. Very helpful context for this period is given by an impressive, 6 foot x 9 foot Timeline Poster ranging from the ~3,000 year BCE of the Ohlone Native Americans to present day Berkeley. This could be turned into a valuable promotional and moneymaking pamphlet for the Berkeley Historical Society and a uniquely educational resource for Berkeley students!
The stars of the show, however, are the dozens of reproductions of black and white photographs of African Americans. Many were prominent in the South Berkeley enclave where most Blacks have lived even with the long legacy of exclusionary zoning in Berkeley. Some of these pictures reveal forgotten mixing of races in K-12 schools with Black and White teachers and administrators – even Black Superintendents! – tending to students of different races.
Continued discrimination and attendant impoverishment, however, became intolerable so the nonviolence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shifted to the militancy of the Black Panthers reflected in flyers and photos. A particularly damning plan purportedly recovered from Berkeley Police to systematically shoot into a Black cultural center is on display. This period of transition from the relative passivity of Black men to their aggressive self-defense is still being researched by scholars. Nevertheless, the spirit of the latter tactic may have led to the unprecedented election of Black politicians like Mayor Warren Widener, Maudelle Shirek, Vice-Mayor Carole Davis Kennerly, Mayor Gus Newport, Congressman and later Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, and State Assemblymember Byron Rumford, Sr. and more recently, Supervisor Keith Carson.
How the changing demographics of Berkeley, which went from 18% African American in the 1950’s to 9% today, may have thwarted the continuing success of Berkeley’s African American community will hopefully be examined in Part 3 of this Series. This exhibit is an invaluable gift to the public at a critical time in Bay Area history. No one should miss this gem of an exhibit or fail to put Juneteenth 2022 on their calendars!
–Ruby MacDonald and Pam White
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