Black and Blues in Berkeley: One Family’s Story By P.M. PRICE

Friday December 10, 2004

My grandfather, George Price, followed my grandmother, Mary Perry, from Texas to Arkansas to Chicago to California, declaring to her mother—referred to as “Miss Maggie” even by her employer—that he would marry Mary or he wouldn’t marry at all. Mary had graduated from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas and she advised her suitor that if he was planning on coming west to California he had better get an education and a good job. He did and they married and set up housekeeping, integrating their South Berkeley neighborhood in 1934. My father grew up in that house and my two children are growing up in the same house now.  

I think about my family’s history in this town that I love when I drive by Berkeley High, on the lookout for my teenage daughter and up into the hills to pick up my son from his elementary school. As I pass the construction site of the new Temple Beth El, I see a small boarded up shack off to the side that was at one time thought to house the very first African American residents of Berkeley. Pete and Hannah Byrne were enslaved by Napoleon Byrne of Missouri. He freed the pair and they accompanied the Byrne family by covered wagon to California in 1858. Pete was the groundskeeper, while Hannah cared for the children. What happened to Pete and Hannah after the Byrnes moved in 1880 is unknown. 

As I drive through their old neighborhood, I wonder if Pete and Hannah would be surprised to know that few other blacks have made their way up into these hills since then. Initially, legal segregation or “redlining” kept well-to-do blacks out of the Berkeley hills. Many moved to more hospitable areas in Oakland and Richmond. Today, not many black families live north of University and east of Shattuck. I have heard some remarkable stories from a few of those who do. One African American hill resident was mistaken for a servant, another had the police called on her, who accused her of trespassing in her own front yard.  

When I pick up my son from school, it is interesting to note which kids go home with a parent and which go home on the bus. It is even more interesting to observe who gets invited over for play dates and who doesn’t. My children have often been the only brown-skinned children invited to classmates’ homes and parties.  

Young children do not self-segregate. Their parents teach them, by example, that there are certain people we have over and break bread with and there are others whom we merely tolerate until private school or a good tracking program or college. I am reminded of recent efforts by a group of concerned parents to re-segregate our public schools, supposedly so that their children could attend their neighborhood schools. Perhaps these parent advocates place little value in having their kids associate with children who seem very different from their own.  

I wonder how many of these parents grew up here? How many are bringing attitudes and practices from the midwest, the south or even the “blue” east coast? How “Berkeley” are they? Are the traditional Berkeley ideals of the ‘60s and ‘70s passé? Unrealistic? Inconvenient? Which word would you choose?  

I watch my children navigate race and class issues, from my daughter at age 4 being told by a playmate that she couldn’t be the princess because she didn’t have long blonde hair, to my 10-year-old son recently telling me that the so-called smartest kid in his class said that he hated all the black boys. 

Who decides who can be a princess and who can’t or what makes a person “smart”? How meaningful is the correlation between power and color, between class and self-esteem? What direction do we want our town to move in? And what role will you play?