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South Berkeley Residents Gather In Honor of Berkeley Pioneer By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday February 07, 2006

Some stories are impossible to write as an objective reporter. 

On Saturday afternoon, South Berkeley historian Donna Graves spoke to an assembled crowd at the Frances Albrier Community Center on the grounds of San Pablo Park about the life history of the Berkeley pioneer African-American woman for whom the center was named. 

The meeting was part of a Berkeley-sponsored Black History Month celebration both to honor the civil rights work of Albrier as well as to gather personal histories of the San Pablo Park/Longfellow School neighborhood that was once the center of Berkeley’s ethnic and racial minority population. The program was co-sponsored by the City of Berkeley Civic Arts Commission, the Frances Albrier Community Center, the San Pablo Neighborhood Council, the Berkeley Historical Society, and the West Berkeley Foundation, and included the presentation of a portrait of the late Albrier to the City of Berkeley by her children to be placed at the center. 

At one point in her presentation on Saturday, Graves related how Albrier had initiated a 1940 “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” civil rights campaign, putting community pressure on a Sacramento Street and Ashby Avenue grocery store to hire a black clerk. 

I realized that I had heard the same story many times in my life, but from a slightly different angle. My late mother, Maybelle Reid Allen, was the clerk hired at the store as a result of Albrier’s campaign. 

My mother, who grew up in South Berkeley in the ’20s and ’30s of the last century, often told me how she spent much of her childhood and teenage years at San Pablo Park, a tomboy who played football and baseball and tennis on the park’s courts and fields. As a 16-year-old, she met my father at the park, who had come there from his East Oakland home on a Sunday afternoon because San Pablo Park gained the reputation around the East Bay in the 1930s as a social gathering place for African-Americans. 

The park’s tennis courts were among the few places in the Bay Area where African-Americans could play competitive tennis in the 1930s. One of those who competed in tennis competitions in those years—Lionel Wilson—later became the first African-American mayor of Oakland. 

In addition, the San Pablo Park baseball diamond—now the home of the Berkeley High men’s baseball team—became a regular stop for barnstorming teams of the Negro Leagues. 

Richmond resident Betty Reid Soskin—one of my cousins on my father’s side, and a contemporary of my mother and father—described at Saturday’s gathering how she came out to San Pablo Park from East Oakland to the weekend Negro League baseball games with her father, who made pralines—a Louisiana candy—to sell to spectators. 

During those Sunday visits, Soskin said she got to see such famous teams as the Birmingham Black Barons—with whom legendary pitcher Satchel Paige began his professional career—play the California Eagles, an African-American team made up of local players. One of the Eagles players was Mel Reid, a star Berkeley High athlete of the 1930s, whom she met at San Pablo Park and later married. 

But while San Pablo Park was a social gathering place for African-Americans during the ‘20s and ‘30s, drawing black visitors from as far away as San Jose to the south and Vallejo to the north, it was also a center of diversity and multicultural life in an era long before those terms became popular. 

Participants at Saturday’s gathering related that while restrictive real estate covenants kept Asians and African-Americans from renting or purchasing homes in other parts of Berkeley during the early 20th century, the area around San Pablo Park was open to minorities. The result was a neighborhood mix where whites, Asians, and African-Americans grew up with each other, played together, and went to school together at nearby Longfellow. 

A 1938-era Longfellow School Holiday Card presented by historian Graves during a slideshow presentation at Saturday’s event illustrated the diversity of that school, showing a gathering of students of several races.  

“South Berkeley in the 1930s was the area that gained Berkeley its reputation as a place of tolerance for people with diverse backgrounds,” Soskin said. “That reputation carried over into the 60’s, when people from other locations heard of Berkeley’s reputation for diversity, came here, and made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.” 

One San Pablo Park veteran—UC Berkeley Phi Beta Kappa Elizabeth Gee—related how the South Berkeley community in the 20’s and 30’s was a racial oasis in a desert of discrimination. Gee related how her mother, a Chinese-American, was forced by the U.S. government to give up her United States citizenship when she married Gee’s father, a Chinese national. Gee later had to leave California to marry her own husband—who was white—because California law through World War II prevented marriage between the races—identical to the laws of the Jim Crow segregated South at the time. 

But Gee said none of that mattered in South Berkeley, and particularly at San Pablo Park. 

“I learned to play tennis here,” she said. “So did my brother, at the time when he wasn’t permitted to play at the Berkeley Tennis Club.” 

Another photo presented by Graves during her slide show pictured a young Gee—along with my mother, one of my aunts, and another of my cousins and two other African-American girls—in dance costumes preparing for a San Pablo Park performance. 

Frances Albrier’s son, William Jackson, related how he often ate at the homes of Japanese-American neighbors in the South Berkeley area, learning Japanese customs and language that served him well when visited Japan while working on a merchant ship that ran the trade route between the two countries in the years preceding World War II. 

When many of these South Berkeley Japanese-American neighbors were sent to Utah internment camps during World War II, Albrier’s daughter, Anita Black, told how many of them entrusted their property deeds to Albrier for the duration of the war to keep them from being seized by the government. 

White South Berkeley also residents related how growing up in a diverse neighborhood affected their lives and their racial outlook. Ken Berndt, who appears on the Longfellow Holiday Card, told of bragging to friends that he played with the black California Eagles team, “but they really only let me shag balls.” 

And Graves related the story of South Berkeley’s most famous white native, Johnny Valliotis, whose Greek-American parents owned a grocery store in the San Pablo Park area. Valliotis, an accomplished musician, spent his childhood hanging out with black South Berkeley friends, later changing his name to Johnny Otis and his public identity to African-American, often telling interviewers that he identified more with black than with white. 

In the 1950s, Otis became one of the pioneers of the rock’n’roll and rhythm & blues movement, playing to segregated, all-black audiences around the country with an all-black band, and helped write the original lyrics that later became Elvis Presley’s signature tune, “Hound Dog.” 

Graves said Saturday’s event originally came out of a plan to place a historical tribute plaque to Albrier in front of the Albrier Center. 

“I’m concerned that so many young people come to the center and don’t know who it’s named after, and what she accomplished for the community,” Graves said. “In doing research about Mrs. Albrier, I came to understand the tremendous richness that was present in the surrounding neighborhood during the time she was active.” 

Graves said that Saturday’s event was designed to bring out residents of the San Pablo Park neighborhood during the ‘20s, ‘30s, and the World War II years and videotape their presentations for the Berkeley Historical Society. 

“But there’s presently no money available to do decent, historical videotapes of these people,” she said. “They are all getting older, and we need to get them formally interviewed so that we can preserve their histories and their memories. A lot of Berkeley’s history will be lost, if we don’t hurry.” 

Graves said she is hoping that the City of Berkeley will make individual videotape histories a part of the city’s project for the San Pablo Centennial celebration, which is coming up next year. She said that City Councilmember Darryl Moore, who represents part of South Berkeley and who spoke at Saturday’s gathering, told her he would present that videotape proposal to the City Council.