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Murals Depict Lives of Local Seniors

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday March 09, 2007

Dated but not forgotten: This is the story of 16 seniors who have called South Berkeley home at different times in the last century. 

Some, such as Eva Bell—who arrived during WWII—still live around the corner from Malcolm X Elementary School. 

Others, such as Adam Jones, Jr., who arrived in California from San Antonio in July 1944, passed away in January. 

But their stories live on, through murals installed on fences at Malcolm X Elementary School in south Berkeley by HereStories—a community group motivated to create murals that honor place, spirit and community history.  

The outdoor art project was inaugurated at Malcolm X in February. The idea for the murals—known as the South Berkeley Senior Stories—was an afterthought of another mural. 

“It was the South Berkeley Shines mural on the corner store at Ashby Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way that was our inspiration,” said Sara Bruckmeier, artistic director for HereStories. “That and Mr. Charles,” she said, referring to Berkeley’s Waving Man, who stood on the corner of Oregon Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way every morning waving to passers-by for 30 years. 

“We remembered Mr. Charles’ portrait adorning that mural and thought of honoring more elders of the South Berkeley community,” she said. “We wanted to go past the houses in south Berkeley and connect to the people. Connect the broader political and social history with the personal. The murals tell stories in two ways. They tell it by the pictures and they tell it through the stories written next to it.” 

When Bruckmeier, along with muralists Bonnie Borucki, Leif Aamont, O’Brien Thiele and Lou Silva approached elders at the South Berkeley Senior Center three years ago, they were met with a bit of apprehension. 

“It was one of the seniors, Mary Trahan, who broke the ice,” said Bruckmeier. “And her story features in the ‘Social Clubs Support Social Change,’ mural. Very soon Gwendolyn Reed smiled at us, and Gerald Carter—who is in the WWII mural—talked to us after warning that he didn’t have much to say.” 

It turned out Carter had quite a tale to tell. Abandoned at the age of two, Carter was found at an orphanage in Los Angeles by his grandparents in 1930.  

“I worked at the Del Monte Cannery and the Naval Supply Center in Emeryville as a teenager. During WWII, manpower shortage permitted kids to work up to 8 hours per day,” Carter told a group of awestruck fifth-graders in front of Malcolm X last week. 

Carter transferred to UC Berkeley in 1952 under the G.I. Bill, which provides financial aid to WWII veterans, and got his B.A. in architecture. He then went on to work as a Naval Architectural Technician for thirty years till he retired with excellent benefits. 

Divided into three zones, the mural of the map offers a snapshot about the legacy of housing discrimination in Berkeley. Every stroke of the brush brings alive not just life’s triumphs, but also its struggles. 

“It tells us about housing distribution by race in Berkeley in 1960, the year of the last census before the 1963 Fair Housing Act,” said Bruckmeier. “It shows the areas open to people of color and those that were not. Neighborhood boundaries were enforced in several ways and property developers included ‘restrictive covenants’ in their deeds. During WWII, migrants of color were restricted to settling in South and West Berkeley. One such migrant was the late Adam Jones, Jr., who came to work on the South Pacific Railroad in 1944.” 

In a recorded interview with Bruckmeier, Jones says: “It was a nice job. During that time, there were not many jobs here for Afro-Americans. If you didn’t shine shoes or work for a railroad, wasn’t nothing else for them to do.” 

Funding for the project came from the East Bay Community Foundation and the CA Council of the Humanities California Stories Fund. Eco Home Improvement and Ashby Lumber donated paint and plywood respectively. Chuck Wollenberg, Social Science Chair at Berkeley City College, advised the project and reviewed materials for historical accuracy. 

“Jai Waggoner, Arts Coordinator of Malcolm X, brought some of the students to paint murals as well,” said Bonnie Borucki. “Storyteller Orunamamu dropped in to tell stories to the kids. But in the end they painted what was close to their heart. Fairies, monsters, nursery rhymes flowed from their paintbrushes.” 

Borucki added that she had been touched most by the stories of segregation in the Berkeley schools that was present till 1964. 

“Teachers, administrators, parents and students were all challenged by it,” she said. “In Betty McAfee’s mural, the idea of how the Berkeley Unified School District devised a plan where kids would go to school together comes across beautifully.” 

As 10-year-old Yasmeen Mussard-Afcari listened to octogenarian Minoru Sano talk about the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Army during lunch break at Malcolm X last week, Sano paused for a while. 

“I feel really good today,” Sano said, looking at the mural of him and his wife. 

Their story narrates the difficult times Japanese American residents went through during WWII. Yet Sano smiles at Yasmeen. 

“I look at my picture and I see that I am 86 years old today. I realize people in my parents’ generation used to dress up a lot more back in the 1920s. Today, no one cares that much,” he said grinning. “I also realize I have come a long way.”