San Pablo Park—the West Berkeley recreation center that served as a social and sports mecca for East Bay African Americans in the heavily segregated years before World War II and became the symbol of Berkeley’s legendary ethic of ethnic diversity—turns 100 this month, and local officials and residents are honoring it this Saturday with a centennial celebration.
The free, all-day festival sponsored jointly by the City of Berkeley, the San Pablo Neighborhood Council and the San Pablo Park community includes entertainment by Latin jazz artist Pete Escovedo and Trinidadian musical storyteller Ashiba, as well as food booths and youth and adult activities.
The day’s events will also include the unveiling of a community mural and a plaque for longtime park leader Frances Albrier, coordinated by Berkeley historian Donna Graves.
The park is located on Park Street between Russell and Ward.
When the park was purchased by the City of Berkeley in 1907 for $35,000, making it the city’s oldest recreation area. Berkeley was a far different community than it is today. While the city was experiencing a population boom, jumping from a little over 13,000 residents in 1900 to more than 40,000 in 1910, it was still considered a largely undeveloped hinterlands. Vintage photographs show much of the edge of the bay, a vast, open marsh, and acres of farmlands running up into wooded, unpopulated hills.
According to Berkeley, “A City in History,” by Charles Wollenberg, published online by the Berkeley Public Library, “in 1900 there were only 66 black residents in Berkeley … But after the turn of the century, black professionals and prosperous blue collar workers began to settle in Berkeley. In spite of the overall climate of discrimination, Berkeley had a reputation for relative tolerance. In South Berkeley, blacks could buy inexpensive homes in well-kept, mixed neighborhoods. The African American population steadily increased, to 500 in 1920, 2,000 in 1930 and 3,000 in 1940. By the beginning of World War II, Oakland and San Francisco had more black residents than Berkeley, but among Bay Area cities, Berkeley had the highest proportion of African Americans in its population, about 4 percent.”
The largest ethnic community in West Berkeley at the time of the San Pablo Park purchase was Finnish, and the area was popularly called Finntown. But in the intervening years, a small number of African American middle class residents began buying up property and building homes around the edge of the park, and they gradually turned the park and the adjacent neighborhood into an East Bay center of African American social life in much the same way that West Oakland, with a larger black population, became the center of African American musical entertainment during the same period.
By the 1920s, San Pablo Park was one of the regular stops for barnstorming Negro League baseball teams, and sports fans would come from all over the Bay Area to see such legendary players as Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, and Josh Gibson compete against teams made up of local African American players.
Richmond resident Betty Reid Soskin, now a ranger with the United States Park Service, remembers riding from her home in East Oakland with her grandfather, George Allen, in the 1930s on Sundays to sell pralines, a homemade Louisiana candy delicacy, at Negro League barnstorming ballgames.
The park was also the home of African American tennis tournaments between Northern and Southern California players, some of which had local participants—like a young Oakland resident Lionel Wilson, later a California Superior Court judge and Oakland’s first black mayor—who went on to social or political prominence.
But San Pablo Park was a place where residents of all races were able to meet and mix long before that was fashionable.
In a February 2006 article on a gathering to honor park pioneer Frances Albright, the Daily Planet wrote 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.
“One San Pablo Park veteran—UC Berkeley Phi Beta Kappa Elizabeth Gee—related how the South Berkeley community in the ’20s and ’30s 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.”
Another park regular during the ’20s and ’30s who epitomized San Pablo’s racial mix was Johnny Valiotis, whose Greek parents owned a grocery store in the area. Valiotis hung out with the black kids in the park and neighborhood, mostly playing music, and later changed his last name to Otis and his racial identity to African American, becoming the legendary rhythm and blues band leader and composer Johnny Otis.
“It is great to be able to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of San Pablo Park and still see that it is as vibrant and active as ever,” Councilmember Darryl Moore said in a statement. “This park is a testament to how vital open space is to building community.”