A mural depicts scenes of Russell City, including blues singer Charlie Bell Sanders, at A Street and Maple Court in Hayward. Russell City's residents were forcibly relocated and the community bulldozed in 1963. Joshua Powell painted the mural, assisted by Wythe Bowart, Nicole Pierret and Brent McHugh. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
The descendants of a once vibrant, tight-knit community in the East Bay that was wiped off the map to make way for an industrial park in the early 1960s received some positive news recently, when the city of Hayward issued a formal apology on Nov. 16 for its past racist policies and the role it played in demolishing Russell City.
Once home to around 1,400 predominantly Black and Latino residents in an unincorporated 12-block area of Hayward, Russell City was a cultural hub for blues music, where legends like Ray Charles and Etta James performed in clubs when they toured the West Coast. The community saw much of its growth during and after World War II, in part because of African Americans migrating from southern states to work in shipyards and factories.
Established in 1853 and named after a teacher who moved to California during the Gold Rush, Russell City at its peak in the post-World War II years “was more of a community and not a city. It was kind of a town in a way,” said Diane Curry, executive director and curator at the Hayward Area Historical Society. “The title of 'city' is a misnomer.”
The community was home to numerous businesses, a hog ranch, sheep herders, nightclubs, a church, a library, a school and its own fire department. In the 1950s, however, all that changed when Alameda County and Hayward city officials declared Russell City a "blight" and decided to transform the area into an industrial business park.
Despite pushback from residents who had unsuccessfully petitioned officials to provide sewage and electricity and to pave the dirt roads, local governments began forcibly relocating residents and bulldozed the entire community in 1963. Many families ended up in Kelly Hill, East Oakland and other neighboring communities.
"I call it cultural genocide. They took all the street names of Russell City and put in names like 'Industrial Avenue,'" said Ronnie Stewart, executive director and founder of the West Coast Blues Society.
"The community had no understanding about lobbying," Stewart said. "When redevelopment happened, they bought people's property well below market rate. Homes were burned down. They didn't want it tied up in court even if residents filed an injunction, which could take over 10 years. They wanted to make sure they didn’t have a place to live."
Redlining, a government-sanctioned racist practice that started in the 1930s, encouraged segregation across the nation by applying stricter mortgage requirements for African American homebuyers and other communities of color. It pushed many families to seek refuge in unincorporated areas like Russell City. That discrimination went further with racial steering, where real estate agents and developers actively directed people of color away from white neighborhoods, with prohibitions against the sale of property to non-white homebuyers.
When homes and businesses in Russell City were demolished, residents lost more than just their property. An entire community was uprooted as families were scattered across the Bay Area. Some who were able to resettle relatively close made a concerted effort to keep the bonds forged alive through ongoing gatherings.
“People lived and worked together, and watched out for each other’s children that would play in the surrounding open fields,” said Sam Nava, a former Russell City resident. Nava, the grandson of Pancho Villa, moved to Russell City with his family in 1942, when he was 2 years old, and fondly remembers the strong sense of community and pride among residents, as well as the nightclub near his house where he would get ice cream during the day as a child.
Nava, now 82, remains in close contact with other former residents and their descendants through an annual picnic celebration at Kennedy Park in Hayward where families gather and reflect on the good times in Russell City. The annual picnic had been going on for over 20 years until 2018, when renovations began at the park. The park was scheduled to reopen in the spring of 2021 but was delayed.
Nava created a wall-size cardboard sign filled with photos submitted from former residents and a hand-drawn map of Russell City where descendants could write their names by the streets where they used to live.
“Russell City is a good example of showing that people, no matter their race or creed, could get along,” said Nava. “Those people were down to earth. We all saw each other as equal.”
Aisha Knowles, 44, who was born and raised in Hayward and is a descendant of Russell City residents, remembers attending the annual picnic at Kennedy Park every year since she was a child and learning more about the history of the community. Her family owned an auto shop called Honest Abe and Sons, and her grandmother and great-uncle, Fannie Knowles and Bill Eastland, helped found the First Baptist Church of Russell City in 1943.
“I grew up hearing so many different stories and loved meeting other people from Russell City,” said Knowles. “I was pleased to see the commission's work. It was one step and component that makes sure Russell City is never forgotten.”
In the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, other Bay Area cities have been grappling with their own discriminatory pasts, and in recent months have shown a willingness to acknowledge and apologize for damage done. On Sept. 29, the San José City Council held a ceremony at the Circle of Palms Plaza to apologize to Chinese immigrants and their descendants for deliberately setting fire to San José’s Chinatown in 1887, destroying businesses and displacing over 1,000 people. Over the summer, the Antioch City Council apologized to the Chinese community for burning down its Chinatown in 1876.
Hayward's formal apology to Russell City residents and their descendants was spurred on by the actions of residents like Artavia Berry, chair of the Hayward Community Services Commission.
Berry, who helped draft Hayward's apology, said the commission has been pushing the city to improve equity, add new training for the police department and talk about how governments and institutions can engage communities of color. Along with the formal apology is an 10-part plan to address the many concerns of Hayward’s Black community.
“Many other communities have received reparations and apologies, but I haven’t seen many institutions apologize to Black people for anything,” said Berry. “We wanted the city to apologize, but we also want solutions.”
Proposed solutions include financial resources being allocated for a Black homeowner business fund, supporting an annual Juneteenth citywide celebration in Hayward, providing culturally relevant educational tools for Black students and developing Black businesses.
Two weeks ago, the commission made a presentation to Hayward's city council on potential restitution and how to incorporate their recommendations into the city’s strategic plan. Berry is optimistic that the city will work with her commission and add their proposals into the city budget by next June.
Berry said despite her anger after learning about how poorly Russell City residents were treated, she admires their resilience to be able to work together and build a community on their own. She hopes the work being done in Hayward can serve as a blueprint for other cities across the nation on how to heal old wounds and move forward in an equitable way.
“This process really shows that you don’t have to be an elected official to make change and influence policy,” said Berry.
“Everyone on the commission are volunteers and residents of Hayward who care about the community. It doesn’t matter what your station is in life. If you’re willing to speak up, you can make change."
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