Remembering Russell City: A Thriving East Bay Town Razed by Racist Government

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Black and white photograph of kids playing volleyball by an empty field. Some low buildings rise up in the background
A large group of children playing volleyball on a dirt playground at Russell School circa 1950. Former Russell City residents fondly remember playing together at the edge of town. ((Courtesy of the Hayward Area Historical Society))

Just down from Hayward Regional Shoreline Park, is a power plant called "Calpine - Russell City Energy Center." It's the only thing still named for the town that was once here — a vibrant home to about 1,400 people. By all accounts it was the place to be on a Saturday night.

Named for a Gold Rush era teacher named Joel Russell, Russell City was founded in 1853, but it didn't start booming until World War II when many people seeking work in nearby factories moved to town. Because Russell City was unincorporated, it became a haven for Black and Latino families who had difficulty buying property in other parts of the Bay Area due to racist real estate policies like racial covenants and redlining. In Russell City, there was room to build and people often tended a few animals and planted big gardens.

It was also home to several blues clubs and a thriving music scene. Famous musicians like Etta James, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker played there, letting loose and enjoying the freedom of playing for Black audiences.

"Russell City people, they sang in church, they know harmonies," explained Ronnie Stewart, Executive Director of West Coast Blues Society. Stewart didn't grow up in Russell City, but he's become obsessed with documenting its contribution to music history. "They know music. And (musicians would) go there because it's a challenge. If you can get past Russell City, you can get past Carnegie Hall, you know."

A Black man stands in the middle of the railroad tracks wearing a stylish suit jacket with pink shirt and tie, fedora, and black and white shoes.
Ronnie Stewart, Executive Director and founder of the West Coast Blues Society, stands on railroad tracks that cross Winton Avenue, dividing Hayward from Russell City, on Feb. 7, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Former Russell City residents remember it as a loving place, but also one with deplorable living conditions. Because it was unincorporated, the town didn’t have any city services — no sewage, plumbing or electricity. Residents petitioned Alameda county and Hayward to bring these services to their community, but were repeatedly denied. Instead, the county used the conditions to declare Russell City “a blight,” justifying the use of eminent domain to seize properties and pay the owners far less for their land and homes than they were worth.

Sponsored

"Every time someone would move from a home, it would immediately be burned down," said former Russell City resident, Gloria Bratton Sanders Moore. "It was cheaper to burn everything, easier to just burn it down rather than wait for eminent domain. And in the end, they just came in and bulldozed everything anyway."

By 1966, Russell City residents had been forced out of their homes and the close-knit community was scattered to the winds. Displaced families once again faced predatory lenders, racial steering and redlining as they tried to find homes and rebuild their lives elsewhere. Hayward annexed the land where Russell City once stood and opened a massive industrial park that’s still there today.

After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, many cities started looking more critically at their own discriminatory pasts. A spate of official apologies soon followed — first Antioch and San Jose for their treatment of Chinese Americans, then Hayward. On November 16, 2021 Hayward officially apologized for evicting and burning people out of their homes, as well as for the long-term adverse impacts on their ability to own property and build wealth. Now the city is working on a proposal to make amends to former Russell City residents.

We spoke with several people who grew up in Russell City about what made the place so special. They told us stories of a place where people supported and loved each other. Many are angry about how their families were treated and would like to see Hayward do more than apologize.

Black and white photo from above showing an airport runway next to a small town of about twelve blocks.
Aerial view of Russell City tucked up against the Hayward airport circa 1948. ((Courtesy of the Hayward Area Historical Society))

"We had horrid living conditions, but we had beautiful people who lived there, people who loved you and looked out for one another. We planted our own gardens, we picked our own food. We had chickens, we had hogs. You know, there was always the stench because, you know, from the hog ranches and animals just being everywhere….All kinds of people lived in Russell City. And you know, it was a Blues mecca, and people who lived there loved it and they loved each other. And I only wish that we had been able to develop the land and live there forever." – Gloria Moore

Black and white photo of a small house with paper siding, a pile of tires out front, a dusty yard and a for sale sign.
A small home with paper siding as well as a plywood roof. On the outside of the home is a sign that reads 'For Sale'. Circa 1953. ((Courtesy of the Hayward Area Historical Society))

"My father, his family is from Louisiana. And you know, it was really rough back then. My grandmother, his mother, had to leave Louisiana to save her son's life. There was a mob kind of thing going on, you know. So she took all of her sons and moved to California, never went back. When she came to California, she moved to San Francisco into the Fillmore District. She was pushed out of there. Again, same kind of situation, and she landed in Russell City. My mom, she lived with her grandparents, who moved from Oklahoma. And they landed in West Oakland. And they too were pushed out from West Oakland because they put that freeway in there, the 980. And they landed in Russell City as well." – Marian Johnson

"Hayward did nothing about the streets, so the streets were always pitted. And in the summer it was hard to drive over. And in the winter it was hard to drive over! It was just mud. (My dad) kind of formed the improvement club. And he was the one that was leading the fight for the electricity for the streets. And they (fought for years over access to) water." – Rudy Brooks

Black and white photo of about fifty children and several adults walking next to a road and a field. The children are dressed up as if for Halloween.
A large group of students lined up walking on the side of a paved road away from the Russell School building. The students are wearing various costumes for Halloween circa 1952. ((Courtesy of the Hayward Area Historical Society))

"The music. You could you hear it, whether you were a fan of it or not. The pig farm(s) were no more than one block away. And sometimes they did escape on top of that. You know, they got their roaming around town." – Sam Nava

An older Latino couple sits on a couch laughing. The man has his arm around his wife.
Sam Nava, 82, sits next to his wife Juanita at their home in Hayward on Feb. 7, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"My grandmother never threw anything away. In fact, I have a little black purse and I started looking in it. I'm like, 'Oh my God, look at this. This is our history right here. This is a copy of a check that they sent my grandmother and grandfather that was like two thousand two hundred and fifty.' So everybody got that amount. But my grandmother held out because she knew it was wrong. And there’s a letter that I have that they sent her threatening her, telling her, ‘If you don't sign by Friday, then you won't get anything at all.'" – Toni Wynn

Black and white photograph of several wooden buildings including a home, a large shed or garage and several small structures.
A Russell City home circa 1950. ((Courtesy of the Hayward Area Historical Society))

"I'm speaking for my grandparents who are no longer here, I'm speaking for my father, who is no longer here, and I would be doing them a disservice if I didn't do as much as they did to get back what they purchased. Legally. And the more information I got, the more I saw the injustice, the more I saw that because of what you did. Our great grandparents weren't able to do what other families outside of our culture were able to do. Build wealth and equity. From home ownership, from land ownership." – Marian Johnson

"We're looking for, you know, some kind of restoration or restorative justice to reclaim our wealth that was taken away from us." – Gloria Moore

Sponsored