“The idea [for Parchester Village] was spearheaded by a group of ministers,” said longtime Village resident Maxine Henagan. “And the streets are named after each one of those ministers that participated on the committee that would spearhead getting the land.” Those ministers also organized to sell the homes.
One local minister in particular, Rev. Guthrie Williams, led the charge in brokering a deal with a local politician and a wealthy landowner to create quality housing for Black Americans at a time when racist lending and housing policies, like redlining, barred Black people from buying homes. The result was the first tract home development in Northern California explicitly open to Black residents.
Wartime workers organize to demand rights
During World War II, many Black Americans left the South and moved to Richmond for jobs in the shipyards. When the war ended, the wartime housing projects where they lived were scheduled to be torn down.
“The postwar period saw a real frenzy of building communities and homes and developments all around in the suburban areas,” said Shirley Ann Moore, professor emerita of history at Sacramento State University. “But those developments that were going up were restricted on a racial basis.”
Moore’s book, “To Place Our Deeds: The African American Community in Richmond, California, 1910–1963,” details the Black community’s impact on Richmond before and after World War II. According to Moore, city officials hoped all newcomers who moved for the war industries, Black people especially, would go back to where they came from after the war. Instead, the working-class Black community in Richmond grew, becoming an influential political force in the area — a political force that was not only exercising its power in Richmond, but across the country, paving the road for the modern civil rights movement.
“Those working-class Black people took the lead,” said Moore. “People who had been presumed not to be aware of the political currents around them were really in the vanguard.” Enter Rev. Guthrie Williams, a carpenter by trade who, in 1949, started organizing to end housing and workplace discrimination in Richmond. A self-described “persistent, cantankerous cuss,” Williams created the small, Richmond-based Universal Non-Partisan League to help bridge the racial divide.
“He garnered a lot of support from those people living in the housing projects, and they became very valuable voters. And white politicians began to see that, too,” Moore said.
Amos Hinkley was one of those white politicians, a City Council member running for reelection in 1949. He approached Williams and the League to support his campaign. Williams agreed in exchange for Hinkley’s commitment to create permanent housing for Black people.
Hinkley was backed by Fred Parr, a wealthy developer who was key in building the Richmond shipping terminal and Kaiser shipyards. Parr brought lots of industry to the Bay Area, like the Ford Motor Company plant in Richmond, and owned 800 acres of industrial land in North Richmond.
Hinkley arranged a meeting among Parr, Williams and another local minister to talk about how some of Parr’s land could be used for housing for the Black community.
In the 2002 documentary “An Exploration of Our History: The Story of North Richmond,” then-Richmond City Manager Isiah Turner, now deceased, recounted the deal: “[Parr] agreed that if the ministers could help them sell the homes for this land out here that he owned, that he would support working with the Black community so we could buy these homes.”
At the end of the meeting, Williams had a commitment from Parr to back the housing development that would become Parchester Village.
Envisioning a community for ‘all Americans’
When Parchester Village opened in 1950, it was advertised as “a home community for all Americans.” Early sales reflected that goal, with 30% of homes purchased by white buyers and the remaining 70% by Black and Asian Americans. That’s according to Fred Parr’s nephew, John Parr Cox, who recalled the housing project in a 1986 interview with the UC Berkeley Oral History Project. But “within a couple of years, the community changed completely to all Black,” Parr Cox said.
“White flight” was common at the time, wherein white families fled neighborhoods where people of color were moving in. Some Black Richmondites held the more cynical view that Fred Parr never intended for an integrated community to work out, said Moore, of Sacramento State University.
Regardless of the intentions of the white community, Rev. Williams told the Independent and Gazette in 1980 that he wanted Parchester to be an “All-American project.” He added, “We hoped to set a standard of perfection in fair play in housing for the Bay Area.”
While Williams’ dream of a racially integrated community didn’t work out, the Black people who moved in still created something special. The political pressure Williams and others placed on city leaders to build Parchester Village was just the beginning of what became an active, organized neighborhood association that supported a vibrant community known for its safety, high-achieving children and regular block-party barbecues.
‘We never locked our doors’
“It was a village that everybody’s home was your home,” Charleszetta Pruitt remembered. Pruitt is a former resident whose family was one of the first to settle in Parchester. “You were cared about,” she said. “They provided for you.”
“It felt like family, like a safe place,” recalled KQED announcer Michelle Henagan, who also grew up in Parchester Village. “Like coming home from school, you knew all your friends are going to be going around the neighborhood.”
Michelle’s mother, Maxine Henagan, has lived in the Village since 1974 and takes pride in its history. “I think it’s exciting to be part of that history and knowing that the neighborhood where I live is actually organized and spearheaded by African American people.”
The political organizing that Rev. Williams exemplified continued as the community grew. Parchester Village was built on unincorporated land, so residents lobbied the county to get services like streetlights and sewage through nearby San Pablo. They also sued the city of Richmond in 1950 to give their children access to Richmond’s public schools. It was one of many battles residents fought and won over the years. Eventually, they petitioned to be formally incorporated into Richmond, which was approved in 1963.
Resident Goretha Johnson, who currently serves as the Parchester Village Neighborhood Council president, reflected on growing up in the Village during those early years.
“We were really self-contained,” she said. “We had our own store, our own gas station, our own nightclub. We were a community of many different professions because at that time they wouldn’t allow Black people to buy in other neighborhoods. So we had plumbers, laborers, teachers, doctors. Just everybody came together into one place. And everybody took pride in their property.”
Resident Lori Hart, a friend of Johnson’s, also grew up in Parchester Village and lives there now. She remembered the Village’s political prowess well: “We used to be extremely politically involved. I remember hearing about how they would go down to the City Council and raise some Cain if something was not right.”
Hart was a big fan of the neighborhood’s bookmobile, which came by regularly to lend books. “It was anticipated and expected you would be somebody growing up,” Hart said. “We were taught and encouraged to read and we were taught to respect one another.” She added that the Village “was a space of safety. We never locked our doors.”
Change comes to Parchester
Changes started creeping into the community in the 1970s. After the Fair Housing Act of 1968, more Bay Area neighborhoods started to integrate. The Village was no longer the only place in Richmond where Black families could buy, so they started branching out into other parts of the city. By the 1980s, many of the local businesses had long since closed. And then the crack epidemic hit the community hard.
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“That’s when the landscape really changed,” Johnson said. “It just kind of wiped through everybody’s home. It’s like everybody was touched with somebody who had got involved with that.”
In the early 1990s, a neighborhood teenager was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting. His death rocked the Parchester community. In response, Marilyn Dillihant, then a county alcohol and drug prevention specialist who grew up in Parchester, reasserted the Village’s values and established a youth association to give young people positive things to do.
By the early 2000s, many original homeowners still called Parchester home, and the block-party barbecues were still in effect. But, like any neighborhood that evolves over time, it was becoming harder to hold onto its founding essence. It was also harder to hold onto homes.
High housing costs have pushed many Black families out of the Bay Area, putting current Black homeownership rates at just 34%, according to data analysis by Bay Area Equity Atlas. That’s a decline that’s mirrored in Parchester, where it’s now only 20% Black, according to the 2020 census. Twenty years ago, the population was almost 80% Black.
With fewer residents who have direct ties to the tight-knit, open-door community of Parchester’s heyday, the strong sense of community it once cultivated has waned.
“I’m thinking about Richmond Land and the community land trust that they’ve set up and the way that they’re really working with residents to build new models for collectively owning and developing housing,” Moore said. “And in that way, becoming more self-sufficient and creating platforms for the community to take action — with city support or without city support — to meet their needs.”
Stories like Parchester’s also fuel conversations Moore and the institute have had around belonging in the Bay Area. “How do folks hold onto the place that they love and live in? It’s belonging to place — and that doesn’t just mean geography,” Moore said. “It means the connections to neighbors, to faith communities, to schools and elders and friends and community. It’s belonging to a collective, to a history, to a set of memories, as well.”
Despite all the changes, Hart and Johnson are committed to bringing back some of the classic Parchester Village spirit to the community and feeding that sense of belonging Moore described. The Neighborhood Center, one of the last standing original Parchester institutions, was recently renovated and can once again be a hub for meetings and events.
“We’re looking forward to that,” Hart said. “Trying to restore some of the glory of the old and just bring back some of the remembrance.” And, if Hart has her way, maybe bring a roller derby, too.
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