Sunday, June 26, 2011

Early African Americans in Oakland

After sharing information with a fellow researcher about the African American soldiers buried in the GAR plot, I made the decision to go ahead and share what I know about these veterans...taking them out of their chronological order of death. It seems right, on several levels, to group these gentlemen together, since the small community they were a part of would have known one another well. They also deserve to have a light shone on them for their service and separating them will highlight this. But, I cannot deny that the personal motivator of having my research work protected in some way is the primary driving force (Sorry, guys.).

Before I move on to the biographies, however, I wanted to talk a little bit about the African American community in Oakland at the time.

We are used to, in modern day Oakland, thinking about the city as having a prominent African American community, but this was not always true. The largest immigration of African Americans to Oakland happened during WWII when jobs in manufacturing and the military became available in large numbers.

Before that, the black population of Oakland was a small percentage of the whole. In 1900, there was just over 1000 in a city of about 67,000. The number jumped dramatically by 1910 to 3055 in a city of 150,000. 1 Part of that jump was the result of population shifting from San Francisco to Oakland after the 1906 earthquake.

There was much to recommend California to African Americans, including a tepid, by modern standards, Civil Rights law passed by the state legislature in 1897. 2 However, there were still restrictions and prejudice. In most industries, white laborers were preferred, and despite legislation, blacks were effectively segregated from joining white organizations. 3 African Americans created a parallel culture, starting black fraternal organizations, churches, and social activities.

Black union veterans, however, did belong to integrated Grand Army Posts. The GAR went through internal debates about the segregation of units, particularly in the south, in the 1890s with the prevailing attitude being that all men, regardless of race, who fought in the war were comrades. 4

How this played out for Oakland GAR members is a little unclear. Scholarship suggests that African American members of the GAR were expected to be deferential to their white comrades. 5 But I have not been able to find any primary source documents for the GAR posts in Oakland to look for clues. While their day to day actions may not have been clear, what is clear is that they were welcomed enough to share an eternal resting spot. This is enough of an oddity in practice for those times, that the issue of the Grand Army plot in Mountain Views Cemetery had never been questioned before.

1 Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West 1528-1990 New York: N. W. Norton, 1998, pg. 193.

2 Oakland Tribune, April 6, 1897, pg. 1.

3 Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier, pg 198.

4 Shaffer, Donald R. After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 2004, pg. 150.

5 Ibid., pg. 153.

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