Saturday, May 18, 2024

Predominately Black and Latino City Destroyed Decades Ago, Locals Say City Apology was Not Warranted

Russell City, a predominantly Black and Latino community, was a crucial space for its residents 60 years ago in the struggle to avoid racist housing policies throughout the San Francisco Bay area.

But as Alameda County developed, Russell City became the target of a practice that allows federal and local governments to acquire private property for economic development. The city was bulldozed and sold to developers in 1967, and residents had to relocate. Decades later, the city of Hayward issued an apology, and people are studying whether the land was seized improperly.

Renewed efforts to rectify the past are being pursued on federal, state, and local levels nationwide. For example, in 2021, Bruce’s Beach was returned back to the Bruce family after the land was illegally seized 100 years earlier by the city of Manhattan Beach under pressure from the Ku Klux Klan.

“It’s not what happened here. They were just poor people,” said Donna Whitmore. “If this was a race thing, I would be the first one to say these people were ripped off.”

Whitmore, a Hayward resident, is part of a countermovement that believes Russell City has been wronged by local politicians, national media, and reparations advocates to serve as an example of unjust government actions against African Americans.

In November 2021, the Hayward City Council formally apologized to local communities of color for the city’s role in destroying Russell City. The resolution set up a probe to “determine appropriate restitution” for former residents and their descendants called the Russell City Reparative Justice Project.

“There was generational wealth that was stolen from us,” said Marian Johnson, who is part of the project’s steering committee and was a toddler when her family’s land was seized.

“Everybody was warm, loving, kind, sharing, like a family, like a village,” said Johnson’s mother, Jessie Mae Johnson, 82. At the time, Russell City had no running water or sewage. Still, he was filled with homes, businesses, churches, a school, and a lively music scene, which is still commemorated with the Hayward Russell City Blues Festival.

Jessie Mae Johnson was in her 20s when Hayward County Redevelopment Agency began seizing businesses and homes, including their own, in 1964. For the Johnsons, the city’s apology was a sign of hope. To others, it was an unwarranted move.

The resolution apologizes directly to “Black, Indigenous, Californio, Mexicano, Latino, Latinx and other community members of color,” but Hayward resident TJ Ferriera said, “There was no mention of white people or Asians.”

In 2020, Ferriera formed Hayward Concerned Citizens, which has grown to more than 660 members. The group’s goal is to hold the city accountable for how it spends taxpayer money. Ferriera and several other members, including Whitmore, have set their sights on calls for Russell City reparations.

NBC News