When white supremacists and neo-Nazis rioted in Charlottesville, Va., last month over the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, the deadly violence sparked a renewed effort to rid the South of monuments to racism. In the weeks following, both public officials and protesters took down more monuments to slavery in several southern cities. Last week, Dallas city workers removed a Lee statue from a public park.
Nationwide, a majority of Americans seem to be embracing the idea that our public squares and parks are not proper places for hurtful reminders of our horrible past. But monuments to bigotry and oppression are not just relegated to the South. In the liberal Bay Area, we like to think of ourselves as a post-racist, progressive enclave. But the truth is, we have a recent history of virulent racism, and we still have some very public reminders of it.
For example, did you know that less than a century ago, Oakland and other parts of the East Bay were home to powerful and popular branches of the Ku Klux Klan? “By the early 1920s, 1920-’21, they were absolutely entrenched,” said Oakland historian Dennis Evanosky. “There were KKK outfits throughout the area.”
According to historian Chris Rhomberg’s 2004 book No There There: Race, Class, and Political Community in Oakland, a local KKK chapter — Oakland Klan No. 9 — established a headquarters in downtown during the 1920s, and it had at least 2,000 followers. On July 4, 1924, 3,000 of these Klansmen marched through downtown Richmond. And in 1925, about 8,500 of them donned white robes and hoods and held a massive cross-burning ceremony inside the Oakland Auditorium (now known as the Kaiser Convention Center) next to Lake Merritt.
In the 1920s, before the influx of African-American workers during World War II, Oakland was overwhelmingly white (in 1930, it was still just 2.6 percent Black). And Klan members worked throughout the city and county governments; some were even elected to public office. William Parker, whose Klan title was Kleopard (lecturer), won a seat on the Oakland City Council in 1927. And Burton Becker, whose Klan title was Kailiff (vice president), served as the police chief of the city of Piedmont before being elected sheriff of Alameda County in 1926.
“You would never think of Oakland and the Bay Area as a bastion of the KKK,” said Liam O’Donoghue, who explores the history of the East Bay through his podcast, East Bay Yesterday. “It was.”
Of course, much of California’s history was marked by bigotry, slavery, and genocide. First Spain and then later the United States enslaved and destroyed Native American populations throughout the 1700s and 1800s. Extreme racism against and oppression of Asian Americans, particularly Chinese Americans, were rampant, even in the East Bay, until recently. And anti-Mexican and anti-Latino bigotry is as old, or older, than the state itself.
California may have fewer monuments to racism than southern states, but we’re surrounded by public reminders of it. In the East Bay, the city of Fremont is named after John C. Frémont, who led massacres of peaceful Native villages before becoming one of California’s first U.S. senators. And Bishop George Berkeley, namesake of the both city of Berkeley and UC Berkeley, was a slave owner who believed strongly in white supremacy.
With that kind of legacy, we decided at the Express to assemble a package of stories exploring aspects of our racist past. UC Berkeley, at the behest of student activists, has embarked on an examination of whether it should rename some buildings on campus that were named for former Cal officials who have racist histories. Some California school districts have recently replaced Lee’s name on elementary schools. And after Charlottesville, the city of San Diego removed a plaque of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from a public plaza and the state Senate voted to take Davis’ name off of parts of U.S. Highway 99.
But not everyone is happy about the movement to expunge disgraceful aspects of our history. In a recent newspaper op-ed, John Briscoe, a fellow at the UC Berkeley School of Law, wrote, “Are we going to dig up dirt on everyone?”
Similarly, other people have argued that the effort to erase reminders of the past can ignore the considerable accomplishments of historic figures. Should Oakland, for example, rename Jack London Square, because Jack London was a diehard racist? Should we erect monuments to people at all, considering that we all have flaws?
Perhaps there are no easy answers, but we think it’s a conversation we should be having.