David Peters is a walking library of knowledge about West Oakland’s Hoover-Foster neighborhood. An accounting consultant and community advocate, Peters grew up in Hoover-Foster and his reverence for the place as an incubator of Black culture is apparent in the numerous stories he’s collected about the people who’ve called the area their home for the past 100 years.
One recent afternoon, The Oaklandside joined Peters for a private walking tour of the neighborhood. It began outside of the California Hotel, an affordable housing project that towers over the I-580 freeway on 36th Street, with Peters talking about the historic landmark’s glory days. Before it was turned into affordable housing, the hotel hosted performances by the likes of Cab Calloway and James Brown. “It was an important cultural and entertainment center, and folks like my mom would come watch shows here,” Peters said.
Our walk also included a stop in front of a modest Spanish-style house on Brockhurst Street. This, Peters explained, was the residence of C.L Dellums, one of the Black forefathers of labor activism in Oakland.
“He arrived off a train from Texas in 1921 and was bound for law school at Cal, ‘cause he figured it was the only law school in the country where a Black man could be admitted,” Peters said. “The $30 per semester fee proved to be too much for him and, maybe fortunately, he became the vice president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters,” a labor union organized by Black railroad employees who had to fight not only their employer, the powerful Pullman Company, but also white-dominated labor unions.
Dellums later joined the fight for civil rights and was elected the first chairman of the Alameda County Branch of the NAACP, leading many of the group’s fair housing and employment campaigns. Dellums’ nephew, Ron Dellums, grew up in Oakland and became an accomplished member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and served as mayor of Oakland from 2007 to 2011.
Peters tells the history of his childhood stomping grounds, the place where his great grandparents migrated to from the South at the turn of the last century, with an irresistible energy. “I heard and experienced those stories walking these streets, playing in these streets, fighting in these streets, and hearing these stories at my great grandparent’s table—stories of what this neighborhood was like before I was born,” Peters said.
Now, Peters and other longtime Hoover-Foster residents are working to uplift and preserve their neighborhood’s legacy by creating the Black Liberation Walking Tour, a self-guided audio tour that transports the listener back in time to West Oakland’s heyday. The tour is expected to officially launch on June 19 with a special event at Sparc-it Place next to the California Hotel on San Pablo Avenue from 12-4 p.m.
The walking tour will feature oral histories recorded and edited by Liam O’Donoghue, host of the popular local history podcast East Bay Yesterday. (O’Donoghue recently released a special episode that documents the history of Hoover-Foster.) The walking tour will launch with audio stories told by about a dozen people, including Crystal Martin, the granddaughter of Willie Fontroy, founder of the iconic Flint’s Barbeque, and Annette Miller, a neighborhood advocate who successfully fought off eviction from Deutsche Bank a few years back.
Walking tour organizers hope it drums up support for a new neighborhood library
Peters also happens to be a board member of Friends of Hoover/Durant Public Library (Hoover-Durant is another name for the neighborhood), a group that’s been organizing to bring an Oakland Public Library branch back to the neighborhood. Its members hope the walking tour will generate enough community support to convince the city to fund the project.
“Those of us who have lived here for a while, we remember having a public library at several locations and remembered how it enhanced the community,” said Alternier Cook, a lifelong Hoover-Foster resident and co-founder/ board chair of Friends of Hoover/Durant Public Library.
At one point, Hoover-Foster had two library branches that served the neighborhood. The Telegrove Branch was located at 34th and Grove Street, now called Martin Luther King Jr. Way, but the city closed it in 1950. The second, the North Oakland Branch Library on San Pablo Avenue, closed in 1981. Today, the closest library is the Golden Gate Branch on San Pablo Avenue and 56th Street, which is about a mile away from the neighborhood—too far for Cook and other residents to easily walk to.
Closure of Hoover-Foster’s neighborhood libraries had racial undertones. In 1936, Lucie Nye, the chief librarian of branches for the Oakland Public Library, wrote to city librarian John B. Kaiser and asked him not to renew the lease on the North Oakland Branch Library. Nye noted that parts of North and West Oakland were “rapidly changing in character,” as more Black people were moving in, and concluded “this is not a reading neighborhood.”
Prior to the pandemic, Friends of Hoover/Durant Public Library curated what they call a “street corner library”—a set of portable bookshelves where residents could pick out books to read and keep. “We had to do something to generate community interest, so we started collecting books and giving them away,” Cook said.
The walking tour is also getting support from Dr. Lynne Horiuchi who is teaching a UC Berkeley course this summer entitled “Race, Redevelopment, and Gentrification: Oakland’s Hoover/Durant Library.” Students will interact with community members to “research and create products such as plans and oral histories that advance their cause,” according to the course description.
Black Oaklanders resisting displacement through stories
Peters’ own family history of migration from the South to Oakland was recently memorialized in a mural, at a location that’s not part of the tour. After a hard day’s work—or when he simply wishes to relax— Peters lounges in his recently renovated backyard patio and stares at the mural, painted by Andre Jones, founder of the Bay Area Mural Program, on the sides of two sheds. “This was a pandemic project,” Peters said about the artwork. “I come out here many evenings and I think about the strength that I got from my family, who endured just unimaginable pain, Jim Crow-ism, theft of property, just to get these two pieces of property in a segregated, redlined Oakland.”
The mural depicts a map of the United States, which morphs into a southern bayou. Little bubbles containing the portraits of Peter’s relatives who migrated here from Texas and Louisiana float from the southern waters, eventually landing in California. In addition, there are images of C.L. Dellums and Delilah Beasley, a famous columnist for the Oakland Tribune who wrote the book Negro Trailblazers of California in 1919.
Many of Hoover-Foster’s Black residents have southern roots and that’s reflected in people’s stories and outlook. Peters described Oakland as “the western-most outpost of the Deep South, up until about 1980,” adding, “I went ‘down home’ every summer like a lot of the kids I grew up with, and we carry a lot of the values of the Black southern migrants.”
But according to Peters, Oakland’s Black culture has been on the decline for decades. The I-580 freeway, which tore through Hoover-Foster and displaced thousands of Black residents when it was constructed in the 1960s is part of the reason. Hoover-Foster also experienced a period of intense violence in the 1980s and 1990s due to crime, the drug trade, and police brutality, gaining its other infamous moniker, “Ghost Town.” Peters is quick to point out how these factors contributed to the neighborhood’s cultural decline, but he believes they should not be its defining marker: “I always say, ‘Don’t call it Ghost Town anymore,’” Peters said, “because we don’t have [a lot of] those ills going on anymore.”
But the neighborhood’s relatively better fortunes in recent years are another reason to worry. As higher-income residents move in, home prices and rents rise, and some longtime residents are priced out and displaced.
The Black Liberation Walking Tour organizers hope that by documenting the stories of people who have spent generations in the neighborhood, they can help the community resist a type of gentrification that’s been all too common in Oakland. Newcomers arrive and like the sense of history an area has, but don’t invest in preserving it—or respecting the people whose families have been there for generations.
“It’s specifically oriented towards anti-displacement because we’ve seen that community revitalization can kind of go hand-in-hand with gentrification,” said O’Donoghue about the walking tour’s approach to storytelling. “David’s idea is to root people [with these stories] into the neighborhood in a way that they won’t be as vulnerable to displacement.”
“Everybody [in this neighborhood] has a part to play, no matter if you’ve been here since the early 1900s like Ms. Cook’s family or moved here yesterday,” Peters said. “We have got to find a way to incorporate all these folks who have been here, are here, and will be here in the future.”
Correction: A previous version of this article listed C.L Dellum’s original residence as being located at 833 Brockhurst Street. Dellums in fact lived at 829 Brockhurt Street. The image has been changed to reflect this correction.