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In the weeks since Elon Musk closed his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter, many users of the social media giant have watched the chaos unfold and wondered what would happen to the historical and cultural references archived on the platform if it were ever to disappear.
Similar concerns became reality for some Facebook users back in September when the founder of History Alliance, an umbrella group hosting dozens of local history groups on the platform, pulled the plug on a number of them over a spat with Facebook about its content moderation policy. The decision impacted hundreds of thousands of local history buffs, including the 61,000 members of the popular “Oakland History” Facebook group.
The Oakland History group was eventually brought back to the relief of its users. But the group’s temporary shuttering, and the current uncertainty swirling around Twitter’s future, offer reminders of just how insecure and fleeting digital historical archives can be.
Luckily, Facebook and Twitter are far from the only platforms where people can learn about local history or share their own personal histories about Oakland. Other online groups like Oakland Latinos United, podcasts like East Bay Yesterday and Tales of the Town, organizations like the Oakland Heritage Alliance, the Oakland Public Library’s Oakland History Center, and local historical sites like the Pardee Museum, Peralta Hacienda, Camron-Stanford House, and Cohen-Bray House are playing their part in preserving the stories of an Oakland that once was.
And some local historians are realizing that books and social media platforms aren’t the only ways to keep local histories intact for future generations. We spoke with two locals who are finding ways to rely less on billionaire-owned platforms that can be shut down at any moment, and creating their own digital spaces to preserve Oakland’s history.
Creating their own Oakland history platforms
Gene Anderson, the main contributor to Oakland Wiki and author of Legendary Locals of Oakland, is a fourth-generation Oakland resident. His great-grandparents lived in West Oakland, and his great-grandfather worked for the South Pacific Company on a ferry boat, the only way to cross the Bay before there was a bridge. Anderson was born in Long Beach but raised in Michigan, where his mother was from, and the family would visit the Bay Area every spring. Anderson eventually moved to the Bay to attend college and ended up staying.
Anderson’s interest in Oakland history took off in 2009, at a time when the city was in the national spotlight following the killing of Oscar Grant. That’s when he started a blog called “Our Oakland.” Anderson would ride his bike around town and take pictures of old signs he’d come across during his rides. The more photos he posted, the more readers of the blog would comment with personal stories connecting them to those old and forgotten signs.
It was through those comments and the discovery of local stories that Anderson realized how much of Oakland’s history was little known outside of small circles of residents. “I discovered that there’s a lot of people that are known—not necessarily well known, but known in Oakland—but they’re not famous enough for Wikipedia,” he said.
Anderson thought of Hugh Dimond, a European settler who migrated to the states during the gold rush and bought the land where the Dimond District now stands.
“How come there’s no Wikipedia (entry) about Hugh Dimond?” Anderson thought. “There should be a wiki about Oakland.” He began playing around with wiki software to figure out how to start one. Not long after, he was contacted by members of LocalWiki, a nonprofit organization that runs local wiki sites. The local Wiki people who started the Oakland Wiki used one of the maps that Anderson had on his blog site back in 2013.
Once Anderson was looped into the effort, it wasn’t long before he was hooked. “I kept getting more and more and more into it, and now it takes a lot of my idle time,” said Anderson.
Although Anderson is now the main contributor to the Oakland Wiki page, other locals have contributed content through the years. One of them is Dorothy Londagin.
Londagin was born and raised in Montclair and, like Anderson, is fascinated by Oakland’s history. In addition to contributing to Oakland Wiki, she operates a website and Facebook group called A Bit of History.
“My father was into history, and my mom read a lot. We had books all over the house,” she said. “One day, when talking to me, my dad told me about the train that ran through Montclair, and it blew my mind.”
The railroad line that used to run through Montclair began operating in 1913 as the Oakland, Antioch, and Eastern Railway and became part of the Sacramento Northern Railway in 1928. Following the Great Depression and with the increasing popularity of automobiles, it carried its last passenger train in 1941 and ceased freight operations in 1957.
Londagin was familiar with the Oakland History Facebook group, had contributed to Oakland Wiki, and attended local history walks. But she craved an outlet of her own where she could publish her findings about Montclair. So, in 2017, she started her own website.
“My brain was so full of things that I wanted to share that I thought people would be interested in,” she said. “I put out one post, and people loved it.”
Londagin now encourages others with multiple generations of family history in Oakland to also take steps to archive and safeguard their stories. “Write those stories down,” she said. “Because, otherwise, we are going to lose a lot of our history.”
In the social media age, ‘you’ve really got to have a backup’
Like Londagin, Anderson encourages families to document their histories which can add to the story of how Oakland came to be. However, Anderson is also mindful that digital tools aren’t necessarily the best way to keep historical records safe.
“Regardless of what technology you’re using to preserve history, you’ve really got to have a backup,” he said. “If you’re talking about actual physical, historical photos, like negatives or antique prints—one fire, and those can be gone. If it’s digital, it seems all the more ephemeral: One click, and it’s gone.”
Anderson is prepared if the wiki sites ever cease to exist. “I don’t update it that often,” he said. “But I do have the backup.”
Although Anderson is skeptical of relying solely on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, he did start an Oakland Wiki Instagram profile, which is allowing him to reach a younger audience. One recent post featured Delilah Beasley, an early 20th-century newspaper columnist for the Oakland Tribune, historian, author, and “the first Black woman to be regularly published in a major US newspaper,” according to the post.
“I want to have another venue to share some of this information from the Oakland Wiki,” said Anderson. “What I’m sharing on Instagram, none of that is new content. I’m paraphrasing what’s on the wiki, and, occasionally, it’s inspired me to go a little deeper.”
Providing access to Oakland’s history in various forms and on different platforms allows more residents to form their own conclusions about the people and policies that have shaped the city. And perhaps, it can inspire them to record their own family histories.
By storing their archives on privately owned domains and independent servers, Londagin and Anderson hope to prevent the history they collect from being lost should the giant social media platforms one day disappear or block access to spaces that local history lovers have come to rely on.
“There was this article by former Oakland History Center librarian Dorothy Lazard,” Anderson said. “Where she said that ‘history keepers hold the future in their hands. How a family or a community moves into the future has much to do with knowing and understanding one’s history.’ It’s on all of us to preserve history.”
More ways to learn about Oakland’s history
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