Tree-Lined but Scarred Coming to terms with Alameda’s past

Part one of two
Tanan Kimberly Buyannemekh

In third grade at Donald D. Lum Elementary, I learned the lesson that many Alameda residents learn at a similar age: that the name of our town stems from the Spanish for “tree-lined streets.” It was subsequently impossible for me to walk down a street and not see the beautiful trees and Victorian houses of our town. My love for Alameda led to a great deal of pride in our home — but also, in time, to the desire to think carefully about our legacy and the racial disparities marring our community.

Alameda is an island city. In comparison to our neighbors in San Francisco and Oakland, we truly have a small-town atmosphere, friendly to pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers who stay well within the 25 mile-per-hour speed limit. I have lived on both the East and West ends of the island, a term that Alameda residents use to divide the city in half. I often noticed the physical divisions in our town, but it took my leaving for college before I saw some of the socioeconomic and racial divides that had previously escaped me.

Yet it was impossible to ignore them after the racist incidents that took place in Alameda this summer amid the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. Our community was shaken by the worrying pace of these incidents. The first came on May 23, 2020, when Alameda police officers arrested Mali Watkins for exercising on the street one morning.

Less than a month later, an unidentified white woman verbally attacked Charles Marshall, yelling at him to “go back to Oakland,” and stating that “there are more white people in Alameda.” A few days later, on June 29, someone sprayed racist messages, keyed,and gouged the tires out of the car that belonged to Frederick Alexander and his family.

I spoke with then-Vice Mayor John Knox White about how our local government responded to these incidents, and he was dissatisfied, particularly with the City Council’s response. Knox White had attempted to speak with the police in an effort to think through their response, but to no avail: they refused to speak with him.

“I wasn’t anti-police,” Knox White recalled, still confused by the response. “I was just anti-racist.” The political tension on the City Council, and between elected officials and law enforcement bodes poorly for addressing racial inequities on our island.

How do we approach and reconcile with the ongoing racism in our town? It’s vital to understand our own history before coming to any kind of racial reconciliation. In spite of its proximity to some of the most diverse, politically active, and culturally rich cities in America, Alameda’s interwoven relationship with the former Naval Air Station (NAS) reinforces systemic racism here.

Some of us know part of this history already. The construction of NAS brought in a large population of African Americans, but NAS allowed discriminatory institutions to be set in place such as the Alameda Housing Authority, which — to this day — implement the displacement of our black neighbors from the city. If Alameda residents want to end the attacks of our neighbors in our community, we must look back at our island’s past.

Some have already done this, looking at our town’s history of racial segregation. Rasheed Shabazz is a longtime resident of the city and is a master’s candidate for City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. I first met Shabazz in 2018 and invited him to share his local political activism at a community event my friend and I hosted at Alameda High School.

In Shabazz’ undergraduate thesis “Alameda is Our Home: African Americans and the Struggle for Housing in Alameda,” he shows how World War II brought the first large influx of African Americans here, where many worked and settled around NAS on the West End. The African American population grew from 249 residents in 1940 to 4,802 by the end of that war.

This was the largest recorded increase of African American residents on the island. Shabazz also unpacks the Alameda Housing Authority’s (AHA) discriminatory policies and Measure A, which, since 1973, has limited new construction to single-family homes. Later gentrification projects eliminated affordable housing and displaced African Americans and other minority residents.

Part two will address efforts to come to terms with Alameda’s racist legacy.

Alameda High School alumna Tanan Kimberly Buyannemekh attends Boston University as a Posse Foundation scholar.

Tanan Kimberly Buyannemekh