Like many African American families, Mary “Peace” Head and her brood migrated to the Bay Area from Louisiana just before WWII in search of work and opportunity.
She would go on to work as a welder in the Richmond shipyards during the war. Head, who is now 83, later became one of the early residents of Parchester Village. She’s been a leader in this small housing development since the 1950s, playing an instrumental role in securing funding for a neighborhood community center and acting as a quasi-guardian to generations of local kids.
She is called “Mary Peace” by neighbors and others throughout the city, a name she earned by flashing her customary “peace sign” with her right index and middle fingers.
In 1950, Parchester Village, named for wealthy developer Fred Parr, opened on land beyond the border of northwest Richmond.
It was billed as a community for “All Americans,” but the idea was ahead of its time.
Few whites wanted to live in integrated communities, and Parchester Village quickly was a de facto African American enclave. Houses sold for $35 down and $95 a month, Head remembered.
“We thought it was so beautiful, it was like a dream,” said Head, who moved with her family from Berkeley to the new housing tract. “And I remember I couldn’t believe it was for us after we had been pushed off from so many other places. It was there for our people, for black people.”
Head stressed that the segregation wasn’t on a civic code, but it was real.
“I suppose white folks could have lived here if they wanted to, but neighborhoods weren’t integrated then like they are now,” Head said.
Parchester Village was annexed in Richmond in 1962.
Today, Parchester remains thought of as an African American community, but new immigrants, especially Latinos, now comprise about a third neighborhood’s population. Many original owners rent their properties to other families.
Head remains one of Richmond’s most beloved and revered figures, said Corky Booze, a candidate for City Council and longtime community advocate for Parchester Village. Booze said Parchester Village – a development initially erected outside the city to serve the housing demand of thousands of new black residents drawn by wartime industry – embodies the African American experience in Richmond.
“Mary has been a leader in that community, a community that was underserved and forgotten from its beginning, for decades,” Booze said. “She’s a local icon.”
Head still takes frequent walks in the small neighborhood, which is circled by railroad tracks and sits against the bay just north of Chevron Corp. She still walks well, and wears colorful bandanas and a consistent smile.
She often stops and chats with men and women who were once children playing in front of her house.
“I’ll never leave my Parchester Village,” she said.