The North Richmond of today emerges from a history marked by bad reputation, bad luck and, often, bad intentions. This community began as a rural, sparsely populated agricultural outpost and rapidly morphed into a bustling shantytown for African American workers during and after World War II.
Around the turn of the 20th century, North Richmond was a tiny enclave of flimsy dwellings near the shore of San Pablo Bay. Italians, Mexicans, Asians and other immigrants who had come to the West Coast made up most of the population, along with a handful of African Americans.
Local historian Donald Bastin’s book, “Richmond,” features one photo from North Richmond, a black and white shot from 1930, showing a group of Italian and African American men, women and children. The people stand on weed-swarmed earth, and their position is bracketed with slanted telephone poles. In the caption, Bastin notes that nearly all of Richmond’s pre-war WWII African American population – less than 1 percent of the total – resided in North Richmond.
According to a 2008 Contra Costa County study, early North Richmond “remained relatively undeveloped due to its isolation from Richmond’s industrial uses, which were located farther to the south and west.” The study goes on to say that the area was blessed with rich soil, ideal for agriculture, but was prone to flooding because of its low elevation and proximity to creeks.
For most of its history, the area was rural and multi-ethnic. Particularly before the war, when the city was small and transportation even more spotty, North Richmond felt removed from Richmond, linked principally by a slender strip of road called 7th Street.
But things changed drastically with the onset of WWII, which profoundly transformed Richmond and many other American hubs of war industry. The new jobs brought droves of poor workers from around the nation to the Bay Area. The changes were just as profound, but far less noticed or recorded, in North Richmond, which had already established a civic, cultural and political identity all its own.
In her 2001 book on the history of Richmond, “To Place Our Deeds,” Sacramento State history professor Shirley Moore describes prewar North Richmond this way:
“By 1940, therefore, most of Richmond’s African American population was concentrated in and around North Richmond, one third of which lay inside city limits, with the rest located in the unincorporated area. It was in close proximity to a garbage dump, it had few street lights, and its unpaved streets became muddy quagmires in the rain. North Richmond lacked adequate fire and police protection, depending on a single sheriff’s car to patrol the entire county section. Before the war North Richmond had been a rural, ethnically diverse area where blacks lived alongside Portuguese, Italian, and Mexican Americans. However, by 1943 North Richmond had become virtually all black. By 1947 nearly 14,000 African Americans lived in the city, one fifth residing in North Richmond.”
Not only did the racial composition of North Richmond change dramatically, but the Richmond area as a whole became more dense and more industrial thanks to the war effort and the enormous scale of production at Kaiser Shipyards.
Lucretia Edwards was a longtime local activist whose work and writings have had a profound influence on Richmond and North Richmond. City Councilman Tom Butt wrote in an obituary after her death in 2005 that Edwards “worked hard in the race riot years of the 1960s fighting racism in Richmond, where she was one of several founders of the North Richmond Neighborhood House.”
Edwards described the cauldron of racial and cultural ingredients that brewed in North Richmond during the tremendously destabilizing period that followed:
“In 1940, prior to World War II, Richmond was a tidy industrial town of 23,000, centered on the western terminus of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, the deep-water port, and the Standard Oil Company, which would later become Chevron Corp. The African American population of the city at this time was 270 persons, almost all of whom lived in a four-block area in the northern part of the city. Then World War II brought the Kaiser Shipyards to Richmond, and in 1942, the population jumped to 50,000, in 1943 to 93,776, and by 1946 it hit its peak of 110,000. To house these workers 17,000 units of Lenham Act War Housing units were built on the empty lots on the south side of town. The shipyard workers were recruited throughout the United States, and a great number came from the southeastern part of the country. A high proportion was African American, primarily from the rural areas of Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi. From the same states and at the same time, Caucasian workers were recruited, and southern blacks and southern whites carried their historical and cultural frustrations and hostilities with them.”
Hectic, tumultuous, haphazard, North Richmond grew from rural outpost with an eclectic mix of ethnic farmers and fisherman to a full-blown, bustling blue-collar community of hard-working African Americans. The change came in the span of less than 5 years.
Life in the new North Richmond of the war years was hard and bustling. “They had very little control over conditions,” Moore said. “The lighting, the roads, the storm drainage, etc. during the war, when it became so overcrowded.”
Long-term plans for North Richmond were non-existent. While other areas of Richmond were in various stages of planning and developers were poised to undertake massive projects for the new populations, North Richmond was expected to be a temporary domicile for a population of people that was simply unwanted.
“The city officials were planning to destroy the housing out there in the name of urban redevelopment, to tear it down after war to push black people out of city and out of county,” Moore said.
The influx of African American’s into North Richmond came with tensions, in part because they came by necessity, not by choice. Services and conditions were poor, and other ethnic groups fled, leading to de facto racial segregation.
“It would be a mistake to think of African Americans coming into North Richmond thinking of a community of their own, or establishing a community of their own,” Moore said during an interview earlier this year. “As blacks came into North Richmond, other groups moved out, and the places where blacks could live became very defined.”
“North Richmond was where blacks were shunted to, put in, during the war,” Moore said. “They were directed to North Richmond, they essentially had no choice, that’s the context in which you have to examine this.”
The pre-war North Richmond community, which was a mix of groups but included few African Americans, didn’t necessarily welcome the new immigrants.
“A small population of African Americans lived in North Richmond before the war and liked it for a number of reasons,” Moore said. “It was more rural, people built their own houses. There was a community there. But the residents of North Richmond didn’t want to isolate themselves to the rest of the community, nor were they newcomers. Racial segregation was such that that was what tended to happen.”
What was happening in Richmond and the small plot of land called North Richmond was not unlike what was occurring in other communities in America during the war years, Moore said. “You saw the hardening of racial lines in many other cities” as labor demands and war mobilization drew new people, often African Americans, into communities.
The drastic increase in population citywide without an increase in police also fed a growing crime problem. Moore writes that a key North Richmond leader called for more police protection in the neighborhood from the city as early as 1943.
“James Chase, a North Richmond resident and member of the Negro Protective League, went before the city council to plead for more police services to the neighborhood beyond the one patrol car assigned to the area,” Moore wrote. Chase took his concerns to the city of Richmond, which had offices just a mile or so away. County government, which is responsible for public safety in most of the unincorporated neighborhood, was and is based in Martinez, about 20 miles away.
But despite his efforts, Moore wrote, ”His attempts were unsuccessful.” It was a plea that would foreshadow a tension that exists in the community to this day, not only in terms of a community that has felt deprived of adequate resources, but has special challenges in lobbying its local leaders.
Despite these obstacles, new Richmond and North Richmond residents lobbied for civil rights and better living conditions for the African American population.
“During the war, the ‘Double V’ concept grew and empowered African Americans to really take a stand and attempt to change conditions,” Moore said. The “Double V” concept implied victory over totalitarian axis powers abroad and victory over unequal treatment and discrimination on the homefront.
The proved to be a turning point in a then-nascent Civil Rights movement.
Faith and the religious institutions brought from the Deep South also helped to serve as a base of stability and common ground to thousands of people enduring rapid change.
“North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church and McGlothen Temple provided religious continuity and sense of community to the transplants from the south. During late 1940s and 50s McGlothen’s congregation increased dramatically, to over 300,” Moore wrote.
Both churches remain in the community today, although with smaller congregations – many members commuting into North Richmond on Sundays, from the places to which they’ve moved.
North Richmond was not leveled and returned to some idealized rural harmony after the war, as some had hoped, nor would improvements come quickly. The city was in a full-scale expansion of housing stock and amenities after the war, but the poor, virtually all-black and off-the-beaten-path North Richmond would not be a high priority.
“After the war much of the old housing was declared dilapidated and inhospitable,” Moore said. “They wanted to tear it down and replace it with other uses, including industrial. That kind of attitude has prevailed for a very long time.”
If the area had any hope of an orderly transition to a peacetime economy, it was clear that North Richmond needed major investment.
At the same time, class divisions were widening in the city’s new black community, as some families did better economically and held onto postwar industrial jobs longer than others.
Moore’s “Notes on the Black Community in Richmond, California 1910-1987,” is a 103-page monograph that the city commissioned Moore to produce in 1989. While the work is devoted to the black community in Richmond, North Richmond is discussed at length in several passages. Among the main points Moore argues is that unrest developed between black, Latino and white residents in Richmond during and after the war, and that it emanated from inequitable conditions in housing, schooling and other public services.
Some of that restiveness was linked to conditions in North Richmond. One of the key moments in North Richmond history was a two-week period of riots that roiled the city in the spring of 1966, which were sparked by fights between black, Mexican American and white students at Richmond High School.
The outbreak “led parents and students to meet at North Richmond Neighborhood House to prepare a list of grievances to be presented to school officials,” according to Moore.
Many observers have noted that the unrest and agitation among African Americans in urban areas may have accelerated the “white flight” from Richmond and North Richmond that had already begun during the postwar era.
Moore writes that the riots were “a significant factor in advancing black political, economic and social programs.” Community groups coalesced behind a new raison d’etre, and institutions like Neighborhood House gained support. More broadly, and thanks in large part to federal legislation of the mid-1960s, African Americans began to ascend to influential positions in local government.
The Neighborhood House, which still operates in North Richmond, has been one of the few enduring gathering points in the community. Edwards,the longtime local activist whose work and writings have had a profound influence on Richmond and North Richmond, was one of the key local organizers behind the founding of the house.
Edwards herself wrote, in an essay that is still used today by the Richmond Progressive Alliance, that “… in 1956, the North Richmond Neighborhood Council was formed, the first neighborhood council in the San Francisco Bay Area.”
Postwar activism may also have been influenced by the construction of nearby Parchester Village, a development built just to the northeast of North Richmond and envisioned as an integrated suburban community, itself a novel idea when it was opened in 1950.
With the help of white developers eager to provide housing for an emerging black middle class — and beyond the outskirts of city limits — Parchester Village drew many of its residents from North Richmond. A small portion of the area’s new black population had moved up in class with purchases in the new community. Many of its first-time homeowners were veterans of the good jobs in Richmond’s shipyards who had formerly lived in the less desirable confines of North Richmond.
“Parchester Village was a community of people who understood their political power and what it would take to begin to fight for equality and equity,” Moore said. “Some of the same happened in North Richmond, but to a lesser extent because the most influential and energetic people tended to leave for places like Parchester.”
While cosmetically similar to North Richmond — both small communities with tracts of bungalows on the northernmost outskirts of town, noticeably demarcated from the rest of the city, both solidly African American — the neighborhoods represent different origins, aims and perceptions. North Richmond grew in an unplanned, capricious manner, sprouting from tiny pre-war seedlings into a bustling neighborhood that overwhelmed its crude infrastructure. There was never much regard for strategy or future considerations.
Parchester Village, on the other hand, was a postwar housing development set down with a clear vision. “Parchester was a deliberately planned community, at first planned as an integrated community,” Moore said. “The people who moved in were mostly African American, and they voted and were engaged more than many other parts of the city right from the beginning. The was a community of politically astute people, many of them solidly middle class and very active in their community.”
But the idea proved ahead of its time, and instead of an integrated community, Parchester Village emerged a solidly black – and increasingly black middle class – community.
Meanwhile, North Richmond remained mired in many of the same challenges that confront its residents today.