By Jared D. Childress | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Ella Hall-Kelley can chronicle decades of history over a lunch date. Between bites of her sandwich, the baby boomer tells of the rise, fall and rebirth of Oak Park.
“This whole block was like a mall,” Hall-Kelley said of 35th Street and Broadway. “My mother was the first to open up a thrift store back in the day, on the other side of the street near the post office.”
Hall-Kelley effortlessly described 1960s Oak Park, a vibrant commercial township at the time. She speaks with ease about the construction of the freeways, white flight and the crack epidemic, which had a chokehold on her generation in the late 20th century.
Despite the ever-changing tides of her neighborhood, she still calls Oak Park home, holding the deed to the house her father purchased in the early 1950s.
The home was hard-won, Hall-Kelley said. Her father, a World War II veteran named Victor, was denied a loan because he was Black. So a white female coworker did the hardworking man a favor: she took out the mortgage, allowing him to make payments to her.
“I wanted to maintain that house because it meant a lot to me,” Hall-Kelley said. “What’s interesting is that my daughter stays there now – and my grandbaby is staying in the room I grew up in.”
It was common for Blacks to experience housing discrimination in mid-20th century Sacramento, according to the city’s African American Historic Context Statement, a recently published report detailing local Black history.
While restrictive racial covenants were not enforceable by law, “real estate agents steered Blacks away from certain areas, and homeowner associations and neighbors pressured homeowners on who to sell to or intimidated African American and Black residents,” according to the report.
It then references the case of NAACP leader Virna Canson, who in the early 1950s was refused a home by her real estate agent, who cited de facto racial restrictions. “Such efforts succeeded in making the process of buying a home a nightmare for African Americans,” the report reads.
The historic context statement is part of Sacramento’s African American Experience History Project, a city initiative to codify the pivotal aspects of local Black history from 1839-1980 and recognize historic properties important to Black Sacramentans.
A History ‘Tool Kit’
The project is both a 122-page written historic context statement and 41 recorded oral interviews. The oral histories will be available through the Center for Sacramento History and the Sojourner Truth Museum.
It was funded by a $50,000 grant received in 2021 from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. While the grant money is exhausted, the city’s historic preservation program says the project is a “tool kit,” in which the historic context statement can be used to identify new landmarks and families can continue to submit their oral histories by using the still open submission portal on the Historic Preservation website.
The statement was prepared by the preservation firm Page and Turnbull and Dr. Damany M. Fisher, a native Black Sacramentan and historian. The report isn’t a comprehensive history but rather “thematic,” exploring some of the most consequential aspects of local Black history, including migration, economic development, spirituality and civil rights. The report may also support reparations efforts, school curriculum and future grant proposals.
The report identified 12 historical resources eligible for listing in the Sacramento Register, including the Women’s Civic Improvement Club, Morgan Jones Funeral Home and the former office of the Sacramento Outlook, a local Black newspaper that predated The OBSERVER.
Sites without historic buildings aren’t often listed due to compromised historical integrity. However, one such location is identified: the former site of the Black Panther headquarters in Oak Park.
Sean DeCourcy, the city’s preservation director, said the city demolished the building on the heels of the late 1960s uprisings.
“Its role was so significant that we are recommending the site is eligible for listing in our local register,” DeCourcy said in a statement. “This is kind of unorthodox, but we think it’s justified given the site’s historical significance.”
The project relied heavily on community engagement, with more than a dozen public meetings held. Outreach efforts were led by Shiloh Baptist Church, Williams Memorial Church, the Roberts Family Development Center, the Law Office of Dale McKinney, the Black Genealogical Society and Hall-Kelley.
Hall-Kelley volunteered her time, engaging the target audience of senior citizens. She was recruited for the project by her daughter Lynette Hall, the city’s community engagement manager.
Hall said their largest meeting drew more than 70 and included one community member who was about 100 years old.
“There aren’t many city projects with that level of community engagement,” Hall said. “Some people came to every meeting and were engaged throughout the process.”
How It Works In L.A.
There is a precedent for the impact of this kind of citywide historical work, with Los Angeles publishing its own African American Historic Context Statement in 2018.
Los Angeles’ 231-page report took about a year to develop, funded in 2017 by a $40,000 certified local government grant from the state. It builds off research from SurveyLA, a citywide historic resources survey done in partnership with the Getty Conservation Institute from 2010-2017.
After the 2018 publication, Los Angeles in 2021 again worked with the Getty Conservation Institute to launch the African American Historic Places project, a program which this year has increased the number of historical Black landmarks from 3% to 4%, according to Rita Cofield of the Getty Conservation Institute.
Cofield said the current project will help expand Los Angeles’ existing African American Historic Context Statement.
“Some people don’t think the places in their neighborhood are significant enough to be historical monuments,” Cofield said. “Communities have stories to tell, and those stories are embedded in the sites that are right next door to them.”
The Los Angeles report did not include recorded oral histories, citing time and budget limitations. They also did not work with local colleges or universities, or rely heavily on volunteers.
Sacramento optimized its budget by engaging community stakeholders, said Carson Anderson, a retired Sacramento historic preservation director who consulted on the project.
“We did like a quarter of a million dollars worth of work for a $50,000 grant,” Anderson said. “There was a lot of sweat equity from staff and volunteers.”
Some community members did receive compensation for their outreach efforts. Stipends were dispersed via additional grant money totaling $10,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Sacramento.
Community’s Contribution Is Critical
Anderson said one stipend recipient was Dante Fontenot, a member of Shiloh Baptist Church who “spent dozens of hours pulling together oral history tapings.”
Shiloh, founded in 1856, is one of the oldest Black congregations on the west coast, second only to the local St. Andrews African Methodist Episcopalian Church.
Shiloh gathered about a fourth of the total oral histories. Anthony Sadler, Shiloh’s pastor, shared his story and so did his 88-year-old mother. He described the process as “relationship building.”
“[The process] was nostalgic for our most seasoned members,” Rev. Sadler said. “They were able to reflect on what they’d experienced and lived throughout the years.”
Shiloh primarily interviewed longtime members who’d attended the church back when it was at Sixth and P streets. That church building was demolished during the 1950s redevelopment of the West End, an area bordered by the Sacramento River, the Capitol, Southern Pacific Railroad depot and Broadway.
The revamping displaced many Blacks from the multiethnic district.
“For years, the West End had been excoriated by city officials as a slum due to the large amount of substandard housing, old commercial buildings, and ethnically diverse population,” the report reads. “[The] utter and racist disregard for displaced residents and haphazard relocation process… had profound negative consequences.”
The report further explains that, instead of integrating the displaced into the community, they dispersed them to Glen Elder, Del Paso Heights and Oak Park, effectively designing the ghettos of the late 20th century.
There is more to be revealed about Sacramento’s Black community. In addition to oral history submissions, artifacts, photographs and records can be donated to the Center for Sacramento History and other public archives.
In the absence of a budget, Anderson, the consultant, said intergenerational buy-in can keep the project alive, as previously reported by The OBSERVER.
“We can get young people involved by encouraging them to sit down and interview their grandparents,” Anderson said. “They can record them telling their oral history on a cell phone.”
Hall, the community engagement manager, said this is a critical time to record oral histories of Black elders, citing the changing demographics of historically Black neighborhoods.
“This project allows us to center the voices that have been most vulnerable,” Hall said. “The timing is now to document these stories because there’s going to be more changes in the community.”