Reading List: Black History in 19th Century Oakland

As a major center of export and manufacturing, Oakland saw an increase in African Americans moving to the area in the 1940s. This movement undoubtedly contributed to the the development of Black neighborhoods in Oakland that we still recognize and honor today. However, what many may not realize is that Blacks have always been in Oakland, from the time it was first established as a city in the newly formed State of California. We invite you to explore this short reading list to learn more about the history of Blacks in Oakland in the 19th century and beyond. We hope this list will inspire you to uncover stories of trailblazing African Americans and honor their legacies and contributions to our society.

1. The Negro Trail-Blazers of California by Delilah Beasley
Delilah Beasley (1867-1934) moved to Oakland at the age of 39. She became the first Black woman in California to regularly contribute to a major metropolitan newspaper– The Oakland Tribune. In 1919 Delilah published her seminal work, The Negro Trail-Blazers of California. Delilah’s collection of newspaper articles, biographies, sketches, poetry, and photographs gives us an in-depth look at the lives of African Americans in early California, and at the many achievements of Blacks in Oakland and throughout the state.

You can read this book for free here!


2. Parallel Communities: African Americans in California’s East Bay, 1850-1963 by Delores Nason McBroome
This important book explores the many instances of discrimination in the East Bay, from early California pioneers in the 1850s to Civil Rights activists of the 1960s. The book considers why Blacks in Oakland and throughout the East Bay have come to build and rely on predominantly Black neighborhoods, and what that means for California society, as a whole.

Available at Oakland Public Library, or order on Amazon


3. Pioneers of Negro Origin in California by Sue Bailey Thurman
Sue Bailey Thurman, an author, historian, and Civil Rights activist heavily researched and documented the lives of many important African Americans in California. Her work includes a few Oakland residents including gold miner and early city benefactor Alvin Coffey, and 19th century equal rights advocate Jeremiah Sanderson.

This book is available on reserve at the Oakland Public Library. You can read more about Alvin Coffey and Jeremiah Sanderson while we await the library’s reopening.


4. The Pullman Porters and West Oakland by Thomas Tramble
The railroad industry dramatically changed the landscape of the United States, and the Bay Area was no exception. As an important railroad center, many moved into the areas of Oakland and San Francisco seeking employment. The Pullman Company exclusively employees Blacks as porters for their overnight and dining cars. These men, facing workplace discrimination and poor work conditions eventually came together to form a union, The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, established here in Oakland.

Read more about the Pullman Porters and the Brotherhood in Thomas Tramble’s book. There are many wonderful images. It is available for free as part of KindleUnlimited’s service, and available from many major bookstores.

East Oakland, circa 1910
Image of the East Oakland neighborhood, circa 1910. East Oakland has always had a strong African American presence, beginning in the 19th century. (Image via California Black Pioneers)
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Additional Links to Explore:
“Black is Beautiful: From Porters to Panthers in West Oakland”

Revealing California’s Hidden African American History (California Historical Society)

“Remembering Delilah Beasley: The Pioneering Black Historian Who Was Almost Erased From History” (NY Times Article)

“Timeline of African American History in the American West” (Developed by BlackPast,org)


Thank you to our friends from the Oakland History Room at Oakland Public Library, and to the African American Museum and Library for their help in providing some ideas for this list. This list was originally created as part of our docent training program. Have any other resources to share? What Black trailblazers have you uncovered today? Please let us know in the comments or send us a message.

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