Berkeley community celebrates Black History Month

Timothy Dawson/Staff

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For Berkeley Juneteenth Association board member Delores Cooper, the city’s historical reputation as a liberal haven comes with a footnote.

“Berkeley has always been a progressive city,” she said. “But the black community has been separate for years and years.”

Cooper helped organize a city event held Sunday celebrating Black History Month. Just a few decades ago, Martin Luther King Jr. Way — a street close to the location of the event — served as what Cooper considered to be Berkeley’s own Mason-Dixon Line during the heyday of mid-20th century discriminatory housing practices.

More than 250 members of the Berkeley community joined Cooper at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley. The event, organized by the Berkeley Juneteenth Association, featured presentations on violence in the black community and the Black Lives Matter movement, and a screening of a documentary about Byron Rumford, the first black individual elected to public office in northern California.

“We are here to celebrate and to honor our black history makers,” said community member and event MC James Sweeney during an introductory ceremony. “We have too many heroes and sheroes that we do not recognize.”

This year’s Black History Month celebration was geared specifically toward recognizing historical figures and events that members of Berkeley’s black community say are often elided in accounts of American history.

“America is rich with history that our kids are missing because of prejudice,” said Betty Clark, pastor and founder of the nondenominational Church Without Walls.

At the event, campus alumnus Spencer Pritchard and campus senior Marcel Jones spoke of the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“(The Black Lives Matter movement) is the current iteration of the black people’s struggle in the United States of America and globally,” Pritchard said.

According to Pritchard, the struggle to ensure racial justice has been acute in Berkeley. A 2013 campus climate survey found that 42 percent of black individuals on campus reported some form of exclusion.

Although he said there is a “beautiful and vibrant” black community on campus and within the city, he added that its population continues to shrink every year.

Pritchard noted that Berkeley High School, where protests followed the discovery of a hostile image in November, is similarly emblematic of racial disparity in education settings. He added that black students are graduating and attending four-year universities at lower rates than their white counterparts.

Berkeley resident and event attendee Sharon Nelson said much more needs to be done to empower the community.

“We haven’t really moved forward,” Nelson said. “We got a month  — hip hip hurray — but … I’d rather see a sermon than hear a sermon.”

Community leaders at the event emphasized the importance of such gatherings in imparting knowledge to younger generations and effecting change through communal action.

California Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, whose constituency includes the city of Berkeley, noted that it is essential for the community to work together to respond to a housing and affordability crisis.

“(It is) important that we all open doors for each other,” Thurmond said.

For Cooper, events such as Sunday’s celebration provide an opportunity to reflect on the stark challenges facing the black community and work toward their resolution.

“It has to be one person at a time, one event, one conversation at a time,” Cooper said.

The association will hold the annual Berkeley Juneteenth Festival on June 19 this summer.

Contact Ishaan Srivastava at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ishaansriv.