Prominent Black figures in Berkeley history

Berkeley News/Courtesy

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Frances Albrier

1939: First Black person to run for Berkeley City Council

Albrier first came to Berkeley in 1920 from Alabama while in her early 20s. She trained as a nurse, but because of discriminatory employment practices, she initially could not secure a job. Albrier then became an active community and labor union organizer, and in the 1930s she organized several campaigns, including one to pressure Berkeley Unified School District to hire its first Black teacher.

In 1939, she became the first Black person to run for Berkeley City Council. Black people were “taxpayers without any representation in the city government or the schools of Berkeley,Albrier said, according to an oral history project on Black women.

Albrier did not win, but she was the first Black woman elected to the Alameda County Democratic Central Committee and also fought for employment at the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond. She became the first Black woman welder there, paving the way for thousands of others. The shipyard initially rejected her, saying it hadn’t set up a union for Black people, until she threatened to sue and organized community activists.

When training for the shipyard, Albrier took a welding course and finished it with double the number of mandated hours, saying, “I felt I had to be better because I was a Black woman.”

Ruth Acty

1943: First Black teacher hired by Berkeley Unified School District

Acty was born and raised in Oakland. After graduating from Northwestern University with a master’s degree in theater, she began teaching and didn’t retire until 1991, more than 50 years later.

She first came to Longfellow School in 1943 and moved around to several other BUSD schools over the years. At one point, she was asked to teach French to beginners, but she didn’t know the language, so she traveled to Paris to pick it up.

Acty was also a pioneer in the theater arts and acted in the federal Works Progress Administration theater project’s productions. An active member of the community, she co-authored a book, titled “Looking Back at Berkeley: A Pictorial History of a Diverse City.”

David Blackwell

1955: First Black tenured faculty member at UC Berkeley

Blackwell originally planned to become an elementary school teacher. He entered college at a time when there weren’t many Black professors. But after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, he decided to continue. He applied to teach at 104 historically Black colleges, saying at the time he believed there were only positions open to him at Black institutions. He ended up at Howard University.

A prominent statistician at UC Berkeley, Jerzy Neyman, had tried to bring Blackwell to UC Berkeley even before he went to Howard, but the hiring proposal was thrown out on racist grounds. (The wife of the head of the mathematics department had objected to having a Black person in her home — it was typical for them to invite the department to their house for dinner.)

Neyman tried again 10 years later, and Blackwell was hired at UC Berkeley. He became a full professor there in 1955 and was made chair of the statistics department just three years later.

Blackwell loved teaching math, because “in transmitting it, you appreciate its beauty all over again.”

He was a expert in several areas, including probability and game theory, and made significant discoveries in each of them. For example, he developed the Rao-Blackwell theorem, a foundational idea in modern statistics.

Belva Davis

First Black woman television news reporter on the West Coast

After Davis became the first in her family to earn a high school diploma, graduating from Berkeley High School in 1951, she took an assignment as a freelancer on an impulse. Shortly afterward, she began stringing for Jet, an African American magazine. For several years, she could only find jobs covering fashion and social issues for Black publications. Davis managed a variety of tasks, from delivering copy to writing headlines.

“I didn’t know it was journalism. I just knew there was a real hunger in the Black community to learn about itself and exchange information,” Davis told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was a fun, exciting time.”

After freelancing in the Bay Area for several Black publications, she took a job at radio station KSAN in San Francisco. She quickly jumped to TV from radio, which she said felt like a dying field. In 1966, she was hired by local CBS affiliate KPIX.

She was thrown by the sudden switch to a majority-white audience, but she seemed to have a knack for television. For about three decades, Davis covered everything from earthquakes to assassinations to tear gas-filled protests in Berkeley with a characteristically calm demeanor.

Davis has been inducted the National Association of Black Journalists Hall of Fame and has won eight Emmys from the San Francisco/Northern California Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

Mable Howard

Community activist

In the 1960s, the city of Berkeley planned to build new BART tracks that would run above ground through South Berkeley, where much of the city’s Black population is based. Howard, a local activist who moved from Galveston, Texas during World War II to work in the shipyards, feared BART would disrupt the neighborhood and tank property values.

So Howard spearheaded litigation to halt the construction of the tracks for nine months, until BART agreed to build the line underground. A subsidized housing complex for seniors was later named after Howard for her contributions to South Berkeley. Howard was also the the mother of artist Mildred Howard.

Mildred Howard

Influential, award-winning visual artist

For the opening of San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, Howard stuck about 130 butcher knives into a wall: The piece aimed to contrast them with domestic items such as chandeliers, plates and teapots.

Howard was raised in Berkeley and was based there until she was priced out by high rents last year. She’s been the recipient of numerous awards for her sculptures and mixed-media work.

Her piece explored the idea of home: “Home is not always a safe place,” Howard told SFGate in 2015. “This deals with women who’ve been battered, children and whoever else thinks they’re living in a safe place but in fact are not.” SFGate describes her as a “socially minded collagist who specializes in putting humble objects together in new contexts that give them unexpected resonance.”

Debra Pryor

1985: First female firefighter and fire chief in Berkeley

Pryor grew up in Berkeley, and when she came across a fire department recruiter, she was just out of college. She thought to herself, “Can women do that?” She had never seen a woman firefighter, according to Berkeleyside.

She was many firsts: Berkeley’s first woman to be a firefighter, paramedic, paramedic supervisor, lieutenant, captain, assistant chief, deputy chief and fire chief. And she was the second Black woman to hold the title of fire department chief in the United States.

Over the years, she instituted several changes, especially regarding privacy, which was not particularly accommodating of a mixed-gender environment.

Pryor retired as chief of Berkeley Fire Department in 2012, after 27 years in the department.

Warren Widener

1971: First Black person elected as Berkeley mayor

Widener graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law and then held a number of positions: director of the Berkeley branch of the NAACP and president of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, among others.  He was elected to City Council in 1969 and was elected mayor in 1971 at the young age of 33, serving two terms.

Widener ran against another Black council member and received the support of young political organizations such as the Black Panther Party, the Berkeley Black Caucus, the National Committee to Combat Fascism, as well as progressive Black trailblazer in the U.S. House of Representatives Ron Dellums. Yet, interestingly, his victory wasn’t overwhelming for the local Black electorate, as he won by a slim 49 votes, according to Ebony magazine.

After he was defeated in his bid for re-election in 1979, he served four years on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and helped to develop a military housing program that became a model for the rest of the United States. Widener was a key figure in the removal of train tracks through Berkeley that had served as a boundary on Sacramento Street between white and Black neighborhoods.

William Byron Rumford

First Black person elected to a state public office in Northern California

Rumford owned Montgomery’s Pharmacy on Sacramento Street in Berkeley. He had come to Berkeley during the Great Depression, along with many others who came to California because relief payments in the state were the second highest in the nation.  

After World War II, discriminatory hiring practices spurred the creation of protesting groups. And with this came a local movement to elect a Black state Assembly member: Rumford became the choice for political office.

Rumford served in several roles as a public servant before becoming an Assembly member, including roles on the the Rent Control Board, Emergency Housing Committee and the Berkeley Interracial Committee, which was formed to address social conflicts that erupted from a large influx of migrants from the South. The committee’s accomplishments include leading an effort to remove signs that sprouted on San Pablo Avenue saying “No Negro Trade Solicited.”

Rumford served eight consecutive terms as Assembly member for the 17th District, sponsoring a measure in 1949 that desegregated the California National Guard. He was best known for landmark legislation on fair trade, fair employment and fair housing.

Contact Suhauna Hussain at [email protected].