California City Latest to Reckon With Past Injustices, Apologizes for Bulldozing Blues Hub

A California city is apologizing for tearing down a community more than 50 years ago, which was known for tight-knit families and blues music.

Hayward, California, has issued an official apology to families who were affected by the bulldozing of a 12-block area known as Russell City, the Associated Press reported. This apology marks the city as the latest to reckon with its past racist injustices.

The East Bay Times reports that the area was founded in 1853 and was a hub for Black and Latino residents. It also was the home of influential blues clubs such as the Country Club, whose famous visitors included Ray Charles and T-Bone Walker.

However, Alameda County and Hayward city officials deemed Russell City to be a blight in the late 1950s. What followed was a series of "forced relocations", according to the EBT, against the area's residents. What became of Russell City was an industrial park.

"They took the whole damn city. They changed every street name. They tried to erase it," said West Coast Blues Society head Ronnie Stewart. "It wasn't just a little unincorporated town with Blacks and Mexicans and a few others. It had a real function as far as being a contributor to West Coast Blues."

Despite the official acknowledgment, some former residents are skeptical of the sincerity of the apology, the AP reported. While its writer, Hayward resident Artavia Berry, said that it was "really, really meaningful," others are asking if more will be done.

"Yeah, that looks good on paper, but what about money? Give us more money than the little bit that you gave my family when we were there," said Toni Wynn, who regularly visited her grandfather in Russell City as a child. "It's not like we could not have said, 'No we don't want to move or sell.' You guys took it over."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Russell City Homes
Hayward, California, has issued an official apology to families who were affected by the bulldozing of a 12-block area known as Russell City. Above, a black and white photographic print of several wooden buildings including a home, a large shed or garage and several small structures in Russell City. Stamped on the back reads "Richard Kimball Davisson Commercial Photographer 1717 Oxford Street Berkeley, 9 Calif." Courtesy of the Hayward Area Historical Society

"It's been a very tearful week for me," said Berry.

The Hayward City Council issued the apology on November 16. It's among a number of U.S. cities that have been reckoning with past racial injustices, including the nearby city of San Jose.

San Jose apologized in September for its treatment of Chinese residents in the 19th century. The city's thriving Chinatown was burned to the ground in 1887 by arsonists.

Russell City was named in the mid-19th century for a teacher who came to California during the Gold Rush. Initially, Danish immigrants lived there. By World War II, people had migrated to the community from the southern United States and Mexico.

The unincorporated area near Hayward had 1,400 mostly Black and Latino residents, lacked fresh water and had mostly unpaved roads.

City Councilmember Sara Lamnin said she understood the skepticism and added the city is committed to undoing decades of racist policies.

The city is planning public art installations recognizing the eviction of Russell City residents. It may also work with Russell City descendants on plans such as a first-time homebuyer assistance program, according to a city report.

Russell City Students
Some descendants of the Russell City residents who were forced to move are asking if a formal apology is enough. Above, a black and white photo of seven Russell City students standing in front of an automobile. Handwritten on the back of the photo is "P.G. Veseil 4th Grade March 19 '49" Courtesy of the Hayward Area Historical Society