Historical studies of American slavery have focused most intensely on events that took place in the southeastern part of the United States, and on the social, economic, and political developments that surrounded it there. In West of Slavery, Kevin Waite demonstrates that slavery was in the process of expanding in the southwestern part of the country before the Civil War began, and that efforts to establish what he calls the “Continental South” grew in strength and intensity as the conflict continued. If those efforts had been successful, he argues, slavery would have extended across the southern part of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and even into foreign lands. Waite’s statement that “slaveholders lusted after a transpacific dominion” is vividly supported by this book.
Waite’s definition of the “Continental South” includes California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah. Although plantation slavery never took root there, he demonstrates that other forms of coercive labor received strong legal protection there and, for a time, flourished. During the Civil War, supporters of this labor threatened to bring the region into the conflict, encouraging the Confederate rebellion and promising the creation of a continent–wide nation devoted to the perpetuation of slavery and other forms of oppressive labor. West of Slavery’s purpose is to show how this proslavery influence began, continued, and was ultimately crushed.
Much of Waite’s book is devoted to the rise of pro–Southern and pro–slavery influence in Southern California, where Democrats under the leadership of California’s U.S. Senator William M. Gwin held sway during the 1850s. (Gwin actually owned about two-hundred slaves in Mississippi, although he did not bring them to California.) Southerners from the southeastern United States, motivated first by John C. Calhoun, who died in March 1850, later by a prominent plantation owner and railroad promoter named James Gadsden, and then by Jefferson Davis, who served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, supported Gwin and his efforts to bring a southern railroad from the west banks of the Mississippi to San Diego and to permit plantation owners to establish slave colonies in Southern California. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but not for want of trying.
The story of the slaveholders’ efforts to bring a southern railroad to California is compelling. All westerners hoped for a railway that would cross the plains, valleys, deserts, and mountains that separated the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean. But there were different hopes for where it should be built. Some wanted it in the north, some argued that it should be built across the center of the country, and yet others in the extreme south. The southerners supported the southern route, of course, but acquiesced in a survey that would determine where the best route would be. While waiting for decisions to be made, and facing the critical question of whether the federal government should lend its financial support to the construction of the railroad, southerners supported a wagon road, first called the Overland Mail Road, later the Butterfield Overland Mail Road (John Butterfield was the man who actually ran the company that operated the road), and, after Butterfield fell into financial distress, the Wells Fargo Overland Mail. Although many Southern political leaders asserted constitutional arguments against any federal financial assistance to the proposed railroad, they were happy to support the Overland Mail road, which at considerable federal expense carried mail as well as west–bound travelers, some of whom were looking for places where they could establish colonies replete with slave laborers. When Davis learned that the southern railroad route was faced with looming mountain obstacles, he urged Pierce to send Gadsden to Mexico to purchase additional land through which the railroad could pass south of the mountains. This effort resulted in what is now known as the Gadsden Purchase. The Overland Mail was rendered unprofitable by the short–lived Pony Express, which in 1860 crossed the middle of the country, and by the development of rail routes across Panama and Nicaragua, before the last link in the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Waite’s account of how all of this happened, and how Southern efforts to build what they affectionately called the “great slavery road,” ultimately failed, is long and detailed. His scholarship raises the story to a new level.
West of Slavery plunges deep into the Civil War history of New Mexico and Arizona and the efforts of slavery supporters to extend their empires into those territories. Political struggles were matched by military conflicts that for a time gave hope to the Southerners that they would prevail. Jefferson Davis authorized two military officers, Colonel John R. Baylor and Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, to invade New Mexico from Texas and, after they did so, they achieved some notable victories, capturing Mesilla, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, then going on to Tucson. Ultimately, however, they did not prevail, due in large part to anti–slavery forces that moved eastward from California to meet them. U.S. Army Colonel James Henry Carleton’s 2,000–man “California Column” left Camp Drum on the Southern California coast in the spring of 1862, passed through Yuma, went on to capture Tucson, then proceeded along the Rio Grande to Santa Fe, ultimately forcing the Confederates to retreat back into Texas. Waite’s description of these events is detailed and compelling.
Waite includes informative descriptions and analyses of events that took place in his “Continental South” as the war drew to a close, then proceeded into the post–war era of Reconstruction. African Americans did not fare well in these events, nor did the Asian Americans and the Native Americans who were faced with an almost unending chain of bitter opposition. This part of West of Slavery effectively extends the bigger story of the efforts of the slave powers to extend their empire across North America and, after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, to perpetuate all that they could of that empire.
The book includes a study of efforts to remember the pro–slavery “Continental South” through the formation of organizations that celebrated slavery, that built monuments to Confederate heroes, and that sought to honor those heroes by applying their names to mountains, valleys, roads, and soaring trees––all in the land that the Confederates had hoped to build a great slavery empire in. Through these efforts, they sought to perpetuate the memory of what Waite calls “the presence of the Old South in the Far West.”
Kevin Waite is not only a determined scholar. He is also a wonderful writer. Those who are impatient to quickly arrive at the conclusion of his story must be patient, however. The book is filled with detailed discoveries. Sometimes it can be tiring to reach the end of a story, but the end rewards the reader’s patience.
One slight objection is the title of Waite’s book. When first read, West of Slavery suggests that the book is about a part of the West that is beyond slavery. It is not, of course. It is a land in which forced labor was strong and rampant, in which the hopes of spreading slavery and the efforts to do so were vigorous and determined, and in which the failure of those efforts was far from inevitable. If the title had been The West of Slavery, it might have been clearer. Waite himself hints at this, writing that the “preposition in this book’s title is possessive. In other words, the Far Southwest was a land of slavery and slaveholding influence; it was not free from it.” This objection is, however, not only slight––it is very slight.
Brian McGinty (BA, American History, JD, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley) is the author of twelve books and 200 articles that have appeared in popular magazines and scholarly journals. His Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2015) and Lincoln and the Court (Harvard University Press 2008) discuss important chapters in the life of Abraham Lincoln. His Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom: The True Story of California Gold, the Nation’s Tragic March toward Civil War, and a Young Black Man’s Fight for Liberty (Lyons Press/Rowman & Littlefield 2019) and The Rest I will Kill: William Tillman and the Unforgettable Story of How a Free Black Man Refused to Become a Slave (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2016) describe important chapters in the struggle of African Americans to escape slavery and win freedom both before and after the Civil War. His John Brown’s Trial (Harvard University Press 2009) describes the sensational judicial proceeding that made the abolitionist John Brown one of the most famous (and controversial) martyrs in American history. See more of Brian’s work at http://brianmcgintyauthor.com/
You’re listening to a live broadcast on Ehekatl 99.9, a pirate radio station named after the Aztec god of the wind, whose mission is to “advance the proletarian interest of the community and to counteract the military-industrial propaganda of the oppressor government.” A pilot-trainee has just taken the wheel of a “700-foot long state-of-the-art post-modern dirigible,” a master pilot by her side, and this Report in Progress is tracking their attempt to find Sky City, “a conglomeration of debris in the stratospheric rings – agglutinated by force—careening through the upper atmosphere, encircling the planet.” What they expect to find there: “enough plant and animal life and atmospheric water to have sustained a totally marginalized and invisible population, in spite of the occasional 1979 Pontiac El Caminos, delivery vans, old tires and broken water heaters that fall out of the sky at approximately 145 miles an hour terminal velocity, landing in school yards and shopping mall parking lots, which the government blames on Muslims and maintains is yet another thing soon to be fixed by tax cuts.”
Reader, welcome to ELADATL, a mind-blowing book collaboration between poet and novelist Sesshu Foster and artist Arturo Romo that brings forth a whole other past, present and future within the space-time continuum we (think we) know as Southern California. Billed as “a fictional history of an actual company,” ELADATL traces the rise and fall and rise again of the East Los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines, a local addition to the long history of unsung ventures in U.S. airship transport by those “marginalized and disappeared” by capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism and patriarchy. These include, among others, the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, founded by real-life black aviator William Powell, and the East L.A. Balloon club, founded by the fictional Ericka Llanera. Building on his longstanding practice of personae-based artmaking, Romo gives this history/historical fiction a captivating visual form in détourned photographs, collages, etchings and mixed-media prints dispersed throughout the book, which blend the factual (incorporating photographs of real people, places and artifacts) and the fictional (assigning them captions that correspond to events and characters in the story).
One of the many pleasures of reading – or sifting through – ELADATL derives from the interplay between Romo’s and Foster’s sensibilities. As Romo describes their process, which includes the co-creation of characters and events, “sometimes the text would match the image, sometimes the text would fill in the gaps in the image, and sometimes the text would float away from the image. The relationship was dynamic.” With this project, and other related ones, such as a series of walking tours of East L.A. collected at elaguide.org, he and Foster feel they hit upon “an alternative to colonial, capitalist and white supremacist constructs of art-making,” working in a way that “wasn’t privatized or individualized or attuned to the market, that wasn’t restricted by hierarchy of medium, and that didn’t believe in the legitimacy of non-fiction over fiction or vice-versa.”
Another of the book’s pleasures lies in how it activates the relationship of part to whole, whether that be fragment to narrative, neighborhood to city/region, or individual to collective. The story of the dirigible lines themselves is not one of seamless coordination, but of hit-or-miss connections within a crumbling infrastructure that must constantly be made and re-made, imagined and re-imagined. In the chapter titled “Following Years Without Communications from Downtown, This Was What Our Agents Reported,” the company responds to an unfavorable customer review by organizing teams of agents to serve as inspectors, “sending them out to check on all the lines, our ships, stations, and maintenance and ancillary facilities. The reports we received back were like a slap in the face by an octopus. Twice maybe.”
Throughout the book, characters appear, disappear and reappear unexpectedly, with no one “character arc” predominating—though the on again/off again romance between Sergio, a world-weary dirigible builder, and Mel, a fearless young dirigible pilot, causes things to gel just enough before it, too, comes apart. And here, too, the lines between fiction and reality are blurred: another character, Swirling Alhambra, seems to function as a surrogate for the writer, who’s been awarded a Poet of the Universe residency “located in a remote area of City Terrace” (the East L.A. neighborhood where Foster grew up and the subject of his influential poetry collection City Terrace Field Manual). Swirling is a humorously unreliable member of ELADATL, and a source of annoyance to many, but he is committed to the collective enterprise. In this fundamental orientation he resembles both Foster and Romo themselves (who are LAUSD teachers and activists), and the novelist Oscar Zeta Acosta, author of the legendary Revolt of the Cockroach People, who was a Chicano movement lawyer.
Acosta makes several cameos in the text, and ELADATL is animated throughout by a rasquache sensibility similar to Acosta’s own, a bricolage aesthetic with an underdog spirit and sense of struggle that is “down but not out,” to borrow Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s memorable formulation. Another rasquache forebear, Noah Purifoy, the L.A. Black assemblage artist and founder of the Watts Towers Art Center, also puts in an appearance –or his legendary desert “junk art” environment does, as an abandoned dirigible station. Nothing is thrown away, everything is repurposed — the form, or many forms, of ELADATL mark “an ongoing process of dodging erasure or denial,” in Foster’s words, “and individually, personally, reinventing community in order to survive.” As Romo observes, “the very way the book was created comes out of a particular political way of being.” Don’t be fooled by its wry, irreverent tone; this is a work of serious social imagination.
Given ELADATL’s rich texture and many layers, one must ask the question, can there even be a central storyline to a work like this? Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that there is what’s happening with the dirigibles, up in the sky, and there is what’s happening down below, an archaeology of everyday life in East L.A., with its own “mysteries,” also documented in the book, which includes over seventy pages of appendices. One overarching goal of the project, Foster tells us, “was to float the figure of the imagination over the historical landscape of the ordinary everyday and ask people to look.” The dirigible, with its slow-moving heft, drifting along erratic pathways, is the perfect incarnation of an imagination always in sight but just beyond reach of the predictable circuits of daily life (work, eat, sleep, repeat).
As we read on in ELADATL, the struggle to reactivate the dirigible lines begins to merge with the climate crisis, and the very real possibility that that there are no more possibilities to be had. Even as Mel and Tina, another young agent, hustle to get the ships back in the air, dirigible stations throughout Southern California are being repurposed by anarchist mutual aid groups and other community members to house climate refugees. At the South Gate station, Food Not Bombs “was showing Salt of the Earth and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill over and over for refugees from the most recent firestorm . . . [and had] set up the vegetarian buffet for people who hadn’t had hot food in days, José Uriarte brought in his taco truck and set out the salsa, and even Ray Palafox mobilized Los Quemados to blast out cumbias or whatever they call it in a free concert.” ELADATL shows us what climate collapse looks like in the everyday:
That’s just how it is (when it’s not worse), everybody driving with their lights on even if it doesn’t help much to cut the blowing clouds of particulate and debris, pedestrians wearing face masks and head wraps, hunched over against it like a desert sandstorm, now there’s a haboob for you, everything glowing orange from sunlight refracted through carbon dioxide, they say, and the wind tearing through the streets . . . a telephone pole in an intersection, people driving around it, shipping container on top of a store, a billboard on top of parked cars.
In an eerie parallel to Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Jewish-lasers-from-space-caused-the-California-wildfires conspiracy theory, “experts and spokespersonifiers” insist that all of this is not, in fact, due to climate change, but the work of Hair Balls from Outer Space blasting Europe and the United States with Death Rays. While “white guys with automatic rifles” drive around “firing at anything suspicious,” the official response is the same old non-response: “trillions of spending on rockets” and “nukes to rain down on enemies and terrorists and stuff.”
Unabashedly experimental, ELADATL resists linear narrative at every turn, knocking time out of joint by bringing invisible histories to light and to life, not content to let the past be the past, nor the present be the present. This strategy reveals its full power in the moving scene where Mel and Tina briefly exit “the blasted smoke and particulate atmosphere” of full-on societal and climate apocalypse and “[descend] in actual sunshine and [merge] with the crowd into the infinitely forgetful city.” They suddenly find themselves marching towards downtown L.A. in the middle of something that looks a lot like the recent protests for George Floyd, or an immigrant rights protest, or a teachers’ strike—or as it happens these days, all three–running into old friends (who also happen to be Foster’s and Romo’s real-life comrades, fellow artists, writers, educators and activists), everyone glad to be there and be there together. Is this all in the past now, only a memory? Or is it a glimpse of what C.L.R. James called “the future in the present,” a way out of the nightmare – if, like Foster and Romo, we know where and how to look.
Sesshu Foster (left) Arturo Ernesto Romo (right)
Janet Sarbanes is the author of the short story collections Army of One and The Protester Has Been Released. Her book of essays, Letters on the Autonomy Project in Art and Politics, will be published by Punctum in 2021. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at CalArts.
 “Q & A with Sesshu Foster and Arturo Ernesto Romo, authors of ELADATL: A History of the East los Angeles Dirigible Air Transport Lines,” City Lights.
 Ybarra-Frausto, Tomás. “Rasquachismo: a Chicano sensibility.” In Chicano aesthetics : Rasquachismo, 5-8. Exh. cat., Phenix, Aruz. : MARS, Movimiento Artiscico del Rio Salado, 1989.
With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
George B. Sánchez-Tello
The long white buses are unmarked. The paint job on the bus panels looks thin and cheap. If I stare long enough, I could probably make out the name of the school district or church or factory under that white layer of cover. The buses idle in an empty parking lot which is pockmarked with potholes partially filled with drainage. The gravel is crumbling. The people boarding the buses stand in single file. Their informal uniform consists of jeans and sweatshirts, baseball hats, bandanas and other shards of cloth fashioned into face masks.
In the distance, mist hovers over the fields. The buses will carry them to those fields. Soon the workers will be silhouettes in the distance, bent over and picking, working themselves up and down the rows of lettuce, strawberry and spinach.
Every one of them has a name. A home they come from. A language they were born into and another adopted for work. Most of those people have children. I always wondered who they were and what was their story. None of this is new. There was no “news peg to hang it on,” as an editor would say. So I wrote a song.
In the pre-dawn dust of the parking lot the workers form a line They board the long white transport bus and hope the kids are fine Left home alone with the little ones The cousins will take care Mom wraps a t-shirt around her face to filter out the filthy air No food to wake the little ones Pop tarts will do just fine Gonna’ make do with what we got Gotta’ stretch every single last dime Why? Cause that’s where we’re at.
A few miles away, on a given Friday night, the children of those workers sing along. In a small café or the back room of a Mexican restaurant, bodies pack together, in their own uniform of jeans, faded black t-shirts with band logos, jackets or vests quilted with small square patches. Everyone joins in to sing:
Another song about the Salad Bowl About the place that we live This valley can be a prison Just ask the kids!
“Where We’re At” is a song I wrote for Rum & Rebellion, a punk rock band from Salinas, a farm town in Monterey County on California’s Central Coast. We were one of many: from Salas, Chole, Prunetucky, Watson and King City. We played in cafes, backyards, apartments, community centers, storage sheds, bars, restaurants, parking lots and clubs.
Rum & Rebellion songs were a refuge for stories. A place to safely express my voice – literal and literary. During the day, I worked as a newspaper reporter, first for the Salinas Californian and later the Monterey County Herald. I often wrote newspaper articles about crime, education and local politics. I wrote songs about what I witnessed: The tired paletero. The teenager walking to school. The father of a lifer. The campesino. Portraits of the people, stories and moments between me and the farm fields that surrounded a town known for labor, e. coli and, of course, Mr. Steinbeck. What was otherwise setting in an article became a story in a song.
For being a small, farm town, Salinas has a population of about 150,000, making it the largest city in Monterey County. Someone once said the population doubled during the harvest season. Of course, it was exaggeration, but the harvest – or more like the people harvesting – was inherent in all aspects of life in Salas. Education officials coordinate with districts in Washington and Arizona as families migrate to work the harvest elsewhere. The school districts start later in the winter to account for families returning from Mexico. For many years the town was segregated: Whites to the west, Mexicans to the east, or the Alisal, as it was called. The annual César Chávez march is not a relic from a Chicano Studies class, but a testament to community, organizing and the continuing ability to mobilize in support of one another.
Not all Rum & Rebellion songs were high-minded: I wrote about crushes on an older woman and colleagues. And drinking.
I wrote angry responses: as in the song “No Charity”
Don’t need no charity Got my own pair of lungs There are no voiceless there’s only repression
And songs – “Hey Armando!”, “No Folk Song (New DA Blues),” “Not Down”, “Four Years” – about prisoners. All of whom I’d met and spoken with.
If there was a news peg, I filed an article. But the daily, almost taken for granted, became song. I think one of my favorite compliments of Rum & Rebellion lyrics was the disappointment from one person after she learned I was from Los Angeles and not Salas.
Rum & Rebellion came together after a freelance assignment for Punk Planet, one of the national punk ‘zines at the time. Scott MacDonald, a photographer for the SalinasCalifornian, and I spent a weekend with Against Me! and Lucero. Scott also played drums. I could play guitar. I could write. And yell.
As a reporter, there were stories I carried with me, stories I’d witnessed, that would never get past my editors. Like the quiet dignity of campesinos lining up for work in the early morning: a sight so familiar in East Salinas it had become a regular backdrop. Or the ritual of family members waiting in line outside county jail on visiting day. Stories that required more nuance than I could fit into a 12-inch print article. Or stories that required a different worldview than most of the papers’ readers and editors.
There were subtle reminders, like the “news from home” section that carried articles from the Midwest. Maybe it was because I was from Los Angeles and I had plenty of co-workers from other parts of California, or simply knowing home for many in Salinas was Mexico. Sometimes they were blatant: like a red faced, irate white editor telling me “everybody knows Latinos are the most macho people.”
I can’t pin it on a single editor, though there were certainly a few that reminded me. Because I think I learned lessons about what to share and what to withhold long before I became a writer. Lessons about the sense of security in silence. Lessons learned by parents who, in turn, transmitted them to me. Lessons of “Americanization” taught by the Sisters of Loretto across the southwest two generations before my birth. Lessons of silence wrought by the onset of the Guatemalan Civil War. Lessons of hiding in plain sight after my family arrived in Los Angeles after the mass deportation of Mexican and Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression. Lessons of obedience when my father began working for the Los Angeles Police Department. And the lesson that no matter how I spoke, what I wore or where I lived, I’d never fit comfortably into an affluent white suburb.
When I wrote my entrance application essay for Saint Francis High School, I took seriously the invitation to write about someone I admired. I wrote about Steve Clark, Def Leppard’s founding guitarist. I still go back and forth about whether that was one time when I should have kept a story to myself. By the time I wrote my entrance essay for Loyola High, I had “learned” better.
As a reporter, I had my own uniform: I wore a collared shirt and necktie. With my black and white Doc Marten brogues, I had a distinct, pachuco-inspired style. But it was still a shirt and tie. A shirt and tie I wore purposefully to access what Nolan Cabrera calls “white immunity,” or the protection from disparate treatment. Day in and day out, sitting on the press bench in a courtroom, I couldn’t help but notice that the people who looked like me also wore uniforms: either orange jumpsuits for inmates or green and khaki of the sheriff’s deputies. Those with ties were attorneys, the judge and, on the rare occasion, a defendant. And me.
I learned to wear a tie at Loyola, an all-boys high school. By that point, I had learned to be careful of what I said in front of who. To be aware of authority. Eventually writing became the place where I could express myself freely.
When my editor caught a Rum & Rebellion acoustic set at the Cherry Bean and he asked me to write more articles like my songs, I appreciated the compliment, but I couldn’t simply shrug off the decades and generations of learned and practiced silence. Thankfully there were those who wouldn’t remain silent.
Touring punk bands typically bypass Salinas, heading north to Santa Cruz or San Jose. The exception were those that were connected through the Razacore network of punks who could put up bands and shows in farm towns outside the bigger cities. Thanks to Eduardo of the band Outraged in Watson, Limp Wrist came through. Argentina’s Boom Boom Kid did a show in Salas. But there were two bands – La Plebe and Los Dryheavers – with roots in Salas who always returned from San Pancho and San Jo to play periodically. Those shows were the best.
Salas punk shows meant 50-100 young, sweaty bodies squeezed up against the walls, counters and the band itself. Shows with booze were at the Penny, an English Pub, and all-ages shows were up the street at the Cherry Bean, a local café.
When the Dryheavers played, the guitarists, bassist and singer encircled the drummer. They usually had to play with their backs to the crowd to ensure the space to strum and, in the singer’s case, make sure the crush of the crowd didn’t lead to teeth getting knocked out.
There is a story about the Dryheavers. It is too good to ruin by finding out if it’s true. The Dryheavers “played” the Warped Tour. Except Warped’s Kevin Lyman didn’t invite Los Dryheavers. They simply packed up their van and drove along with the Warped caravan. At each stop, the Dryheavers set up outside the festival and played. With the exception of Kory, all the Dryheavers were big, heavy Chicanos. Not even Warped security wanted to bother them, or so the story goes.
One Salas show, in between songs, the Dryheavers’ singer, Hector, took a moment to speak. First, he needed to catch his breath. Not uncommon.
“My family works hard. They work the fields, like your families,” said Hector, slightly gasping from screaming and trying to breathe through the humid air thick with sweat and body odor.
Hector turned to Felix, one of the Dryheavers’ guitarists, and asked what his parents did.
“Big pimpin,” he responded.
The sudden pivot from vulnerable self-admission and statement of solidarity to crude humor: I laughed. That was Salas punk – irreverent, political by imposition and impatient for the next song. It was Chicano Punk Rock. It was Immigrant Punk. It was Los Dryheavers, La Plebe, Outraged, Uzi Suicide, The Gunslinger, The Kings Kids, Dear Avarice, The Achievement, Cali Nation, Bound to Break, Madtown Mulligan, Darktown Rounders, Chainsaw Death Squad, Toxic U.S. and so many others.
George B. Sánchez-Tello lives, writes and teaches in Los Angeles.
For Mark Cantu: El mejor recuerdo es una simple canción para alguien que ya no está.QEPD.
Thank you: Scott MacDonald, Claudia Meléndez-Salinas and Clarissa Aljentera, colleagues from the Salinas Californian and Monterey County Herald who added valuable suggestions and edits.
On September 9, 1942, the members of the Merchants Association of Fresno, the largest city in California’s San Joaquin Valley, called an emergency session to respond to a burgeoning crisis. For much of the year, farmers and ranchers in the Valley—among the most productive agricultural regions in the United States—had struggled to secure sufficient hands to tend to their crops and herds. This labor shortage became particularly acute in early September, when checkups revealed that more than half of the region’s highly perishable raisin grape crop remained unpicked. In Fresno County alone, officials insisted on September 9, five thousand additional workers were needed to get the remaining grapes off their vines and on to drying trays over the next eight days. Otherwise, grape growers, and the Valley economy that the lucrative crop helped to fuel, would suffer a devastating blow. So, too, would American servicemen who were battling Axis Powers overseas. “These raisins,” Irvine S. Terrell, chairman of the Area Agricultural War Manpower Commission, told Merchants Association members, “must be made for the soldiers, sailors and marines on the fighting fronts, as requested by the government.” And if the raisins were not made immediately, Terrell warned, “you merchants are going to see the government step in and allocate labor.”
Terrell and his colleagues on the newly established Area Agricultural War Manpower Commission (AAWMC), which had jurisdiction over the southern section of the San Joaquin Valley, singled out Fresno residents—and especially the employees of local businesses—for failing to volunteer to assist with the vital grape harvest. Earlier that day, at a meeting between the AAWMC and the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce, Terrell had chastised “city people” for not contributing. “The school children are doing a fine job,” he insisted, “but when we can get only 200 or 300 people out of the stores to help in the harvest something is wrong.”
At the emergency Merchants Association of Fresno meeting a few hours later, local business owners agreed to immediately commence a recruitment program to enlist 25% of clerks at Fresno businesses to take leave from their jobs and report to Valley vineyards. They hoped that this plan would add at least six hundred more grape pickers each day, putting a sizeable dent in the five thousand–person county-wide shortage.
The recruitment program, combined with the broader mobilization of community members throughout the Valley that had begun in August and would last through the end of the year, worked. By September 16, just a week after the emergency session, Valley officials were praising what later became known as the Victory Harvest Army—comprising furloughed store workers as well as students, housewives, and other community members—for rescuing the grape harvest. “This voluntary movement of local volunteers to the fields and vineyards,” announced Willard S. Marsh of Fresno’s United States Employment Service office, “has been the salvation of the crops.” Marsh estimated that ten thousand people—fully 5% of the county’s population—had been employed by farms since the start of September. “Unless the movement slackens,” he added, “Fresno County’s raisin variety grape harvest will be virtually complete within a week.” Marsh was particularly keen to thank the area’s grammar and high school students for their willingness to lend a hand.
The Victory Harvest Army was in some ways a model of patriotism, volunteerism, and community cooperation. Faced with an unprecedented crisis, San Joaquin Valley residents from all walks of life rallied together to salvage the year’s raisin grape crop as well as a handful of others, including a cotton crop valued at $51 million. Through these efforts, they not only helped to rescue the region’s most important industry from potential ruin but also contributed to the worldwide struggle between freedom and democracy on the one hand, and tyranny and fascism on the other. Even if they could not produce munitions in a factory or use them on the battlefield, the harvest gave Valley civilians an opportunity to do their part.
Yet Irvine Terrell’s warning that Fresno clerks might be compelled to take to the fields exposes the fact that the successful 1942 harvest was not without its problems and ironies, some of which belied the very ideals for which American soldiers were fighting overseas. As the labor shortage worsened in the latter half of the year, for one, Valley authorities targeted individuals and businesses that did not appear to be aiding the harvest, at times even attempting to coerce “vagrants” and other reluctant workers into the fields. Communities across the Valley also experimented with the practice of promising leniency to prisoners who cooperated, while at the same time threatening harsher sentences for those who refused.
California’s 1942 farm labor shortage spurred a nasty public debate as well, much of which played out in the pages of the Fresno Bee, the Valley’s leading newspaper. While some residents hoped to tap Mexican nationals and especially Japanese internees held that summer in area relocation centers, others denounced these non-white sources of labor, often in unapologetically racist terms. The irony of the anti-Japanese attacks was that the labor shortage itself was to some extent the result of the federal government’s xenophobic decision to evacuate Japanese residents, many of whom had worked in agriculture.
The 1942 labor crisis revealed another irony, too—farmers’ deep-seated affinity for government aid. As they had for decades, Valley agricultural interests called for, and benefited from, interventions and resources from federal, state, and county officials, undercutting boasts that free enterprise and rugged individualism—embodied by the mythic Western cowboy—were sufficient for growing crops.
In the spring and summer of 1942, residents of the San Joaquin Valley—which stretches 260 miles from The Grapevine in the south to Lodi in the north—were plagued by war-related anxiety, much of which centered on Japanese Americans. Nearly everyone who wrote in to the Fresno Bee to discuss removal, ordered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, just months after the Pearl Harbor bombing, supported the plan. The Japanese, whether native born or not, were disloyal. To trust them, argued Mrs. B.E.S. of Fresno, was “like trying to pet a mad dog.” W.R. Arrington of nearby Firebaugh agreed: “The Japanese people are somewhat unique for striking unexpectedly from behind a smile, a smirk or a bow.” One Fresnan suggested the formation of a home guard comprised of deer hunters—“some of the best shots in the world”—to protect against the enemy within.
Valley farmers, however, worried for other reasons. Surging wartime demand for food prompted local growers to bring more acreage into cultivation in 1942, but the draft and the lure of higher-paying jobs in wartime industry, among other factors, had already provoked farm labor shortages. This was no small matter in an agricultural powerhouse like the San Joaquin Valley, where just two counties—Tulare and Fresno, which ranked second and third in the country in the value of their agricultural output—combined to produce crops worth more than $55 million annually. What would happen to this bounty once Japanese residents, who played a central role in California agriculture as farm laborers and operators, had been evacuated?
Although some white Californians looked forward to acquiring productive land from their Japanese neighbors, many farmers expressed dismay that their Japanese workforce would no longer be around to assist them. In early April 1942, the California Deciduous Growers League, which represented the growers of cherries, apricots, peaches, plumbs, pears, and grapes, asked the Department of Agriculture to delay removal in twelve counties where twenty thousand people of Japanese descent were critical to picking operations. In Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties, ethnic Japanese residents constituted 25% of the pickers; in Merced County, they made up 75%. Noting that the picking and handling of deciduous fruit necessitated “a high degree of skill and experience,” the League insisted that it would be impossible to train replacements in time. This was only the beginning, of course, as other crops—from olives, to strawberries, to cotton—would need to be harvested in the coming months as well. Production on farms operated by Japanese Americans would also be affected. Japanese internees had produced 20% of the total acreage of vegetables grown in California, Oregon, and Washington and 70% of the total acreage of berries in California. They also cultivated more than twenty-seven thousand acres of grapes, nearly all in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
The federal government had, to some extent, anticipated adverse consequences on farming. During initial discussions about the possible removal of Japanese residents in early 1942, several officials pointed out that West Coast crop production would suffer in the event of Japanese evacuation. The U.S. Army responded to this challenge by forcing Japanese farmers to carry on with the spring planting under threat of arrest for hindering the war effort, even though the removal order meant that they would not be around to reap the rewards of their efforts in the fall. The Department of Agriculture, in turn, created the Wartime Farm Adjustment Program to facilitate the transfer of farm lands owned or rented by Japanese residents to non-Japanese operators for the duration of the war. But this program, which began in the San Joaquin Valley in mid-March, was not a quick fix. It required finding farmers interested in assuming responsibility for the evacuated lands, some of whom then had to obtain loans. The program also did little to ensure that Japanese farmers got a fair price for their land, and it did nothing to make up for the loss of labor performed by Japanese wage workers.
Concerns about lost revenue and food shortages, however, paled in comparison to those about the so-called “yellow menace,” at least at the federal level. The Army announced in late April that the removal of the Japanese would proceed as planned, despite rumors to the contrary. As Colonel Karl R. Bendetsen, one of the loudest voices for removal, put the matter: “Military necessity is an unrelenting taskmaster.” By the end of the year that taskmaster had cost more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans their freedom, according to one estimate, and in the process cost California between twenty-five and thirty thousand agricultural workers.
Some Valley residents, meanwhile, expressed skepticism about farmers’ worries, deploying a potent combination of racism and class resentment to make their point. There was no labor shortage, one Hanford man claimed; there were only big landowners—or “swivel chair farmers,” in his words—who loved the Japanese more “than they do their own people,” plenty of whom were available for work. Mrs. C. Z. Kerman of Fresno also found Japanese field hands unnecessary, though she was more inclined to blame New Deal programs than growers for any perceived labor shortage. “There are many, many people just roaming around,” she insisted. “You can see every day. If the WPA and welfare were cut off, they would have to get in and work.” “This yapping we hear about the shortage of vegetables we are going to experience on account of the dear Japanese being forced into concentration camps,” sneered a fellow Fresnan, “is enough to give a true American a severe attack of indigestion. Give the white race the same chance that was given the Japanese and its members will raise just as much and just as good fruit and vegetables as ever did the Japanese.” A Parlier man who described himself as a “100 percent…Arkansas red blooded American” similarly accused farmers of overlooking unemployed white Americans in favor of the Japanese. This Dust Bowl refugee proposed revenge, urging his white neighbors to refuse work as pickers or packers during the upcoming harvest season. If a group like the Deciduous Growers League needed laborers, he concluded, “I refer it to the many in the internment camps. Those are the headquarters for the Japanese.”
A whiff of sarcasm hangs over this man’s admonition. After all, he preferred that red-blooded Americans—which, in his mind, did not include people of Japanese descent, even if they were American-born citizens, as most internees were—be given farm jobs. But others were quite serious in suggesting the use of internees for field work once it became clear that there would be no delay in evacuation. Olive, grape, peach, and apricot growers were especially worried as spring turned to summer. In July, one vineyard owner asked the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce to petition the military for permission to employ the Japanese currently being held in the two assembly centers in Fresno. These centers held close to ten thousand people, many of whom were former residents of Fresno, Tulare, Kings, and Madera counties, awaiting deportation to permanent internment camps further inland. “Some of us will be lucky,” he declared, “if we harvest 50 per cent of our crop due to the present labor shortage.”
The chamber disliked this plan, which would have entailed transporting the internees to and from camps and paying prevailing wages. But the vast majority of organizations, farmers, and officials who went on the record—from the Fresno County Farm Bureau and district attorney to the Merced County sheriff to Governor Culbert L. Olson—did so in support of it, on the condition that the army strictly limit the mobility of internees. The Japanese “have been law abiding people,” argued one Clovis farmer, “and with a little supervision we should have no trouble at all.”
All told, 45% of Japanese Americans living in the West had worked in agriculture before the war, and in a few states some of them did end up doing field labor after removal. In Idaho, Montana, and Utah, for example, internees harvested sugar beets; in Wyoming, they built canals to irrigate farm land. But Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, who oversaw internment as head of the Western Defense Command, ultimately decided against allowing the practice in California. In a July 8 conference, he told Governor Olson that “the use of evacuated Japanese as farm workers would require an entire change of program which had been adopted as a military necessity,” framing removal just as Colonel Bendetsen had done a few months earlier.
If anyone saw the irony of advocating for the use of Japanese internees to compensate for a labor shortage caused, in part, by their very internment, they did not let on. Instead, in the face of the government’s decision, San Joaquin Valley officials and growers swiftly dropped the idea. Soon the matter became moot. In mid-July, the Pinedale Assembly Center began transporting its 4,750 internees to the Tule Relocation Center in the remote, northeastern corner of California, and to a concentration camp in Arizona. By the end of October, when the Fresno Assembly Center completed the evacuation of its more than five thousand internees to an Arkansas camp, the only Japanese residents remaining in the Valley were three expectant mothers who were temporarily residing in convalescent homes.
These developments, however, did not stop Valley citizens from regularly expressing anti-Japanese sentiments. “It burns me up to hear some selfish Japanese lover rave about turning them loose to help with the farm labor,” fumed a Madera woman on July 13. “I say pack them up and send them back to Japan.” A few weeks later another Fresno Bee reader insisted, “There is no Japanese who is a true American. They were all sent here and born here for a purpose and that purpose was eventually to control the United States.”
As Valley residents continued to denigrate their Japanese neighbors, California farmers and officials pivoted to other potential solutions to the worsening labor crisis. On July 8, Governor Olson suggested several other sources for “emergency” workers, including Mexican immigrants. Bringing in laborers from Mexico was an idea about which state and federal officials, as well as growers in numerous western states, had been talking since 1941. Yet this prospect elicited the same sort of xenophobic response as had the proposal to employ Japanese internees. “I am a solider on leave,” wrote George Dulin to the Fresno Bee on September 23, “and read in your paper that they are bringing Mexicans to make up for the shortage of laborers.” Dulin believed it was time to take a stand against this measure. “We have millions of idle men, plenty of them, in every town and city. I say make them work rather than import Mexican labor.” One week later, Mrs. M. L. K. of Woodlake, on the east side of the Valley, wrote to the Bee to say that she agreed with Dulin: “Keep the Mexicans out of our U.S.A.”
These anti-Mexican residents had little to fear, however, at least in the short run. There was precedent for American importation of Mexican labor in wartime—seventy-three thousand Mexicans had come to the United States to work during World War I—and increasing support for the plan among both officials and growers. But the shortcomings of that earlier guestworker program, which was plagued by employers’ abuse of laborers and unwillingness to abide by contract terms, made both the United States and Mexican governments slow to forge another such arrangement. The two countries started sketching out a bilateral arrangement in the spring of 1942, but they did not formally agree to the Bracero Program, as the new farm labor program came to be called, until August 4. And the first group of five hundred braceros, who were brought in to work in the sugar beet fields of Stockton, in the north end of the Valley, did not arrive until September 29. Those initial five hundred were followed shortly thereafter by small numbers of braceros contracted to grow lettuce, strawberries, and artichokes in the California’s Salinas Valley and sugar beets in Washington state. All told, however, in 1942 the United States allowed in only 4,189 braceros—and just five hundred of them ended up in the San Joaquin Valley, all in Stockton.
The failure to bring in more braceros to redress the labor shortfall frustrated Valley farmers to no end. “We asked for Mexicans in 1941,” insisted Arphaxad Setrakian, president of the California Grape Advisory Council, in a U.S. Senate hearing on labor conditions in the West held late the following year. Yet “all we get is procrastination, delay, politics, and promises.” Setrakian, a diminutive Fresno farmer who went by the nickname ‘Sox,’ placed much of the blame for the delay on social reformers—“peddlers of bunk” and “mildewed braintrusters,” in his estimation—who questioned whether growers were prepared to offer braceros adequate housing. “They always meet with us and talk about housing conditions and baths and showers,” Sox complained, “they tell us we have got to have bathtubs.” But, he insisted, the housing question was no question at all. “We constructed an assembly point to house 10,000 Japanese in Fresno,” Sox observed, adding that he wasn’t sure whether it was occupied or not. Regardless, Sox wondered, “If we need food and fiber, can anyone tell me that the Government cannot overnight build assembly points where the Mexicans can be brought and properly housed and distributed to the farmers in the neighborhood?”
Japanese assembly centers were, in fact, eventually turned into housing for braceros. But that process would not begin until 1943. In the meantime, Valley farmers were forced to rely on homegrown workers. Governor Olson had highlighted one such source—“civilian volunteers’’—in his July 8 message, though he had his doubts about whether they could make the difference. Seeking out such civilian volunteers, Olson concluded, was “a little bit like looking for scrap rubber—you get some, of course, but probably not enough that is usable.”
The governor was not the only one who had misgivings about civilian volunteers. Earlier that year, University of California professor of farm management R. L. Adams had “warned that the city bred youngsters may not be able to withstand the rigors and monotony of farm labor.” In a subsequent letter to the Fresno Bee, a Mills, California, resident added that many school-aged children—whether from the city or the countryside—would not be of much help with fruit picking, which necessitated the use of top-heavy, 12-foot ladders. Other observers believed that city students were more than up to the task.  One young Fresnan, for instance, called Adams’s comments “an injustice and an insult,” insisting that Fresno schools provided sufficient physical education training to enable its students “to do some of the toughest farm jobs.”
Thousands of Fresno youths would soon find out if they were up to the rigors of farm labor, harvesting tomatoes, grapes, and other Valley crops under the scorching summer sun. Less than a week after the Army vetoed the use of Japanese internees as laborers, the Fresno Bee reported that a range of “city folk”—men, women, and children—had begun spending weekends and summer vacation as volunteer pickers at area farms. Over the next few months, the newspaper was filled with stories, often two or three a day, chronicling the campaign of a labor force that by the fall had been dubbed the “Victory Harvest Army.”
The San Joaquin Valley was not the only part of the country that tapped students, housewives, and other volunteers for the 1942 harvest. Farmers in at least five western states targeted these populations as well. New York and New Jersey each passed legislation easing child labor laws so that students over 14 years of age could be excused from classes to work on farms. Seven thousand New York City high school students applied for summer agricultural work on upstate farms, and some schools in Washington state moved to a six-day-week schedule to shorten the academic year and free up students to work.
Women, too, flooded farms—from the South Atlantic states to the West Coast. According to one survey, women accounted for 13% of total agricultural workers in 1942, compared to just 1.5% in 1941. During the fall cotton harvest, residents in at least half a dozen Georgia counties took picking holidays, while the Works Progress Administration halted all Atlanta-area construction projects to free up six hundred men to head out to the cotton fields.
But few, if any, communities marshalled a phalanx of pickers that matched the Victory Harvest Army of the San Joaquin Valley. Although the labor shortage impacted the harvest of a range of Valley crops, it was most acute for grapes and cotton.
The grape harvest, valued at $30 million, came first. Starting in mid-August, area businesses, including the main Bank of America branch in Fresno and two wholesale paper companies, began making arrangements for its employees to leave work and help pick grapes. The Fresno office of the United States Employment Service (USES), a New Deal agency that helped connect employers and employees, coordinated getting city residents to the farms where they were needed. School buses left the Inyo Street office each morning at 6:30 or 7:00 to transport workers to vineyards in Reedley, Fowler, and Kingsburg. The Sanger Parent Teacher Association and the Fresno City Board of Education provided nursery care for mothers who assisted with the harvest. In the small town of Selma, the USES introduced a two-ton mobile farm labor recruiting station—one of only two operating in California.
This initial wave of volunteerism was followed by the AAWMC’s more concerted effort to pressure workers at local businesses to join the effort. “City people,” as Irvine S. Terrell had complained to the Fresno Chamber of Commerce on September 9, needed to do more.
The Fresno Bee also pitched in, running regular stories and photographs that encouraged Valley residents to fulfill their patriotic duty to pick grapes. At the zenith of the grape harvest, the paper’s social news editor, Bess Middleton, wrote a column chronicling a day she spent in the fields. “As an American woman I volunteered yesterday to go out and pick grapes,” she wrote on September 11. “If I lived in Nazi controlled country, I, and thousands of other women, would have been ordered into the vineyards long ago, not just for one day or one week but until every grape was harvested.” Middleton worked alongside about fifty other pickers—“a true cross section of democratic America,” in her estimation—including a dentist, a country school teacher, a Fresno State College faculty member, and two dozen high school boys and girls. She was also joined by Bee photographer Edwin E. Schober, who was assigned to take photographs that might spark greater interest in the harvest. Schober lauded the personal benefits of the work, which helped settle his “rather jumpy” nerves. “Perhaps if you are feeling not quite up to par,” he advised Bee readers, “a few hours in the vineyard may be just what the doctor ordered. Then, too, you will be doing your bit to save the crop, help Uncle Sam win the war and earn a few dollars either for your piggy bank or for victory bonds.”
Despite the pressure exerted on Valley adults, area schools and their students were likely the most important factor in the success of the grape harvest. In mid-August, the principals of Selma, Fowler, Central Union, and Parlier high schools had agreed to a Fresno County Farm Bureau plan to use their schools to house and feed boys from Los Angeles and San Francisco who would temporarily be brought in to work in Valley vineyards. Meanwhile, many local schools decided to delay opening until September 28 so that their students could stay in the fields longer. Although Fresno city schools did not implement a similar delay, the Board of Education excused junior and senior high school students who wanted to help with the harvest and made provisions for 20% of city school teachers to accompany and supervise the student pickers. During the first week of school, nearly sixteen hundred boys and girls—comprising more than 25% of secondary students enrolled in Fresno city schools—were forgoing their studies to pick grapes. This included more than three hundred students from Edison Technical High School and 225 from Alexander Hamilton Junior High School, as well as members of the football teams from Fresno High School and Fresno State College.
Vernon Selland, one of the Hamilton Junior High School students who participated in the 1942 harvest, remembers those days fondly. “They called upon us to volunteer” before classes began, he observed in a recent interview, “and they said as a reward we will start school two weeks late.” Picking figs in Fresno and grapes in the Fowler, Selma, and Kingsburg area, Selland was happy to miss several weeks of school, to get paid a modest salary that “seemed really swell at the time,” and to lend a hand in the war effort. He did not find the work particularly arduous, perhaps because Selland—unlike some of his classmates—was familiar with harvesting crops, having spent several summers in the grape and cotton fields on a family farm near Caruthers. He recalls the kindness of the Valley farmers, who brought “out sandwiches for lunch and that sort of thing.” In sum, the picking holiday was a “really positive” experience for Selland and surely for many of his classmates, who were also happy to delay the start of the school year, earn a bit of money, and play a role, however small, in the war against fascism.
Vernon Selland and the rest of the Victory Harvest Army would, as we have seen, ultimately prevail in the fight to save the grape crop, saving growers from disaster by the end of September. They earned praise from the Fresno County Farm Bureau board of directors, which on October 1 passed a motion to extend its “appreciation to the volunteer workers in the grape harvest for the splendid response to the appeal from the farmer to save this tremendous food for freedom.” The board offered special thanks to Fresno youths, women, and schools, as well as to the members of the Fresno Merchants Association and “all the business interests in the smaller towns in our county” for making their employees available to work in the fields.
But these foot soldiers of the Victory Harvest Army soon faced a more daunting challenge: the cotton harvest. Like grapes, cotton was critical to the San Joaquin Valley economy—the crops were the two most important in many Valley counties—and it was deemed essential to the war effort, used to make servicemen’s uniforms, duffle bags, explosives, cellulose, and seed oil. Cotton was also California’s most labor-intensive crop, thus necessitating a large, transient work force, with a harvest season that stretched from September to January. Volunteer labor was needed to pick Valley cotton, explained Willard Marsh, Fresno district manager of the USES, “but this is not like the grape harvest—that was a matter of a few weeks, while cotton picking will extend over several months.” As such, “the volunteers must keep turning out if their efforts are to offset the shortage of transient workers.”
The Fresno Bee trumpeted the severity of the crisis in headline after headline that fall. “4,000 Cotton Pickers Needed in Kern County,” the paper declared on October 28. “10,000 Pickers Needed to Save Tulare Cotton,” it proclaimed the following day. By the start of November, the USES estimated that the Valley as a whole was short twenty thousand workers to harvest a cotton crop valued at more than $50 million. The agency tried to entice transient farm hands, sending interpreters to Southern California to interview Spanish-speaking workers living there. But it ran into hurdles getting many of these workers up north. Ultimately, Willard Marsh estimated that Valley cotton growers could count on just one third of the normal number of transient pickers in 1942. “This is the ideal time for volunteers to try their luck,” he observed on November 1, hoping to motivate locals to pick up the slack. “The weather is good, the first picking is heavy, and the wages—$2 a hundredweight—are the highest ever paid.”
Once again, local school districts ensured that students played a central role in the harvest. Many Valley schools, including those in Tranquillity, Alta Vista, Hanford, and Caruthers, adopted a minimum-day schedule, opening for four hours each morning and freeing up students to work in the afternoon. Other school districts implemented crop holidays. In mid-October, the Madera County Superintendent of Schools announced that its elementary and high schools would shut down for three weeks to enable students to pick cotton. Corcoran and Kerman schools both closed for two weeks, while schools in Tulare, Delano, and Kern counties implemented shorter crop holidays. At an October 29 meeting, the Fresno County War Manpower Committee asked school officials throughout the county to suspend classes while the weather was still good. Although the cotton harvest season lasted into January, the rain and cooler temperatures that typically arrived in late fall would jeopardize the quality of Valley cotton and make picking more difficult. “Every day gained before the advent of bad weather,” maintained the committee’s chairman, “means a higher grade product and increased supplies of cotton and its byproducts so urgently needed by America and her allies.”
On November 17, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors went one step further. Worried that less than 30% of the crop had been harvested—70% was normal by that point—the board adopted a resolution that called on “every able bodied man, woman and child in Fresno County to ‘join the Victory Cotton Army and aid in the harvesting the war crop.’” The Fresno City Board of Education, in turn, pledged “full cooperation” with the Board of Supervisor’s resolution. When city schools recessed for the annual Thanksgiving vacation later that week, School Superintendent Homer C. Wilson urged teachers and principals to encourage as many of the city’s more than thirteen thousand students to assist with the harvest as possible. “No more patriotic Thanksgiving service could be rendered by pupils and teachers than by spending Thanksgiving week…in the cotton fields to save the crop,” he held. “We may as well get used to doing these things voluntarily, because if we don’t, next year we may be drafted to do the same thing.”
Truth be told, quite a few people had already been compelled to participate in the harvesting of Valley crops. As the summer proposal to employ Japanese evacuees had already revealed, local farmers and officials harbored no inherent affinity for voluntary labor. The myriad stories of city folk and students sacrificing their time and bodies to pick crops for the war effort certainly buoyed spirits and testified to a wellspring of local patriotism. But coercion was not off the table. Perhaps the most obvious place to look on this score was the military. Several California politicians, including Governor Olson, asked General DeWitt to send soldiers to the Valley to work, for pay, in the fields. On at least one occasion in early September, about two hundred soldiers in Fresno—“all volunteers,” according to the Bee—did participate in the grape harvest. It is unclear, however, how much choice they had. Men who had enlisted in or been drafted by the army were unlikely to have been given, or to have expected, much freedom in determining how they spent their days.
According to War Department policy, troops could only be used to harvest crops when other sources of labor had been exhausted. And Valley farmers and officials, for their part, continued to believe that there were sufficient hands to be found among area residents, though these potential laborers—and their current employers—needed prodding. The emergency meeting of the AAWMC on September 9, at which chairman Irvine S. Terrell threatened merchants with the prospect of governmental labor allocation, provided evidence of this conviction. Terrell announced that “every ounce of authority of the War Manpower Commission is going to be utilized to save these crops. Non cooperators are going to feel the power of the people.”
Some in the audience had concerns about the limits of that power. When Fresno furniture store owner Louis Slater asked whether employees given time off could be forced to help with the harvest under this new proposal, Terrell replied that “such compulsion is not in line with democratic principles.” Yet the AAWMC went on to approve a seven-point program to explore designating several farm districts as emergency areas so that peace officers there would be empowered to roundup “loafers refusing to aid the grape harvest.” This proposal, however, was nixed by the regional director of the manpower commission, who informed Terrell and his colleagues that the conscription of labor was unacceptable. “Such a program,” announced the director from his headquarters in San Francisco, “definitely is not the policy of this office.”
Despite the disapproval of the regional manpower office, many Valley residents and officials embraced measures targeting so-called “vagrants.” “Go down the street,” a woman in Tulare County instructed, “and idle men are in bars drinking…Draft them or put them to work.” Local authorities by and large agreed with this sentiment. The Fresno County District Attorney ordered law enforcement officers to compel unemployed men to find work in the fields or face arrest. “I believe,” he announced, “that these idle persons are either slackers or persons not in sympathy with the war effort of our government.” Hanford judge Harry V. Breton and Delano mayor William B. Smith advocated similar policies, both of which were designed to get idle men off the streets and into the fields. The Delano Chamber of Commerce urged nearby towns to adopt its approach in order to “prevent loiterers from going to other communities and force them into the harvest fields.” According to AAWMC chairman Terrell, such steps were, in fact, being taken—and well beyond Delano. “The skid rows, gambling houses and pool halls throughout the San Joaquin Valley,” he explained in early September, “are being cleaned out and the men ordered to get into the labor ranks where they are most needed.”
State laws nationwide, including in California, gave authorities considerable discretion in defining vagrancy and, thus, in exploiting this potential labor pool. Updated in the summer of 1941, the California penal code classified a wide variety of individuals as vagrants, subjecting them to a fine of up to $500, jail time of up to six months, or both. Prostitutes, drunks, thieves, beggars, and “every idle, or lewd, or dissolute person” and “every person without visible means of living who has the physical ability to work” all qualified as vagrants. Wandering around the streets late at night was a sufficient enough violation for arrest. California officials had long deployed vagrancy laws for a variety of policing and coercive purposes, including compelling the poor to work. But the context of the war provided a patina of patriotism to justify actions that, to some, might otherwise seem to be government overreach. Authorities could argue that destitute men who refused to work in the fields failed not just themselves and their families, but their nation as well.
Authorities also targeted the incarcerated. On September 25, forty Valley police chiefs, judges, and other law enforcement officials unanimously endorsed a plan already adopted by the town of Stockton: unemployed men arrested for minor offenses, including vagrancy and intoxication, who agreed to do harvest work would have their jail terms suspended. Those who refused the offer, however, would receive more severe sentences than they otherwise would have. The secretary of the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce speculated that if implemented throughout the Valley, this plan could net six thousand additional farm workers. One month later, Merced County officials urged Sheriff N. L. Cornell to use prisoners in the county jail to assist with the harvest. “There is no way prisoners can be forced to work under existing laws,” replied Cornell. But the sheriff noted that he had been paroling as many prisoners as possible for farm work.
Valley communities even tried to limit the flow of alcohol. Bar and liquor store owners in Merced agreed in September to close on Sundays for the rest of the harvest season. Doing so, they hoped, would reduce Monday absenteeism caused by hangovers. By November, Merced farmers were asking that bar and pool rooms be shuttered for most of the week, with the lone exception of Saturday nights. In Stockton, Tracy, Marysville, and Modesto, retail liquor establishments reduced their hours of operation, closing at 12 AM rather than 2 AM and opening at 8 AM rather than 6 AM. The Fresno County War Manpower Commission (a subordinate of the Area Commission), farm industry representatives, and local law enforcement agents proposed this same plan to the county’s liquor license holders at a large meeting at Fresno Memorial Auditorium on September 28. “The midnight to 8 A.M. is worth trying,” urged the gathering’s sponsors, “for it will eliminate what seems to be one of the major hindrances in keeping available workers employed steadily.” Alcohol abuse was the worst between 12 and 2, they insisted. And the delayed opening would ensure that individuals won’t “visit bars early in the morning,” before they headed out to work. Although this plan was presented as a voluntary measure, numerous speakers suggested that if it did not pass, the Army might step in and impose a compulsory one. Eventually, four hundred Fresno County liquor license holders—representing roughly half of the establishments selling alcohol in the county—agreed to a slightly modified version of the proposal. Beginning in October and lasting through the end of the war, they would close early and open late every day but Saturday.
It is difficult to determine whether shutting down bars and similar venues early had much measurable impact on the farm labor shortage. The same goes for efforts to coerce idle, intemperate, or incarcerated individuals into the cotton fields. Judging by reports in the Fresno Bee, it appears that the bulk of the work in the cotton harvest was performed voluntarily by the local citizenry, albeit with significant prodding by government officials, as had been the case with the grape harvest.
By early December, authorities in some portions of the region were feeling encouraged by the progress that had been made on cotton farms. “The harvest in the vicinity of Fresno is well ahead of that in the rest of the county,” reported Al J. Brown, chairman of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce agricultural committee on December 1. He saw this fact as a testament to “the splendid cooperation and assistance we have been getting from the schools.” But in the county as a whole, not to mention the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, the situation remained critical. According to one cotton processing firm, by December 5, just 43 % of Fresno County cotton had been ginned, compared to the 90% that was typical for that point in the season. With that shortfall in mind, Fresno city and county officials decided to capitalize on the approaching Pearl Harbor attack anniversary, urging locals to “remember the Pearl Harbor treachery” by “doing their part on the home front to help avenge it.” Cotton clothing and equipment is “needed to win the war,” Brown reminded residents. “Our job is to get it picked. By doing that we can deliver a solid blow against the Axis.”
Patriotic pleas such as this one bolstered student turnout for cotton picking in Fresno on December 7 and throughout the Christmas holiday break. By mid-January, the statewide cotton harvest total nearly matched that of the previous year. Two months later, the state reported that the county’s farms had produced $83 million worth of food and fiber in 1942, surpassing the 1941 total by $24.5 million. Looking forward to the next year’s harvest season, Fresno County Chamber of Commerce executive secretary M.P. Lohse predicted that “if agriculture during 1943 is to equal the 1942 record, even greater dependence must be placed on workers recruited from groups not heretofore considered as being a necessary part of the agricultural picture.”
Lohse was correct, at least in part. Through the duration of the war, Valley agricultural interests continued to rely on thousands of local volunteers, especially students, to help with the harvest of key crops.
But volunteerism was only part of the story. The Victory Harvest Army’s success was also the result of intervention by the local, state, and federal governments. The 1942 farm labor crisis thus speaks to a broader continuity in the history of the San Joaquin Valley, of California, and, indeed, of the U.S. West, one that predated and extends beyond World War II. Despite the myth of Western individualism, since the nineteenth century Western farmers, ranchers, and residents in general have depended on federal government interventions and resources—from Native American removal to permits to graze on public lands to the massive flood control, reclamation, and irrigation projects that enabled the region’s growth and booming economy.
Throughout the 1942 harvest crisis, Valley growers looked time and again to federal officials—as well as to local and state officials—to redress their labor shortage. They asked the U.S. Army to permit them to employee Japanese internees, and they urged the federal government to negotiate a treaty to bring in Mexican braceros. When these efforts failed to solve the problem, Valley farmers relied on local, state, and federal authorities to encourage, coordinate, and at times compel the participation of Valley residents in the 1942 harvest.
In the years that followed, Valley ranchers and growers would continue to rely on the federal government to solve their labor problems by providing an increasingly foreign-born labor force. In 1943 and 1944, the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Labor Bureau brought in nearly seven thousand Mexican nationals as a part of the Bracero Program. At the end of the 1943 season, Irvine S. Terrell, who managed the labor bureau’s Fresno office in addition to his AAWMC duties, praised these temporary laborers for their remarkably low turnover rate and “highly satisfactory work” on cattle ranches and especially peach, grape, and cotton farms. A Merced County official credited braceros for not only helping to avert major crop losses that year but also making “it unnecessary to issue a general call for volunteer labor from cities in the county.”
Not everyone, however, was enthusiastic about the new labor source. Indeed, anti-Mexican and Japanese sentiments remained as strong among some Valley residents as they had been in 1942, as side-by-side letters to the editor published by the Fresno Bee on February 23, 1943 make clear. In one, Robert G. Williams of Lodi accused Japanese immigrants to the United States of attempting to seize control of the country through propaganda, Japanese language schools, and espionage. In the other, Fresnan Cecil Clark lamented the ongoing “howling” for the importation of “Mexican labor,” which to his mind was inferior to “American white labor.”
The Victory Harvest Army, in the end, ultimately lived up to its name and saved the 1942 season. But such ugly assertions of bigotry against the Valley’s non-white residents—like the thorny questions about the duties of patriotism, the limits of government coercion, and the role of government support for private agricultural interests—reveal that the 1942 farm labor crisis perfectly encapsulated the real meanings, and costs, of victory in this campaign and in World War II as a whole.
 Our account of the San Joaquin Valley’s 1942 farm labor crisis builds on and is indebted to the unpublished research of Christina Morales Guzmán. See Guzmán, “Race, Citizenship, and the Negotiation of Space: Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans in Fresno, California, 1870-1949” (PhD diss., University of California, Santa Cruz, 2012): 151-190.
 Heather Cox Richardson, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), xvi, 85-91.
 Devra Weber, Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 225n1.
 Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 108.
New York Times, Feb. 1, 1942; New York Times, Mar. 26, 1942; Fresno Bee, Apr. 14, 1942; Hearings Before the Special Committee to Investigate Farm Labor Conditions in the West, United States Senate, Seventy-Seventh Congress, Second Session on S. Res. 299, in Four Parts (Washington: US Govt. Printing Office, 1943), 187-188; Cameron E. Woods, “Mexican Agricultural Labor in California: 1941-1945” (MA thesis, California State University, Fresno 1950), 7-11, 46-7; Erasmo Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), xii; Gerald D. Nash, The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 46-7; Fresno Bee, Apr. 4, 1942. This farm labor shortage, it is worth noting, was highly localized. Indeed, California as a whole had a sufficient number of laborers. Yet inefficient worker distribution, transportation challenges, and the perishability of Valley crops undermined growers’ ability to tap into this workforce. Don Mitchell, They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 23, 434n9; Otey M. Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement of 1942,” Agricultural History 34 (July 1960): 140.
 The long-term consequences of this program were devastating. Few Japanese farm owners realized any compensation for the time, labor, and expenses they devoted to the 1942 planting, and most ultimately lost their land—often unloading it to white neighbors at “fire-sale” prices. Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy, 122-127; Aaron Mejia, “Dispossessed: Japanese Internment and the California Alien Land Laws,” May 8, 2019, unpublished paper in authors’ possession.
Fresno Bee, June 5, 942; Louis Fiset, “Thinning, Topping, and Loading: Japanese Americans and Beet Sugar in World War II,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly (Summer 1999): 129; New York Times, Sept. 14, 1942; New York Times, Sept. 22, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 28-29.
Fresno Bee, Apr. 9, 1942; Fresno Bee, Apr. 14, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 22, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 3, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 30, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 39; Hearings Before the Special Committee, 244; Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement,” 141; Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 22.
 Lori A. Flores, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farm Worker Movement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 42; Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 22-23; Wayne Rassmussen, A History of the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program, 1943-47 (Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1951), 200, https://archive.org/details/historyofemergen13rasm/page/n1.
 Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 39-40; Flores, Grounds for Dreaming, 42.
 Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement,”140; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 40-41; Flores, Grounds for Dreaming, 47.
Hearings Before the Special Committee, 244-48; Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1986. Fresno, in fact, had two assembly centers, not one.
 The Japanese assembly centers in Stockton, Merced, and Tulare were used as “holding camp facilities” for more than five thousand braceros who were either newly arrived and awaiting work assignments or in between jobs. In addition, some buildings from these centers were provided to growers, who moved them to labor camps throughout the Valley. Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 51-52; Fresno Bee, Sept. 5, 1943.
Fresno Bee, July 8, 1942. Olson previously endorsed the recruitment of white-collar workers and students. Fresno Bee, June 30, 1942.
 Vernon Selland, interview with Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle, Fresno, CA, June 3, 2020.
 Although the 1942 grape harvest was not the disaster many thought it would be in late August and early September, the state’s total raisin grape yield did drop from 1,421,000 tons in 1941 to 1,326,000 tons in 1942. In addition, California growers failed to meet the total of 350,000 tons of raisins requested by the War Production Board for 1942, producing just 250,000 tons. Fresno Bee, Nov. 11, 1942; Hearings Before the Special Committee to Investigate Farm Labor Conditions, 26.
Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942. The San Joaquin Valley was not the only agricultural region where coercive tactics were used to secure farm laborers during World War II. In the Arkansas and Mississippi deltas, for instance, cotton planters employed government programs not only to depress wages among their workers but also to make it difficult for them to leave the region. See Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, “Pick or Fight: The Emergency Farm Labor Program in the Arkansas and Mississippi Deltas during World War II,” Agricultural History 64 (Spring 1990): 74-85.
 Risa Goluboff, Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1-4.
Fresno Bee, Oct. 26, 1942. Although California prohibited contract convict labor, some prisoners in the state were employed in harvest camps during World War II. See Ward M. McAfee, “A History of Convict Labor in California,” Southern California Quarterly 72 (Spring 1990): 22, 30.
 Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987), 82-83, 138-39; Norris Hundley, Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water A History, Revised Edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001).
Seas of cellphones floating above the anchors of outstretched arms; the litany of hashtags bearing the names of the dead; livestream footage broadcasted by protestors with boots on the ground; the videos that capture for the world to see the life being taken from Black bodies by police—all of these have become recognizable features of the movement against police brutality and for Black lives, which has swept the nation and the world over the past decade. But they are more than mere characteristics. They are critical mechanisms by which the movement travels, transmits messages, grows, and pushes back against the daily horrors of structural racism and state violence within the United States. They are examples of a political practice that Allissa V. Richardson calls “Black witnessing,” which has played a constitutive role in what has arguably become the most powerful movement of our time. In her book, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism, Richardson examines the forms of Black witnessing that animate the Black Lives Matter movement, while situating them within the much longer arc of witnessing practices that have helped shape historic struggles for Black liberation. In the process, her book brings into focus just how much efforts to combat the horrors of white supremacy and to sustain movements for racial justice have relied on often-overlooked acts of seeing and truth-telling that have been undertaken by Black witnesses past and present.
As she builds on a growing body of research that investigates African Americans’ use of cell phones and social media, Richardson bases her study especially on a pool of interviews she conducted with fifteen prominent Black witnesses, along with in-depth analyses of their Twitter timelines. Her interviewees are diverse in their gender identities, sexual orientations, and relationships to the Black Lives Matter movement, offering important insight into the patterns, interconnections, and differences that characterize their experiences and perspectives as Black witnesses. She organizes her analysis into three parts: Smartphones, Slogans, and Selfies. Across these three sections, the broad strokes of her work situate the smartphone era in a longer history of Black struggle, provide an archaeology of contemporary Black witnessing practices, and examine the visual iconography of Black protest journalism in the age of Black Lives Matter, along with its implications for Black witnesses and broader efforts for racial justice.
One of Richardson’s core contributions in Bearing Witness While Black is her centering of Blackness within her exploration of witnessing and its relationship to movement formation. In positing a distinctly Black witnessing as the focus of her study, she makes the case not only that Black people bear witness differently than others but, further, that witnessing has been a vital arena in which Black people have staked the evidentiary foundations of an oppositional narrative about race, power, and democracy within the United States. Black witnessing carries important legal weight for the pursuit of racial justice in courts. It also has a powerful capacity to mobilize public action, fueling pushback against racist policing patterns and the institutional racism that undergirds them. At least as significantly for Richardson is the role that it plays in linking Black people to one another. Particularly in the context of crisis, as Richardson puts it, Black witnessing functions as “a form of connective tissue among Black people that transcends place.” Rather than distancing or depersonalizing the connection between the victims of atrocity and the viewers, as the main currents of media witnessing scholarship suggest, she argues that cellphone footage of anti-Black violence, when seen by Black people, “blurs [the line] between viewer and victim.” For those who bear witness while Black (and some allied people of color, whom she includes in her analysis), Richardson’s work underscores that incidents of anti-Black violence are never isolated or episodic in nature. Rather, they grow out of, occur within, and are experienced through the context of systemic violence and generational trauma that history has wrought upon Black people for centuries.
As richly nuanced as it is in the ways it engages and builds upon media witnessing theory, Richardson’s work is also firmly anchored in and driven by the imperatives of praxis. Drawing on her experiences as a journalist, as a teacher of mobile journalism, and as an African-American woman who grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland in the age of the police assault on Rodney King and the L.A. Rebellion, she writes with an acute attentiveness to the stakes of the news-making practices she analyzes, including for witnesses themselves. Having worked with citizen journalists in a wide range of contexts, including in South Africa at the front lines of the country’s HIV/AIDS crisis and in Morocco in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, she also speaks to the comparative dimensions of witnessing practices across a variety of social movements. She highlights a certain degree of relatability that links the use of smartphones and social media by participants in the Black Lives Matter movement with that of people in the Occupy Wall Street protests and the Arab Spring.
Yet, in significant ways, she also emphasizes that the scope, scale, and systematic nature of racial violence to which African Americans bear witness make their witnessing even more akin to that of Holocaust survivors than to protestors in these other movements. As she explains, when Black people bear witness to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and far, far too many others, their actions simultaneously memorialize “the more than 10 million Africans who were sold into bondage across the Atlantic Ocean . . . the 5,000 African American men, women, and children who continued to be victims of lynching across the United States . . . [and] the more than 1 million African American and Latinx men and women who have fallen victim to mass incarceration since the late 1970s.” Black witnessing honors those subjected to suffering and premature death, all the while refusing to let the public forget the past, or, for that matter, look away from the horrors of the present. Therein lies its urgency.
It is not only the long history of anti-Black racism that weighs on the present. As Richardson demonstrates, contemporary Black witnessing practices also carry forth the legacies of Black survival, struggle, and resistance. As she situates the Black Lives Matter movement within a much longer genealogy of Black liberatory struggles, Richardson charts a history of Black witnessing that links the role of slave narratives, African American newspapers and magazines, television, early internet-based social networks, and Black Twitter along a historical continuum—forming “an unbroken chain of brave seers.” Earlier generations laid the groundwork for the modes of witnessing we have seen in the past decade, Richardson argues. The primary factor that distinguishes the witnessing practices of our contemporary moment is the accessibility of the technology involved. With the introduction of the smartphone, witnesses the world over acquired “a tool that would allow anyone to create and distribute media quickly, without the need for a privileged gatekeeper.” Combined with social media platforms and speedy internet connections, the smartphone has equipped today’s Black witnesses to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors, while at the same time enabling them to share, collectively grieve, strategize, and organize in response to news of police brutality at a more rapid pace and on a more thoroughly mass scale than ever before.
While Richardson makes clear her position on the side of viewing Black witnessing as a positive force for racial justice, her endorsement is not the kind that romanticizes. In fact, some of the richest parts of her analysis are those where she explores the tensions and contradictions inherent in the practice. Among the troubling aspects of Black witnessing she examines is the way that the smartphone technology on which today’s protest journalists rely—“the very tool that empowers the activists”—carries with it “the potential to extinguish them.” Highlighting the growing use of Stingray tracking technology by authorities and harking back to the role of COINTELPRO in the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Richardson complicates any inclination to celebrate the smartphone’s democratizing effects without reckoning with the ways it expands the terrain for surveillance and political repression.
Another set of challenges Richardson investigates is the potential harm that comes from seeing itself. On one level, bearing witness to atrocity can have serious emotional and psychological effects on the viewer, not to mention the threat of backlash from authorities to which they expose themselves. (Many will remember Ramsey Orta in this respect, the video witness who was the only one from the scene of Eric Garner’s death in 2014 who was arrested.) On another level, when footage of Black police victims’ last moments is shown repeatedly, often unedited and without freeze frame or face blurring techniques, the imagery may do more to normalize racist violence and uphold the terror of white supremacy than to challenge it. All this leads Richardson to the assertion that how such footage is shared is as significant as whether it is shared.
It is noteworthy that Bearing Witness While Black entered into print in June 2020, at the very same moment that the nation’s racial uprisings reached peak levels of intensity following the deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others. While Richardson could not have anticipated the exact synchronicity of events, it is a testament to just how “on time” her work truly is. Questions remain about how Black witnessing practices may vary across class lines, since Richardson’s interview sample overwhelmingly comprises graduates of prominent universities with advanced degrees, a factor that Richardson herself acknowledges. The relational dynamics that link the experiences and perspectives of Black-identified witnesses with those of non-Black witnesses of color is another topic that some readers may wish to see analyzed further, as her discussion on this front is relatively brief. Still, well researched and engagingly written, the book offers a fresh critical lens on the Black Lives Matter movement and on the possibilities and perils of efforts for social change more generally, adding significantly to both scholarly and broader public conversations. It will be of particular interest not only to media and journalism scholars, but also scholars of race/ethnicity, social movements, technology and history, as well as social activists and organizers for whom it bears lessons.
Elizabeth E. Sine is a historian of race, labor, and social movements in California and the broader United States (Ph.D., University of California San Diego) and Lecturer in History at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is author of the recent book, Rebel Imaginaries: Labor, Culture, and Politics in Depression-Era California (Duke University Press, 2021) and co-editor of Another University Is Possible (University Readers, 2010). She is also on the steering committee of R.A.C.E. Matters in San Luis Obispo, California.
 Allissa V. Richardson, Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones, and the New Protest #Journalism (Oxford University Press, 2020), 12.
 The reference here to being “on time” comes from Ivory Perry, qtd. in George Lipsitz, A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 269.
Adam Goodman sat down with professor, author, and human rights advocate Elliott Young to discuss his new book which shines a light on the often cruel and senseless policies that make up the intersection of immigration and criminal justice in the United States.
Adam Goodman: The book’s title, Forever Prisoners, is provocative. How did you come up with it and what does it mean?
Elliott Young: A friend who does prison abolition activism work and criminal justice said that the stories I tell sound a lot like the Guantanamo prisoners who have been there for twenty years, many of them not charged with any crimes. And so, this moniker: forever prisoners. The more I thought about it, I said, “Yes, forever prisoners is exactly the state in which many of these immigrants found themselves.” Of course, most of them didn’t spend their entire lives in prison. Some died after being detained, but many got out; but even when people get out, immigrants found themselves in positions of rightlessness or diminished rights. For people deported to places in Central America where there is lots of gang violence or political violence, they find themselves also like prisoners, in the sense of being trapped in their houses. So, the long reach of the tentacles of the prison seemed like an apt metaphor to think about the condition in which immigrants have been living for the last 140 years.
AG: Many scholars of immigration detention focus on the 1980s to the present. You start a century earlier. Why? What do we learn by tracing that longer history?
EY: My previous book was about Chinese immigration and starts off in the mid-nineteenth, so I knew that the Chinese were being detained and deported (obviously not in the numbers that we have today) right from the beginning of when the federal immigration system was set up. It seemed that the origins of that system were important to understand and to try to understand the trajectory from the late nineteenth century all the way through to the present. Not to say that there were no changes, but to track those changes so we don’t make the mistake of thinking we could return to an idealized earlier era. Sometimes people say 1954, “Oh, that was the moment like immigrant detention ended.” Well, 1954 to the 1980s was not a good time for Mexicans who were coming across the border without authorization.
AG: One of the things I found most compelling about your book is that you tell the history of immigration detention through a series of incredible, incredibly revealing, and often disturbing stories. The book’s first story takes place not on Ellis Island or on Angel Island, but on McNeil Island, off the coast of Washington. Why there?
EY: McNeil Island was a remote prison island off the coast of Tacoma, one of the three penitentiaries in the United States in this period. I started to do research on Chinese imprisoned there and discovered that they were put there for unauthorized entry—but they were sentenced to hard labor, which was a prison sentence. They were not simply put in this prison pending deportation, which is now the justification for imprisoning immigrants. In this case, they were actually given sentences, but they didn’t go through a judicial trial, so this is completely illegal based on the Constitution. Eventually the Supreme Court, in a landmark 1896 case, decided that you couldn’t do that. You could imprison or detain immigrants pending deportation, but you couldn’t impose criminal sentence on them without a judicial trial.
In this early period, they are experimenting with what to do with immigrants, so they put them in McNeil Island. It was clear that Chinese at that point were crossing the border from Canada to come across into the Pacific Northwest without authorization. The easiest thing for the immigration authorities was to just take them to the border of Canada and push them across. But at that point, Canada had established a head tax requirement for the Chinese and the migrants didn’t have the money to pay. So, Canada refused them entry and they ended up in McNeil Island prison for years, while there were diplomatic negotiations with the Canadian government. Eventually, in the early 1890s, U.S. officials deported them back to China. It’s in this early period that you see the U.S. government trying to work out both the legal grounds for holding immigrants as well as developing the whole bureaucracy and mechanisms for deporting people across the globe.
AG: That raises the question: What do U.S. officials do when there’s nowhere to deport someone? What happens when there’s a country that’s not willing to accept them? This comes up in the case of Nathan Cohen, who found himself in extended—perhaps even indefinite—detention.
EY: Nathan Cohen came from a part of Russia that’s kind of a borderlands region. He was Jewish, he had migrated to Brazil and spent a few years there, then went to New York in 1912. He ends up going to the Deep South, because he has relatives there, and opens a business with his uncle in Jacksonville, Florida. Within a short period of time, he gets married and then he’s swindled by his family. He loses his busines and his wife runs off with his best friend, and this sends him into a funk where he essentially becomes mute. He goes to Baltimore, where his sister was living, and gets put into a mental hospital run by the state, a public mental hospital, and gets declared insane. And because he had immigrated within three years, that declaration of insanity was grounds for deportation. So, he gets sent to Ellis Island and they put him on a ship to go back to Brazil. But Brazil refuses to take him. The ship goes on to Argentina, who also says they don’t want him. The U.S. government is trying to contact the Russians. This is during World War I, Cohen is a Jew, and there’s anti-Jewish programs going on in this region, so Russia isn’t interested in taking him. So, he’s essentially stateless. The press describes him as the wandering Jew, the man without a country. And so, he gets sent back to New York. After spending several months in detention on Ellis Island, they try to deport him again. The same thing happens.
AG: It’s a nightmare.
EY: It’s a nightmare; a Kafkaesque nightmare. The last time when he comes back to New York Harbor. The authorities don’t even let him off the boat because they realize that once he’s on U.S. soil he could have legal claims. What happens with Nathan Cohen, eventually the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Knights of Pythias, which was a fraternal organization of which he was a member, intervene and agree to pay for his upkeep in a private sanatorium in Connecticut. He’s taken off the ship and lives in that sanatorium for about a year. Then he just dies, kind of mysteriously, since he’s still a young man at this point (mid-30s), and is buried on Staten Island.
Nathan Cohen’s story is fascinating on its own, but it also led me to discover that there was this whole other system of incarceration in the early twentieth century. Mental hospitals held many more citizens and noncitizens than detention centers or even in jails and prisons. By the 1960s, they started phasing out mental institutions in part because of the critiques of the way mental institutions were handled, and then we see the rise of mass incarceration. What we have now is lots of people who have mental illness, but instead of being in mental institutions they are in prisons and jails.
AG: Something else that stands out is the history of the U.S. government deporting people from Latin America to the United States, rather than vice versa, and detaining them during World War II.
EY: During World War II, there was this semi-secretive FBI program to identify and roundup Axis nationals in Latin America through the U.S. embassies in various countries. Thirteen countries participated in this program. I focus on the case of Seiichi Higashide, who is of Japanese origin, went to Peru as a young man, developed a business there selling goods, and married a Japanese Peruvian woman. He’s put on this list but manages to evade detection for a few years with the help of a local police chief. When he’s finally picked up, Peruvian officials force him onto a U.S. military transport ship and he’s taken to Panama. He’s briefly held at a U.S. military camp there, then put on another ship and taken to New Orleans. From New Orleans they put him on a train and he ends up in Texas. His wife and two children eventually decide to follow him to the United States to keep the family United. The story raises all these questions that we’re facing today about family separation. According to the government, all these people voluntarily went into detention, but it wasn’t so voluntary when the father was forcibly picked up and taken away and the family ends up joining him. U.S. officials detained them in a camp in Crystal City, Texas, which is actually 40 miles from the current family detention center in Dilley. There’s a long history of family detention in the heart of South Texas that continues to this very day.
AG: Another connection to the present is the history you trace of people resisting and organizing against detention. Tell us about the detention of Haitians and Cubans in the 1970s and 1980s, the uprisings in Oakdale, Louisiana, and Atlanta, Georgia, which you describe as “the longest prison takeover in U.S. history.”
EY: In the 1970s, you have Haitians escaping from political unrest and political violence thrown into detention. And almost universally, their asylum claims are rejected. Then, in 1980, there’s this massive boatlift of people from Cuba, the Mariel boatlift, and these are people escaping from a communist country. Initially, Carter sort of welcomes them with open arms into the United States. But this group of 125,000 Cubans was unlike the Cubans who had fled Castro in the early 1960s. Many of them are Black, and they come from lower socioeconomic groups. Their reception in Miami was not as welcoming as the reception in the 1960s had been. They were seen and stigmatized as criminals and as being mentally ill, because there was this idea that Castro just sort of emptied his jails and mental institutions.
The U.S. government responds by establishing mass immigrant detention spaces on military bases around the country. And the idea is they need to be processed to figure out who are the criminals, who are the mentally ill people, and figure out who has family sponsors. After a couple of years, it’s almost entirely Black Cubans who are still in detention. After about a year, almost all of them are paroled into the United States, but they still haven’t regularized their status. Some of those people commit low level offenses, many of them are picked up on marijuana possession charges. Some of them have assault charges and a handful of them do have more serious violent crimes like homicide. So those people are then criminally sentenced and do their time. But after they do their time, because of the immigration regulations, they are now ineligible for their status to be regularized. They face indefinite detention pending deportation.
Eventually, they are sent to Atlanta Penitentiary and to Oakdale, Louisiana, where there was another detention center. Many of them languish there for years. They arrived in 1980 and a few hundred of them were held until the late 1980s. The Castro regime was not interested in having these people return, so they were essentially in prison indefinitely. Then, in November 1987, the Cuban government agrees to take back 2,000 people. Word spreads to these two prisons that they’re going to be deported to Cuba, and that sets off an uprising, first in Oakdale and then a couple of days later in Atlanta.
AG: It’s incredible that these uprisings were more or less coordinated.
EY: They had word through the grapevine and through the media that this was going to happen, that these deportations were imminent. So, the uprising happens in Oakdale, they take over the prison, they seize hostages, and they start torching the buildings. Then the same thing in Atlanta. This is not too long, around 16 years, after Attica, and in that case the National Guard was called in and more than 40 people were massacred. So, the question was, “How is this standoff going to end?” Somewhat miraculously, only one Cuban was shot and killed in Atlanta. No one else died in this episode and after two weeks they finally come to an agreement thanks to the intervention of a Cuban American Bishop from Miami who encouraged the people to give up the hostages and to end the siege. They also received a commitment from the U.S. government to conduct individual asylum reviews. Finally, after Thanksgiving, they leave the prison with salsa music blaring and they give themselves up and turn over the hostages. The larger point of this story is that these uprisings offer insights into the beginnings of “crimmigration,” or the overlapping of criminal justice and immigration.
AG: Throughout the book you show how the criminalization of noncitizens has resulted in the detention and deportation of long-term residents, many of whom have U.S. citizen children. One of the book’s most moving stories is that of Mayra Machado.
EY: I knew for the last chapter I wanted to focus on crimmigration today, and probably a Central American case, since increasingly those are the people detained. As I was looking for media stories, one day I get a call from a detention center in Louisiana. I accepted the call and it was Mayra Machado, who I had done an expert witness asylum declaration for a couple of years earlier. That case was unsuccessful; she was deported.
Mayra was brought to the United States from El Salvador when she was five years old and grew up in Southern California. Then her family moved to Arkansas. When she was eighteen years-old she wrote a hot check; clearly a crime, a mistake. She was picked up, charged, and sentenced to six months in some camp for rehabilitation. She did her time, got out, and ended up having children. Then, in 2015, around Christmas time, she went to Hobby Lobby to buy decorations. Her son left his glasses at the store, and when they returned to get them, she was pulled over on failure to yield traffic violation. Because of the expansion of these Secure Communities agreements and 287(g) agreements, where local law enforcement was basically authorized as immigration agents, they ran her information through the system and discovered that she didn’t have authorization to be in the country. In reality, this is a woman who grew up in the United States, was a working mom—wasn’t some kind of violent criminal—and she’s all of a sudden faced with permanent banishment from the country and separation from her three U.S. citizen children.
I hadn’t actually even been in contact with her personally, but she had my number and she called me up and she said, “I came back into the United States.” Police had picked her up on a traffic violation and put her back in detention while awaiting deportation. At this point she was representing herself. Immigration law is extremely, extremely complicated. When immigrants, as smart as they are, try to represent themselves, the chance of them succeeding is almost nil. I was able to get her a pro bono lawyer from Loyola Law School (New Orleans). And I agreed to work on her case as an expert witness.
AG: How did you start providing expert witness testimony in immigration and asylum cases? What is immigration court like?
EY: This book is really about the present and from my perspective it’s sort of ethically obligatory to not only write about this from the ivory tower, but to actually use what you know to try to have an impact. And one of the ways to do this as an academic is by working on asylum cases.
In 2014, Steven Manning, a great immigration lawyer who runs the Innovation Law lab here in Portland, Oregon, contacted me and asked if I would do an expert witness country conditions declaration to inform the court about the political context related to claims being made. At this point I’ve done more than 400 of these.
Immigration courts are kind of like the Wild West. Immigration judges could decide what they will and won’t accept, so whether your claim has any grounds entirely depends on which immigration judge you get. In Louisiana, the rate of denial is over 90 percent, and some of the judges have 100 percent denial rates. Essentially, no matter what your claim, they’re going to deny it.
AG: It’s farcical.
EY: Yeah. In New York or San Francisco, you’ve got a much better shot. That being said, in almost all of the cases that I’ve worked on, the people actually do gain status or are able to avoid deportation. So, if you have a good lawyer and an expert witness—and if you’re also not in Louisiana or in one of these terrible jurisdictions—you can actually gain asylum. But the problem is, most immigrants are not represented by lawyers and most don’t have expert witnesses.
The hero of this story is Mayra, because if she hadn’t advocated for herself none of us would have gotten involved. Isabel Medina, Mayra’s lawyer, advocate Pablo Alvarado, the head of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, and I went down to an ICE facility run by GEO, the private prison company, in a remote part of Louisiana. We presented all the evidence that when she had been deported back to El Salvador, she had been threatened by gangs with sexual assault and had also received serious threats against her life. But the immigration judge decided against her. Her lawyer appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court, and while the appeal was pending (this was in January of 2020, a year ago), one night at 7:00 p.m. officials told Mayra that they were going to deport her and at 3:00 a.m. that same night they took her to an airport in Alexandria, Louisiana. She argued with them, saying, “No, I’ve got an appeal pending.” But they shackled her and put her on a plane back to El Salvador.
AG: That’s harrowing, and also speaks to how detention and deportation affect U.S. citizens, like Mayra’s children. Something else that we’ve been circling around is the larger story you tell of how immigration detention became intertwined with the rise of mass incarceration writ large.
EY: I’m glad you brought up the mass incarceration question because it’s really what brought me to this project. I was concerned about the mass incarceration of citizens, and also noticed that the literature tended not to focus on immigrants. I wanted to show how immigrant detention is inextricably linked to the mass incarceration of citizens since the 1980s. It’s not a coincidence that the immigrants you find in detention are almost entirely Black and Brown people. This is a racially biased system, enforcement is targeted against particular people, and so in that sense it’s very much linked to the mass incarceration of citizens and the rhetoric that we had from Trump about the “criminals” who are supposedly crossing the border. This is an especially exciting moment when the people arguing against mass incarceration and the folks arguing against immigrant detention can really see how these two systems work together, and then fight to end detention, to end prisons.
AG: How can we accomplish that? Through abolition? Are there other solutions?
EY: I’ll come out and tell you that I’m someone who has an abolitionist horizon. I believe that we should construct a world where there are no prisons, where there are no immigrant detention systems. People should not be in prison because they have come to this country without authorization or they’ve come to this country seeking refuge. It is an abomination, it’s inhumane, and it doesn’t need to be this way. We had 50,000 people a day in ICE detention a year ago. Now, because of Covid, that’s down to 16,000 a day, which is still way too high, but it shows that this system could be dramatically reduced and the sky won’t fall. So, I’m hoping, against my better judgment, that the new Biden administration will not return to the policies of Obama—which were terrible for immigrants and which led to the greatest number of immigrants detained and formally deported in U.S. history—and will instead push for radical transformation of the massive bureaucracy that criminalizes and prevents immigrants from coming to this country in the first place.
In the long saga of the Bay Area, the East Bay is often cast in a secondary role to the more famous San Francisco. Perhaps best known as the place where UC Berkeley thrives, the East Bay is home to decades of urban and industrial growth that brought the whole region to global prominence under the moniker “San Francisco.” Though much writing on the region follows this line—that San Francisco is the central city of the larger region—we are interested in the ways that the East Bay is also, and has always been, central. At this book’s writing the entire East Bay was experiencing intense and rapid change as Silicon Valley tech firms moved in, and as Oakland sought to fast-track housing development to serve the broader regional economic boom. Meanwhile, the East Bay is home to a broad spectrum of communities, who collectively speak some 125 languages and who have forged social movements that shape national and even international politics, from the Left to the Right.
A Shifting Center
We center many of the stories of this chapter in The Town, which is the affectionate local name for the city of Oakland, but we’ll also take you out to Emeryville, for a quick stroll through Berkeley, and north to the cities of Albany and Richmond. In choosing sites for this chapter, we were interested in broad representation, but we also looked for places that are suggestive of some of the larger struggles of the area, from policing to racial justice, economic development and cycles of displacement. We’re interested in the ways that today’s built environment reveals layers of the past—including important traces of the long history of human habitation prior to the Spanish and Anglo conquests.
As the original terminus of the trans- continental railroad in the nineteenth century, Oakland could have emerged as the socioeconomic powerhouse of the region. Instead, urban developers logged Oakland’s forests and capitalists built wealth around San Francisco’s deep-water port first, leaving Oakland to persist as a “second city” culturally, politically, and economically—even as the two cities shared workers, families, and ecosystems. The 1906 San Francisco quake and fire, which destroyed San Francisco’s downtown and nearby neighborhoods, could have shifted the regional urban core east to Oakland. But even though a large share of San Francisco’s industry and residents left at that time to populate the East Bay—Oakland’s Chinatown expanded, for example—and even though the educational powerhouse of UC Berkeley fostered generations of public intellectuals and planted the seeds of activist movements with global influence, San Francisco remained the capital city of the region.
Two of the key drivers of this ongoing dynamic are the wicked problems of race and class. Race-class exclusions drove post–World War II disinvestment, which meant that capitalist and middle-class wealth withdrew from Oakland. This flight-by-capital left the once-vibrant downtown relatively vacant for decades and weakened the urban tax base, even as urban-fringe neighborhoods boomed. By the 1960s, African Americans had made Oakland a central home, having been both displaced by San Francisco’s redevelopment of the Fillmore District and excluded from East Bay suburbs. At the same time, Oakland leaders also pursued urban redevelopment, uprooting those same communities to make way for free- ways and mega-developments. These projects improved regional mobility, but they left gaping wounds in the cityscape across Oakland’s multiracial working-class com- munities, disproportionately hitting Black, and later Latinx, homes and businesses.
These urban rearrangements intersected with the social configurations of the time. Before WWII, white violence was, at its most extreme, embodied by the Ku Klux Klan’s growth in Oakland and the island city of Alameda. After WWII it continued in the practices of the police and sheriff departments. The counterforce of groups like the Black Panther Party and the Brown Berets emerged in part as a response to those conditions—and more. Though pop culture narratives tend to remember them for posing with guns in front of Oakland City Hall, for example, the Panthers’ “Ten Point Platform” included an emphasis on universal literacy and feeding people. It was a stance that emerged out of members’ everyday experiences of poverty and over-policing in The Town. These politics also grew from members’ intellectual investigations that crossed urban borders through- out the East Bay, with the public university and college systems playing a fundamental role in offering young people the chance to develop their ideas, and with intersecting social movements—including South Asian, Chicano, and labor movements—all learning from each other and in some cases joining together to demand better education at UC Berkeley and beyond. These earlier struggles set the stage for today’s Oakland and greater East Bay, in which the collective lived experience of people, across ethnic and racial lines, includes the apparent paradox of deep poverty alongside the riches of successive booms. With each force comes a counterforce.
Community struggles over access to affordable and safe housing offer a lesson in the complexity of the East Bay and its place in the region. In the 2010s, for example, the cost of housing rose sharply, housing development didn’t match job creation, and new proposals lacked sufficient affordable housing or enough protection for vulnerable residents in redeveloped neighborhoods. Oakland moved from the police blotter to the travel section of big city papers in the 2000s, and its reputation was reshaped by commercial boosters who encouraged a renaissance of new, young transplants to the area. But the housing crisis of the gentrification era was a problem with deeper historical roots. Outside of the urban cores, much (though not all) of the East Bay was first developed as a series of low-density urban-fringe neighborhoods, initiating a pattern of housing inequity that remains. Meanwhile, the capital that fled the Oakland core fifty years ago has returned quite unevenly.
Wealth’s renewed interest in Oakland has meant that some areas are receiving much-needed upgrades to dilapidated housing and commercial building stock, as well as city services, but often in forms that push out longtime Oaklanders, sparking revivals of housing-centered social movements. In fact, community members’ efforts to remain in their homes and neighborhoods are central to their role in making the East Bay. Indeed, the East Bay’s legacy of political organizing and creativity is quite alive, and community organizations have pushed for a vision of “development without displacement,” motivating a regional coalition to push for expansions of state and local rent protections, widening the geography of protest and struggle. These efforts intersect with energized local campaigns in many Bay Area cities, including the relatively small city of Richmond to the north. There, a long-growing progressive coalition turned ideals into pragmatic policy. Aiming to curb the toxic impact of local refineries, Richmond residents organized to raise the local minimum wage, bought back guns to remove them from the streets, and threatened the use of eminent domain (which is the city’s power to retake private property) as a way to help stop foreclosure-related displacement.
The stories of housing struggles thus link to the larger challenges of urban life and the balancing act between encouraging needed investment and supporting existing communities. With that in mind, this chapter raises issues and tells stories that are rooted in place, but tries to do so in a way that treads lightly on the very same landscapes that we find so interesting; we are aware of the mixed blessings of tourist attentions.
There are many other stories and paths that we trace in this chapter, stories of culture and art, innovations in everyday life, and long-buried histories that come to light. For us it adds up to this: it’s time to see and listen to the East Bay. Listen to the stories of the people who have built and fostered its many cultures and communities, giving these cities their character and sense of place. Dig deeper to understand the geographies that make and continue to remake these places from the ground up.
1500 Block of Adeline Street Adeline Street Between 14th and 15th Streets, Oakland 94607
The fallout from the foreclosure crisis of the 2000s is written in the streets of Oakland. Much of that story is a painful one of displacement, but there are some important legacies of community organizing and resistance, and this block of West Oakland represents one epicenter for organizing where some residents used mass community pressure to save their homes. On December 6, 2011, for example, Adeline Street resident Gayla Newsome decided to put the rallying cry of a nationwide “Occupy Our Homes Day” into action. Together with a group of about a hundred activists from Occupy Oakland and ACCE (Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment), Newsome and her three daughters successfully reclaimed their home of fifteen years, which was under active foreclosure. The family lived on this block, at the heart of one of the long contested residential spaces of West Oakland, where waves of eviction and foreclosure compounded upon decades of disinvestment. We’re not including her exact address here to maintain residential privacy.
Between 2005 and 2015, banks foreclosed on well over twenty thousand homes across Oakland, according to research by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP). The mass evictions of small property owners and renters that ensued were largely the result of predatory lending practices actively targeting low-income communities of color, as was later widely uncovered by researchers across the country. A report conducted by the nonprofit Urban Strategies Council in 2011 found that 42 percent of homes foreclosed in Oakland between 2007 and 2011 were acquired by large institutional investors, many of whom are based outside of Oakland. Some of them had previously been mortgage brokers, meaning they not only had access to valuable insider knowledge, but might have also played a part in creating the crisis in the first place. Others would later be prosecuted by the FBI for conspiring to rig foreclosure auctions in their own favor.
West Oakland saw a thick concentration of foreclosures and large-investor accumulation. Neill Sullivan’s REO Homes LLC, for example, snapped up over one hundred fore- closed homes in West Oakland alone. Sullivan focused on single-family homes, which are exempt from rent control by California state law; he followed those acquisitions with a round of evictions, serving 357 eviction notices between 2010 and 2016, according to public Rent Board data collected by AEMP researchers. The evictions helped clear the way for a neighborhood rebranding as West Oakland was sold as the “eclectic West Side” and the “new edge of Silicon Valley.”
Even as investors like Sullivan were taking control of the neighborhood, activists turned their energy toward the foreclosures and joined in to support Newsome and other neighborhood leaders. They formed the Foreclosure Defense Group, which sought to disrupt foreclosure auctions at the Alameda County Courthouse. The group worked to reclaim the homes of community members through direct action by reoccupying emptied homes; they would initiate a campaign of community pressure, garnering media attention and rallying a mass phone campaign to pressure the banks. Newsome’s home on Adeline Street was one of the success stories of this tactic. Organizers also used the foreclosure activism as a base-building effort, which meant that each home they reoccupied was an opportunity to knock on doors and talk to neighbors. Through this process they sought to develop stronger networks for community solidarity and support. (Section authored by Katja Schwaller)
Albany Bulb 1 Buchanan Street, Albany, CA 94706
The Albany Bulb is a place literally made from the ruins of Bay Area urbanization. This former landfill turned quasi-public park represents the alternative lives that capitalist cities inevitably produce through redevelopment and continual creation of consumer detritus. At the same time, the Albany Bulb is a phenomenally beautiful place to visit and offers a fascinating story about a Bay Area place that remains a bit less regulated and controlled than just about everywhere else.
Views from every corner of this park provide a panorama of the region. San Francisco looms misty and dreamlike across the bay. The trails teem with a wild mix of grasses, flowers, overgrown fennel—and art. Freestanding murals once dotted the edge of the marshy shoreline, and a mix of large sculpture and other installations, all of which can change year to year, is typically scattered throughout the park. The space has also often been home to people—disaffected, houseless, seeking connection that they couldn’t find in the urbanized parts of the region—those who, long before the Occupy movement, found ways to reclaim and reuse public spaces.
For many years the city of Albany used this site to dump construction debris and municipal waste. The result was a thirty- one-acre lollipop-shaped peninsula colloquially known as the Bulb, with a landscape of twisted metal, slag left over from nearby mining, rusty pipes, and chunks of redeveloped streets, sometimes retaining their yellow lane-stripes. The landfill that produced the Bulb was one of several major sites along the East Bay waterfront that inspired the creation of the environmental nonprofit Save the Bay, which targeted the Bulb’s land- fill for closure in the early 1980s. The closing of the landfill in 1983 both created an opportunity for artists and coincided with the modern period of rising homelessness, so it is no surprise that people without homes adopted its knolls and tucks as their own. In between the chaotic beauty of wildflowers and trash-turned-art, people built outdoor kitchens, small homes from driftwood, and other shelter.
A move to incorporate the Bulb into the larger McLaughlin Eastshore State Park—named for Save the Bay cofounder Sylvia McLaughlin—has been underway since the early 2000s. This shift toward park formalization has raised the challenging question of which public has the right to use the space as they want. Those who found shelter here note that they improved the land, having built many of the long-used trails and gardens. City and state officials argue they must enforce regulations against overnight camping and off-leash dogs. Artists and hikers often enjoy the place for its unregulated surprises. The struggle has inspired feisty artistic responses to the exercise of state power. In 1999, for example, the landfill’s residents faced a highly publicized eviction. After the eviction, artists erected a monument to the homeless: a massive pile of shopping carts that was later mined for sculptural work across the park. However, in 2014 the most definitive of the many rounds of eviction took place, with the city paying people to leave with the signed promise of never returning.
Creative resistance to formalize the landscape into a planned conservation district has been taken up by the nonprofit Love the Bulb, which organizes art and cultural programming and walking tours that emphasize the unregulated nature of the place. Free-range artists continue to make and remake the place. Enter from the parking lot at the end of Buchanan, near the Golden Gate Fields racetrack; bring extra layers, as it’s typically colder out on the Bulb than in the parking lot.
Berkeley High School 1980 Allston Way, Berkeley 94704
Infuriatingly, many US schools are more segregated now than any time since the end of the Jim Crow era, a fact that undermines the narrative of civil rights progress that many hold dear. That’s part of what makes the Berkeley High School story unique. Back in 1994, the New York Times labeled Berkeley High the “most integrated school in America.” The school reflected the city’s diverse population, making the institution fertile ground for political and cultural debate and home to the country’s first and longest- running high school African American studies department. But all of this did not come easily—even in Berkeley. It was hard fought, and keeping programs like this alive continues to be a conscious struggle in a rapidly changing Bay Area.
In the heat of the civil rights struggle, Berkeley Unified School District launched a 1968 desegregation campaign titled Integration ’68 and became one of the first districts in the country to voluntarily integrate its elementary and middle schools by busing children of color from neighborhoods in the south and west areas of the city to schools in the overwhelmingly white north and east, and vice versa. The impact of the busing tactic here, as across the country, was mixed, and it was hard for parents to remain involved or feel that their kids were learning in culturally appropriate ways. Although the busing program was not aimed directly at Berkeley High, the new racial landscape profoundly impacted education there. That same year, educators inspired both by the national call for Afrocentric education (see Nairobi School System, p. 104), and by the intersecting struggles of the Free Speech and Ethnic Studies movements underway at the college level, founded African American studies at Berkeley High. The school was already racially integrated, but it lacked an inclusive curriculum, and educators sought to give Berkeley’s students a sense of racial equity that busing could not address. This was part of a wave of new Black studies and African American economics curricula at Bay Area institutions, from grade schools to universities.
At its height, Berkeley High’s program offered courses in African American literature and history, the Black Social Experience (later to be called Black Male-Female Relations), Black Psychology, African American Economics, and African-Haitian Dance. Students took Kiswahili language courses, and enrolled in a youth empowerment class called Black Soul, Black Gold, Black Dynamite. The program produced its own newspaper, Ujama. Inspired by this legacy, in the early 1990s students successfully pushed to expand this programming to include Chicano and Asian American studies courses. Implementation of this programming, however, has always been contested by more conservative residents and administrators, in what the Reverend Robert McKnight, former teacher and chair of African American studies, has described as a “perpetual struggle” to maintain the programming.
The social and racial justice activism of the student body has remained a corner- stone of the school’s identity. In 2000, a group of immigrant students—primarily South Asian girls—formed a group called Cultural Unity to reflect the diversity of the English Language Learner student body and to highlight their relative isolation within it. In the months after 9/11, harassment of Muslim and Sikh students increased, with two documented on-campus assaults on Cultural Unity members. In response, South Asian students wrote and published a short book of stories and poetry for use in the school’s curriculum. They also organized free legal clinics for the local Muslim com- munity and organized “Unity Assemblies” that emphasized cultural performance and cross-cultural political dialogue. The legacy of diversity and struggle at Berkeley High is commemorated in visible ways. One can begin by visiting the utility boxes along the perimeter of the high school, illustrated by the Arts and Humanities Academy Class of 2012, which depict some of the school’s famed activist alumni, including Black Panther Bobby Seale, writers Ursula K. Le Guin and Chinaka Hodge, as well as musicians Phil Lesh and Joshua Redman. (Section authored by Diana Negrín da Silva)
Black Cultural Zone 2277 International Boulevard, Oakland 94606
In the mid-2010s, the artists and activists connected to the nonprofit East Side Arts Alliance began work on establishing Black Cultural Zones (BCZ), conceived as a series of “safe Black spaces” at points served by new transit lines along International Boulevard, as well as the MacArthur and Bancroft neighborhoods. This effort was a response to the ongoing outmigration of Black people from Oakland. The International Boulevard corridor is the commercial and cultural heart of the racially and ethnically heterogeneous neighborhoods of East Oakland, stretching from Lake Merritt to the southern border of Oakland (the street continues, under other names, through several cities). More broadly, East Oakland, often overshadowed by the dynamics of downtown and West Oakland, has become known for creative approaches to urban change, including a much-lauded program of transit-oriented development that specifically guarded against displacement around the Fruitvale BART station. The Black Cultural Zone is another such effort, an example of proactive grassroots planning to prevent further displacement of residents and what are now commonly known as “legacy businesses.”
The effort grew out of cultural work that dates back to 2000, when four arts organizations in this area organized the first Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival, an annual May event in San Antonio Park (1701 E. 19th Street), featuring local and visiting musicians alongside graffiti battles, dance performances, and booths representing local crafts and community organizations. The East Side Arts Alliance (ESAA, 2277 International Blvd.) was born from that first festival, positioning itself as a voice in local politics, advocating for “development without displacement” in city government meetings, and securing properties in East Oakland through nonprofit and grassroots partnerships. The organization bought its own building, offering a counterpoint to gentrification in the area by incorporating affordable housing into its art-and-politics organizational structure. When the city developed a new bus rapid transit route along International Boulevard, ESAA secured foundation grants and city support to help align the transit corridor with the values and experiences of longtime residents. Building on these efforts, the Black Cultural Zone project envisions a shift in Oakland’s land use that highlights the economic and cultural resources of long- time residents as a platform for equitable development. Working with neighborhood partners, the BCZ will be integrated into new public plazas that will partner with existing businesses, nonprofits, and religious institutions as well as new mixed-use developments with below-market housing. At this writing, the large historic building that once served as the headquarters for Safeway, at the intersection of International Boulevard and 57th Avenue, had been proposed as the BCZ’s geographic hub. (Section authored by Diana Negrín da Silva)
“Black Panther Park” (Dover Park) Dover Street, between 57th and 58th Streets, Oakland 94609
Tucked behind the former Merritt College site on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, this is one of many places associated with the creation of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in 1966. BPP founders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton lived and studied together in this neighborhood before forging, with many others, the vision for Black liberation codified in the party’s Ten Point Program. Their political message, a response to the conditions of this neighborhood and others like it at the time, spoke of transforming power relations with the police, uplifting Black people, and providing for the basic needs of everyday Oaklanders.
Serving as a framework for the party as it expanded from its Oakland roots, the program articulated a set of baseline beliefs that shaped the politics of the organization while inspiring others around the world. “We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community,” they wrote. “We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.” Under this banner, they created free breakfast programs for kids, and international solidarity with other working-class people, across racial lines. The community college where they polished these ideas, and where they anchored some of their early community- organizing efforts, was relocated in 1960; the building on that site is now a senior center.
By the fiftieth anniversary of the BPP’s founding in 2016, things had changed significantly in the Bushrod, which is one of a few names for the neighborhood surrounding Dover Park. By then the real estate website Redfin had labeled it the hottest neighbor- hood for housing sales in the country. This shift in the neighborhood’s fortunes came not long after officials created a gang-injunction zone in the area, which Restorative Justice (RJ) activists used to show the connections between policing and real estate speculation. They showed, for example, that the decreased visibility of young men of color on local streets and the increased police presence (both of which were produced by the gang injunction) fed into the intensified marketing of the neighborhood as “safe” to new home buyers.
Traces of the political history of the area remain in the landscape, and Dover Park continues to maintain and reinvigorate the message of Black Panther activism. Since 2010, Dover Park has served as host to the Phat Beets food justice collective, which merges urban agriculture with social justice organizing, maintaining an edible public garden here. The garden circles the park with fruit trees, vegetables, herbs, and native plants, labeled to serve as tools of beautification, education, and public engagement. The food grown here has at times gone to support Aunti Frances’s Love Mission Self Help Hunger Program, a local group that cooks free meals in nearby Driver Plaza at the intersection of Adeline, Stanford, and 61st Streets. Aunti Frances’s program is one of many organizations around Oakland that was explicitly inspired by the BPP’s call for self-help on a community scale. Frances has said that she learned the value of community care and organizing as a child, when she personally benefited from the BPP’s free breakfast programs.
Black.Seed Demonstration, one expression of #BlackLives Matter San Francisco Bay Bridge, just east of Yerba Buena Island 210 Burma Road, Oakland 94607 (This is the parking lot with closest access to the bike/walk trail on the bridge.)
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2016, west- bound traffic on the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge came to a halt. Activists— chained together to block the road—raised their fists and displayed a banner declaring “Black Health Matters.” To see this site, you should not stop in a vehicle on the car lanes of the Bay Bridge. But you can get close to it via the bike and pedestrian path that runs from Oakland’s industrial waterfront along the bridge to Yerba Buena Island. You may want to bike, bus, or drive all the way onto the island, where you can look back at the eastern span of the bridge from Forest Road. From there you can get a sense of the impact that a takeover of the bridge would have, with all six westbound lanes blocked in the middle of the afternoon.
The 2016 demonstration was led largely by gender-queer African American activists and their allies affiliated with Black.Seed, one of many groups that formed in the first few years of the Black Lives Matter movement. The group coordinated their entry to the bridge through the East Bay car toll- gates. Once they stopped, they chained their bodies to each other through the cars to create a true barrier across every lane. Posing with their sign about Black health, they sought media attention to shift the public dialogue.
The name of the larger struggle—Black Lives Matter—was born from a social media post coauthored by Bay Area activist Alicia Garza, who cofounded that movement in 2013 in the wake of the acquittal of the killer of young Trayvon Martin in Florida. Soon after, transit and transportation disruptions across the nation sought to draw public attention to the problems of overpolicing, mass incarceration, police killings, and health disparities in the Black community. Drawing from the civil rights playbook, activists employed the strategy of reaching the public as they engaged in everyday activities; with their urgent message about the value of African American life, activists blocked highways from Minnesota to Dallas. In Oakland a shutdown of the West Oakland BART station in 2014 stymied trans-bay trains for four and a half hours to remind the public of the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, after which police left Brown’s corpse on the street for more than four hours. Others took speeches and poetry on Sundays to restaurants around the bay in predominantly white neighborhoods as part of a “Black Brunch” action.
The Black.Seed bridge takeover brought together many of these concerns. The group issued a set of demands, including “the immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in sustainable, affordable housing so Black, Brown and Indigenous people can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco.” They also called for the firing of officers involved in police killings locally—including that of Mario Woods, Richard Perkins, Yuvette Henderson, Amilcar Lopez, Alex Nieto, Demouriah Hogg, Richard Linyard, and O’Shaine Evans—and for the resignation of mayors and police chiefs who failed to hold officers accountable for shooting residents. They weren’t the only ones calling for this, and San Francisco’s police chief resigned under pressure a few months later.
While you’re here, we’ll note that the views on this four-and-a-half-mile bridge are incredible, but they come at significant financial and social cost. The state rebuilt the eastern span of the bridge in the 2010s to replace a 1936 structure that had been a source of concern since its dramatic partial collapse during the 1989 Loma Prieta earth- quake. Completed in 2015, the eastern span went far over budget, costing $6.5 billion to date. The new span has its own structural problems, however, and more spending has been required for repairs and adjustments to ensure the stability of the span when we face the next big earthquake.
Frances Albrier Community Center 2800 Park Street, Berkeley 94702
San Pablo Park’s Community Center commemorates the life of African American activist Frances Albrier as part of the long and rich history of cross-class multi-ethnic culture, community, and social struggle in South Berkeley. Albrier’s life story sheds light on the character of her neighbors, who fostered a strong sense of community that was often forged in the sports fields of San Pablo Park.
Born in 1898, Albrier grew up in Alabama with her grandmother, a former enslaved woman and midwife who cared deeply about education. Albrier’s grandmother was a founding supporter of the Tuskegee Institute, the prominent Black school where Frances studied before joining her father in Berkeley in 1920. She received further training as a nurse, married, and settled into a house nearby at 1621 Oregon Street to raise her three children. Racial discrimination prevented Albrier from securing work as a nurse, but she later found employment with the Pullman train company and became active in a labor union. Having been refused a job as a welder at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond (although she had twice the hours of training needed), Albrier leveraged her knowledge of a new federal anti-discrimination law to pressure Kaiser. She won and began work as the first Black woman welder in 1942. Her persistence helped pave the way for thousands of African American and women workers to get better-paying jobs in the shipyards (see Rosie the Riveter Monument and National Park, p. 65).
Outside of her own workplaces, Albrier engaged in a series of campaigns to challenge discrimination and social injustice. She organized a women’s club that pressured the Berkeley schools to hire the first Black teacher at nearby Longfellow School. She initiated a “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work Campaign” at Sacramento and Ashby—just a few blocks from San Pablo Park—that pushed local shopkeepers to hire Black employees. She was the first African American to run for Berkeley City Council in 1939. She didn’t win, but she went on to hold prominent positions in the local and statewide Democratic Party and served on Berkeley’s Model Cities program, which brought federal community-development dollars to South Berkeley.
Albrier was a powerful person and leader, but she was also a product of a remarkable community. Byron Rumford lived nearby at Acton and Russell. His Sacramento Street pharmacy became a neighborhood institution, and in 1948 Rumford became Northern California’s first Black elected official when he won a seat in the state assembly through
the work of an alliance of African Americans, progressive labor unions, and liberals of all ethnicities. He leveraged these coalitions to pass landmark state legislation for fair employment in 1959 and fair housing in 1963. A statue of Rumford by sculptor Dana King stands in the median on Sacramento Avenue, near his former pharmacy.
Berkeley’s Japanese American community was centered just east of this area in a thriving community with dozens of organizations, churches, and cultural groups. During WWII the federal government incarcerated more than thirteen hundred Japanese American Berkeley residents. Under Albrier’s and Rumford’s leadership, Berkeley’s Interracial Committee protested war- time treatment of Japanese Americans, and some entrusted the deeds to their homes to Albrier while they lived behind barbed wire. (Section authored by Donna Graves)
Marcus Books 3900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland 94609
The East Bay offers a strong counter to the notion that the age of independent booksellers is over. Between Oakland and Berkeley alone, an array of independently owned and operated stores and small local chains serve niche audiences and the broader community alike. Marcus Books holds a special place on this list as the oldest continuously operating Black-owned and operated bookstore in the United States. Marcus was founded in 1960 by Julian and Raye Richardson as the Success Book Company in San Francisco. The institution was part of a wave of Black book- stores that opened in the 1960s and 1970s, offering access to books by and about people of the African diaspora, including information absent or scarce in other bookstores, public libraries, and schools. The spread of books by W.E.B. DuBois, Toni Morrison, Frantz Fanon, and many others provided intellectual foundations for transformations in Black community consciousness.
The Richardsons opened the original Success Book Company in the front of their independent San Francisco printing shop, where they published writers who were shut out of the white-dominated publishing industry or whose work was difficult to find. Julian Richardson published Marcus Garvey’s Philosophy and Opinions in 1966 after discovering that it had been out of print for forty years. He also printed two influential literary magazines of the Black Arts movement, Black Dialogue and the Journal of Black Poetry, and published a number of books of poetry under his own imprint. The bookstore–print shop was a hub for Black artistic and cultural activity in San Francisco, hosting events and political meetings, playing an active role in local political struggles.
In 1970 the Richardsons opened a second location in Berkeley and changed the name to Marcus Books, after Garvey. The East Bay expansion allowed Marcus Books to conduct business with schools and other large institutions in Alameda County, such as prisons and social service facilities, according to a 1978 interview with Julian Richardson. They moved the East Bay store from Berkeley to its current site in Oakland in 1976. The new location was around the corner from the recently opened MacArthur BART station and close to the first storefront location of the East Bay Negro Historical Society (the earliest predecessor of the African American Museum and Library of Oakland). This new location was central to political activity in the neighborhoods of North and West Oakland as well as downtown.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco location moved to the heart of the Fillmore district in 1980, to Victorian Square, a small cluster of buildings that had been rescued from the redevelopment bulldozers some years earlier. In 2014, after a long community struggle to save it, the San Francisco location at 1712 Fillmore shuttered. The Oakland location remains and stocks a catalog of Black books in all genres and hosts events on-site and in partnership with other organizations. Even amid the Black outmigration of the 1990s and 2000s that has changed Oakland’s demography dramatically, and after financial troubles that plagued the store for some time, Marcus Books remains rooted here on MLK Way. (Section authored by Simon Abramowitsch)
Authorship The majority of this book is written by Rachel Brahinsky, Alexander Tarr, or the two of us together. Our individual and collective work has no additional byline. We are honored to also include the contributions of a wonderful group of Bay Area geographers, researchers, and public historians. Their names are noted at the end of any site entry that they authored or contributed to, with the caveat that we have edited the whole book for consistency.
With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
There’s this hill, a perfectly-sloped green hill, that rises above the Pomona Freeway on your left as you cross the 605 and drive west into Los Angeles. Young trees stand equidistant from one another — clearly planned and planted not long ago. Between them, snaking their way from street level all the way up to the top mesa, green plastic tubes about 2 feet in diameter rise above the ground, transporting the methane gas produced by the slowly decomposing trash that lives inside the belly of the mountain.
As the population of LA County has expanded over the last 50 years, so has the hill. About a decade ago, an average 12,000 tons of trash arrived daily (that’s the equivalent of about 200 adult elephants, to give you an idea) atop these huge dump trucks. The non-recyclable waste would then get flattened out by the dump truck’s equally huge wheels. I had a photo taken next to one of them just so I could remember their size: A bright yellow safety helmet sits awkwardly atop my head; behind me, one of the truck’s tires rises to twice my size.
“All waste facilities have great views,” told me one of the landfill’s workers back in 2010 when I visited Puente Hills. He pointed down to cookie-cutter housing developments, a few pockets of green, orderly suburban streets where cars could be seen shuttling in all directions and at different speeds.
But a mountain of trash is still trash, no matter how many trees may be covering it up, no matter how pretty the sight. And this perfectly sloped mountain of trash was getting to be just too big for Los Angeles. The Puente Hills landfill would have to close down, and the trash would need to be shipped elsewhere.
Early one summer, a little over a decade ago, my editor sent me to a town about 160 miles east of Los Angeles. My assignment was to spend a couple of days trying to understand why there had been a history of illegal dumping in these parts and why the Los Angeles County Sanitation District had considered the Imperial Valley desert close to the U.S.-Mexico border a future disposal site.
I took Interstate 8 east of San Diego, towards the Jacumba Mountains’ huge, round boulders, past a Border Patrol checkpoint, and the curve in the road that brought me just a mile away from the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Then, less than two hours into my ride past another rocky mountain range, the plain opened up in front of me just as the sun was coming up. I could see just two layers in the landscape ahead — the Imperial Valley’s sandy light brown and a blue sky — that resembled a Mark Rothko painting.
The closer I got to my destination, the more green mixed into the landscape. This is the Eastern Coachella desert but still it is known for its agricultural production 300 days of the year; one only made possible by an informal migrant workforce and intense irrigation. Eighty-eight percent of cropland here is artificially irrigated with water from the All-American Canal.
Seasonal farm workers can be seen dotting the fields and picking produce almost yearround, even when temperatures reach 110 degrees. By the time I showed up to the unincorporated community of Thermal mid-morning, the air was dry and warm. Eduardo Guevara, a gentle, stocky guy with a closely cropped dark mustache and beard, waited for me by the side of the road.
I first heard about Lawson Dump when I became obsessed with Los Angeles’ massive output of trash and wondered where it ends up. It turned out some of the county’s construction debris and hazardous waste was illegally ending up here, a 50-foot-high dump that would be set on fire regularly. Next to it was Duroville, a trailer park infamous for its poor living conditions and bad air quality. Without paved roads and garbage pick-up, Duroville was a sad indictment of the daily reality of too many California farmworkers. And it was overcrowded—at one point, up to 4,000 people lived on the 40-acre site.
Meanwhile, Duroville residents had no idea of the possible risks of living next to a smoldering dump. “This is where nearby farms disposed of grape stakes covered in pesticides; where people discarded their old cell phones and computers,” Eduardo told me as we walked around the edge of the dump. “We knew people burned trash here, but we didn’t know it was that bad.”
Even before coming to Thermal, I’d become both fascinated and repelled by this place: Here was the largest toxic dump in California located a short drive east from the gated communities and irrigated golf courses of Palm Springs and the site of the Coachella music festival. It was a symbol of the great disparities you’d find in the state: of the migrant farmworker as a dispensable asset, of the desert landscape as a literal wasteland.
We spent much of that day exploring the four unincorporated rural towns of the Eastern Coachella Valley that border the Salton Sea: Thermal, Mecca, Oasis and North Shore. Eduardo told me he’d managed to get his family out of a trailer but his wife still suffered from the severe asthma she acquired during their time in Duroville. He’d begged county officials to do something about poor quality housing, pesticide drift, hazardous waste and water contamination, but nothing came of it.
“Maybe researchers couldn’t link the asthma directly to the dumps, but it’s a big coincidence for a community that has been living next to a burning, open-air dump for years, don’t you think?” he said, as we stood atop one of the mounds that made up Lawson Dump. I listened to him intently, thinking I’d also need to get a response from public officials, check the record, do my research, be objective. My story, I genuinely thought, would capture the injustices of this place. It would take me some time — years, really — to be able to identify the lessons that this part of the desert held for me.
I kept coming back, driving the two-and-a-half to three hours from the city. By 2014, the Los Angeles County Sanitation District decided to indefinitely postpone its “waste-by-rail” plans of moving LA’s trash to this part of the state and Lawson Dump was ordered shut by a court. More often than not, I came alone and without an assignment, struggling to make a case to my editor that one or two stories couldn’t possibly capture the complexity of what I was seeing or what it all meant.
I met Griselda Barrera at a middle school auditorium in Thermal, moments after she offered her public comment about air quality to a panel of state regulators. With her long, black hair, straight talk and black platform pumps, Griselda demanded attention. But the public officials facing her, all of them men, avoided her gaze.
“I’m tired of the agencies that come here asking us to bring people from the community as an audience for their presentations,” she said out loud in Spanish. “We have no idea what they do with the information we give them. Nothing changes.”
Fifteen years ago, Griselda told me, she and her family came from Mexico and moved into Duroville. They, of course, hated it. She and her husband got a seasonal job picking grapes and chiles, averaging only $15,000 per year.
Low wages in the fields define this corner of California: They are the reason why a majority of workers endure substandard living conditions in mobile home parks, and why at the height of harvesting season, four men will share a single room for months, or worse yet, live out of their cars. Income inequality is why migrant populations typically are forced to face extreme levels of environmental hazards and also why migrants’ health disparities are so persistently widespread. In 2010, there was only one primary care physician per every 8,400 residents in the Eastern Coachella Valley. Local clinics report higher rates of diabetes and asthma, particularly among young children, coupled with a 30 percent uninsured rate among patients.
“I’m taking you to the new Duroville,” Griselda promised me the day we met, explaining how after the old dump and trailer park had been ordered shut down, the county created a new $28 million public-private mobile home development in its stead. I’d be able to meet Griselda’s youngest son who’d dropped out of college and now worked in a fast food joint, and her eldest, who had just welcomed a baby with his young wife from El Salvador who had also spent her first few years in America living in (but plotting her exit out of) Duroville.
“But you should think about a way to pay people for their time,” Griselda said, coyly, as we made plans to meet again. I tried to explain to her that it was unethical for journalists to pay for interviews. Then, for weeks, I waited for Griselda to reply to my messages.
I was once a middle-class kid growing up in Caracas, Venezuela, a big city flanked by mountains and less than an hour’s drive from the Caribbean Sea; an urban setting not unlike Los Angeles, located far away from where my food was grown and where my trash was disposed of.
The tropics’ tall, flowering trees, and seasonal monsoon rains defined my view of nature. When my family visited the desert dunes in Coro, 300 miles west of Caracas, we jokingly called it “a beach without water;” a habitat for scorpions and snakes. I never thought I’d one day come to love the Eastern Coachella desert and the Sonoran Desert, my home of the past two years, with its stalwart and adaptable biodiversity despite high summer temperatures and a lack of water.
Once in the U.S., I would become an outsider: Spanish-speaking, but not from Mexico. Nostalgic, but increasingly independent and distant from my own family’s traditions. I learned to survive winters.
The deeper I got into the legacies of Duroville and Lawson Dump, the more I learned about the life and work and dreams of migrant farmworkers, the harder it became to sort out whether I was being a well-meaning witness to injustice or someone exploiting the details of others’ suffering for my own sake. It turns out that like most journalists, I could be both.
Like a privileged Western foreign correspondent parachuted into a conflict area in the developing world, I was routinely asked to make sense of a history I did not feel or know. Yet for years, I’d functioned under the assumption that as a journalist, my craft was the only thing I needed to show loyalty to. My stories, I naively thought, would shed light on the injustices faced by people, creating a shift in public opinion, and eventually, tangible change.
It would take me another decade to see the shortsightedness of this promise — mainly, that I could efficiently yet deeply understand and share stories about “other” people and places, without getting to truly understand myself first. Neither my class consciousness nor my native Spanish-speaking could make up for the easy characterization of other people’s lives, for the way their stories could be perceived by others, how they could contribute to the already-existing stereotypes about migrants, desert-dwellers, immigrants, farm workers, activists.
I needed to sort out my duty to the people who trust me with their lives and feelings, and figure out that in the end, these stories I’m drawn to, past and present, are also about myself: They are stories about home or the search for it. Stories about dignity and justice. More often than not, the narratives I care to help tell the most, the ones that keep me up at night, and give me a sense of purpose, are about individuals and communities who have a sense of hope about their futures.
In getting to know the desert —its vastness and possibility— I have learned to slow down my experiences to see what happens when I give myself one month or two or a year to tell a story, instead of one day or one week. Sometimes, the stories never get told and instead, I befriend the people I interview. Other times, these stories morph into life lessons instead or into yet more stories, or rather, snippets that make their way into my dreams. The places I write about become fixations, and I keep returning, as if hitting the rewind button to replay the scenes of a movie that hold some personal meaning that I cannot yet decipher.
This past November, I paid my latest visit to Thermal. Eduardo and Griselda are no longer living nearby, but the last time we spoke, they’d both told me how proud they were of the roles each of them played in the clean up of the old Lawson Dump site. The hill is still there. It rises above street level but the waste is now hidden beneath thick layers of dirt. Next door, where Duroville’s trailers once peppered the landscape, there is nothing but flat open land. Beyond, on either side, I could see a patchwork of fields of lettuce and other greens being harvested by men and women hunched forward, donning big hats, dreaming their dreams of home here in the desert, or elsewhere.
Ruxandra Guidi is a native of Caracas, Venezuela. She has been working in public radio, magazines, and podcasts for twenty years across the US, Latin America, and the US-Mexico border region. She’s an assistant professor of practice at the University of Arizona School of Journalism and a contributing editor to High Country News magazine. She collaborates regularly with her partner Bear Guerra under the name Fonografia Collective.
Mallie Robinson and her five children came to California in search of something better, only to find more of the same. When the Robinsons relocated from Cairo, Georgia to a family home on Pepper Street in Pasadena in 1922, their white neighbors greeted them with a flaming cross on their front lawn. Mallie discovered that most jobs were closed to Black women, aside from domestic work, while her children attended segregated schools. They were also barred from Pasadena’s public pool. The Plunge finally reopened to African Americans in 1930, but only for one day a week. Tuesday was known as “Negro Day,” when the Robinsons were allowed to swim alongside other people of color. That evening, the city drained the pool and filled it with fresh water for white swimmers on Wednesday. “Pasadena regarded us as intruders,” recalled one of Mallie Robinson’s children, a young man named Jackie.
Pasadena is now eager to claim Jackie Robinson, the sports legend who broke professional baseball’s color barrier, as one of its own. A community center and a city park are named for him, and two mammoth brass sculptures to Jackie and his brother Mack, an Olympic medalist, occupy a central courtyard across from Pasadena City Hall. Yet nowhere in in the city’s landscape are markers or acknowledgements to what Jackie and his family endured, when Pasadena largely closed itself to African Americans. The wealthiest city in the nation when Jackie Robinson was growing up, Pasadena was also one of the most rigorously segregated.
Pasadena was no outlier among California cities, as Lynn M. Hudson explains in her urgent new book, West of Jim Crow.Although officials in Pasadena policed the color line with particular vigilance, they represented a mere sliver of the segregationist apparatus in twentieth-century California. Hudson brilliantly illustrates how this vast network – including city and state officials, politicians, lawyers, policemen, and everyday citizens – turned California into a bastion of Jim Crow segregation and a hotspot for anti-Black violence. But she also documents the numerous ways in which African Americans fought back. From a certain perspective, the virulent force of white supremacy in California can be seen as a testament to the remarkable achievements and prominence of Black men and women in public life.
California’s history of race-based segregation, of course, runs deep. Modern California – now one of the most outwardly liberal and cosmopolitan states in the nation – was built upon the forced relocation and dispossession of multiple ethnic groups. That history includes the seizure of vast amounts of land from Indigenous inhabitants and Mexican rancheros in the nineteenth century. And it includes the violent removal of Chinese immigrants from their communities across the state, as well as a sixty-year ban on migration from China, beginning in 1882. The hostility that Black Californians faced (and face still) belongs to this longer history.
Hudson’s canvas is broad – one of the many reasons her work will appeal to scholars, students, and general readers alike. West of Jim Crow spans the antebellum era up to the start of the Civil Rights movement, with a focus on the Black struggle for justice in the early to mid-twentieth century. Hudson ranges across space and time to cover a diverse range of moments in California’s Black history: San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, the building of all-Black town in the Central Valley, the African American anti-lynching campaign, the rise of Ku Klux Klan in the Inland Empire, and the long fight against segregation in Pasadena.
The Black struggle for racial justice in California is as old as the state itself. By the early 1850s, hundreds of enslaved African Americans had been forcibly imported to work the gold diggings around Sacramento. When many of them won their freedom later in the decade, they still faced a raft of discriminatory laws and practices. African Americans could not legally testify against whites in courts of law, nor could they marry across the color line. They were also routinely barred from streetcars and viciously parodied in San Francisco’s popular minstrel shows.
Against all odds, some early Black Californians prospered. Biddy Mason, a former slave from the plantation belt, personified hard-won fortune for this first generation of African American migrants. Born into slavery in Georgia, Mason was forcibly transported across the country, before she finally won freedom for herself and thirteen others in a Los Angeles courtroom in 1856. First as a nurse and midwife, then as a real estate entrepreneur, Mason built a business enterprise that made her one of the wealthiest women of color in the American West. Her success seeded a family fortune estimated at $300,000 by the turn of the century. At that point, Los Angeles had one of the highest proportions of Black homeowners of any city in the country. Yet as the Black community grew in numbers and affluence, it encountered mounting hostility and discrimination.
The story of racial struggle in California is largely one of self-empowered Black women like Mason. Generations of female leaders – Delilah Beasley, Josephine Allensworth, Carlotta Bass, Ruby Williams, and Edna Griffin, among many others – endowed their communities with strength and vision. Hudson, the author of an excellent biography on the San Francisco businesswoman, Mammy Pleasant, is well-equipped to recover these women’s contributions. She does so by placing them within the larger networks in which they operated, rather than rendering them as individual biographies. The effect is to highlight the cumulative power of Black women’s organizing. They never struggled alone.
Hudson locates influential Black women in places that historians typically overlook. Allensworth, the first and only all-Black municipality in California, was often advertised as a retirement community for Buffalo Soldiers. The town’s founder, Army veteran Allen Allensworth, embodied the masculine initiative that he hoped would propel his Central Valley settlement to prosperity. But it was the women of Allensworth who deserve much of the credit for the town’s survival in the 1910s and 20s. Some of the most successful businesses in Allensworth, including the hotel and boardinghouses, were owned and operated by women. Women also constituted the leadership of Allensworth’s church, and they taught generations of students in the schoolhouse. Their lessons in Black history proved transformative. “It was really the first time I’d ever heard nice things said about black people from a historical perspective,” one former student recalled. The moral was a simple but powerful one: “There was nothing inferior about me. I was pretty hard to stop from there on in” (115).
Scholars might quibble with certain aspects of the book, including its terminology. Hudson affixes the label “Jim Crow” to virtually all acts of anti-Black discrimination, beginning with the Reconstruction period. Most historians, however, generally date the start of the Jim Crow era to the late nineteenth century, when the former Confederate states adopted a series of laws to segregate and disenfranchise their Black populations. The term “Jim Crow Law” doesn’t appear in print until the 1890s. This isn’t to suggest that the racism African Americans faced in 1870s California was somehow less damaging. But Hudson would have been wise to explain why the term, which otherwise appears anachronistic, should have purchase for this earlier period. In doing so, she might have convincingly extended not only the geography of the Jim Crow era but the chronology as well.
Minor critiques aside, West of Jim Crow is among the best introductions to Black California history yet written. It should be read alongside the seminal works of Albert Broussard, Quintard Taylor, Stacey Smith, Mark Brilliant, Lonnie Bunch, Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, Douglas Flamming, Scott Kurashige, and Josh Sides. Because many of their books are more tightly focused – centered on particular cities or on a few decades of state history – Hudson’s ambitious and wide-ranging work will appeal especially to those looking for a primer on the subject. West of Jim Crow is an elegant synthesis that will doubtlessly stand the test of time.
Jackie Robinson never forgot the trauma or humiliation of his segregated childhood in Pasadena. For Black families like his, the city’s affluence and upscale public services weren’t points of civic pride; they were reminders of what had been denied them. Even apparent victories for African Americans could be transformed into defeats. After a protracted court battle, Pasadena was finally forced to open its public pool to people of color by 1947. But rather than integrate, the city instead chose to drain its pool of funding, as it had been drained of water after “Negro Day” every week. If white families couldn’t have the pool to themselves, no one would. The Plunge, once the most popular public pool in California, deteriorated. And Jim Crow lived on.
Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of American history at Durham University in the UK. His first book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in April 2021. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he co-directs a collaborative research grant on the life and times of Biddy Mason.
What makes a space a home? While we often think of it as the site for the nuclear family, home is also the space that communities create. In this sense, cities and neighborhoods evolve in much the same way as singular households. Individuals make a community their own by ensuring that the area reflects the needs and identity of its residents. Yet, as gentrification grows throughout many U.S. cities, marginalized communities are being stripped of the very essence that made these spaces home to its members. The anger over the loss of these spaces takes many people by surprise, even as others view the transition of their communities as a marker of progress. However, one loses the rich history of how these cities and spaces became home to millions of individuals in the face of structural divestment, disinterest, and overall erasure.
Through a historical analysis, Abigail Rosas discusses the ways in which a marginalized community, like South Central, California, became home to the thousands of Black and Latinx residents that have migrated to California since the 1960s. It is a beautifully written narrative of the work that Black and Latinx residents put into a community to make it their home. And it is ultimately a plea against gentrification’s displacement of Black and Brown bodies.
To contextualize and ground the project, one has to remember that the United States is quickly becoming a minority-majority nation. Most research continues to focus on the white population as representative of the average American, while rendering the life and experiences of other groups as marginal. According to a 2015 Census report, more than half of the U.S. population is projected to belong to a minority group by 2060, with Black and non-Black Latinx groups accounting for almost 43% of the population. This is precisely why research that focuses on Black and Latinx communities is not simply a one-off project, but instead represents the future of the United States and is the reason why the importance of South Central is Home extends well beyond the borders of California.
Rosas shapes her historical analysis by grounding the discussion around ideas of place-making, community-building, and race relations in South Central, Los Angeles (or South L.A., as it is now known). From beginning to end, the book eloquently narrates the ways in which African Americans began their place-making journey to South L.A. in the 1960s, against a backdrop of systemic racial oppression and racial covenants that segregated Black communities. In their journey from the U.S. South, Black residents migrated to the Southwest with the hope of starting anew, in a community whose history was not bogged down with the burdens of slavery.
Mexican and Central American immigrants began moving into the predominantly Black South Central neighborhood in the 1980s. Many of these immigrants left for economic and/or political motives in search of a more decent life. However, like African Americans, Central American and Mexican immigrants were relegated to the same “forgotten places” of the city. Rosas contextualizes the environment in which Black and Latin American peoples would come to make South Central their home. More importantly, it provides the historical background in which these residents came together to advocate for their own community and well-being, often against the interests of powerful government entities. As Rosas puts it, “South Central African American and Latina/o residents advocate for investment and care for the community, but an investment that would not leave them behind.” It is through this collaboration that Rosas identifies the power of relational community formation.
The seven chapters in this book can be broken down into three important categories: place-making, investment, and race relations. Impressively, Rosas situates the historical realities of Black and Latina/o/x residents in South Central. Within these historical accounts, Rosas intertwines the ways in which systems of oppression and racialization created the conditions in which these residents were required to maintain and preserve a community that would serve the needs of its members. Even when it comes to government investment initiatives like the Head Start program and healthcare clinics, it was the community members themselves that had to work together to make the programs fit the needs of the people in South Central.
In the chapters dedicated to Head Start and healthcare clinics, Rosas effectively captures how the programs were first rolled out, the difficulties encountered, and the way in which Black and Latina/o/x folks worked together to make both institutions a success. Interestingly, while both the Head Start program and Drew King Hospital were funded through important government initiatives, both instances of investment were often used to racialize the community through the insidious narrative of a culture of poverty. By interacting with and attempting to shape these spaces Black and Latinx residents were forced to interact with each other.
While Rosas demonstrates the power that Black and Latinx communities have when they work together, she also brings up two important points that are not fleshed out in their entirety: the erasure of the Latinx community and negative race relations. As she notes on many occasions, the increased immigrant presence in South Los Angeles has done little to “erode the African American identity and character the people readily associate with the area.” Rosas worries that the Latino and Latinx presence will be erased from the popular image of South L.A.. While I do not think Rosas suggests that the Latino and Latinx experience is more precarious than the Black experience, Rosas could have spent more time explaining the persistent association of South L.A. with African Americans. In other words, thinking about the ways in which understanding South L.A. as a Black community, even if demographic numbers tell us otherwise, is also about the importance of place-making for a community whose history in the United States is founded on the erasure of its people. Rosas’ focus on the positive aspects of Black-Latinx relations is noteworthy. However, understanding why they do not always get along is just as important as highlighting when they do.
South Central is Home will be of interest to sociologists, political scientists, historians, and ethnic studies scholars, among others. As a book that centers race relations in communities of color, this book would be especially useful for undergraduate and graduate students, community organizers, and even political leaders. For young scholars, it provides a model for writing about communities that formed us, communities that we unapologetically love. Many traditional scholars continue to view scholarship that center ones community or family as “me-search”. This critique of course is rarely made of white scholars researching white communities. Lastly, by disentangling the rich history of South Central, Rosas shows us the future of cities across the United States.
Claudia Sandoval is a professor in the Political Science department at Loyola Marymount University where she teaches courses on Race, Immigration, and Black/Latina/o relations. Professor Sandoval is a first-generation Mexican immigrant who grew up in Inglewood, California. Sandoval received her B.A. in political science from UCLA in 2006. She graduated from the University of Chicago with both her master’s and doctorate in political science in 2014.
 Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. “Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning”. In Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics and Methods of Activist Scholarship, edited by Charles R. Hale, 31-61. Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 2008.
 Rosas, Abigail. South Central is Home: Race and the Power of Community Investment in Los Angeles. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.