HAYWARD — More than half a century ago, a 12-block area near Hayward’s shoreline thrived as a cultural hub of about 1,400 mostly Black and Latino residents, a place where blues legends regularly dropped in to play clubs and going to Sunday church was a family affair.
The tight-knit community was known as Russell City, named in 1853 after Joel Russell, a New England teacher who came to California during the Gold Rush. It originally was the home of Danish immigrants, and by around World War II a wave of people had migrated there from the southern United States and Mexico.
“Love and care and mutual encouragement” helped keep it a thriving community, despite widespread poverty, said María Ochoa, a San Jose State University professor emerita who wrote a book about Russell City.
That idyllic setting was shattered in the late 1950s when Alameda County and Hayward city officials declared the area a blight better suited for an industrial park. Over the protests of some residents, the city and county began a “forced relocation” of Russell City’s residents several years later.
“They took the whole damn city. They changed every street name. They tried to erase it,” said Ronnie Stewart, the head of the West Coast Blues Society.
On Nov. 16, the Hayward City Council tried to at least partially rectify that major injustice by issuing an apology to Russell City’s residents, descendants and other groups harmed by the city’s history of racist policies and decisions.
In issuing its apology, Hayward became the latest in a small but growing list of cities across the nation swept up in the racial reckoning sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
Several weeks ago, the San Jose City Council apologized to Chinese immigrants and their descendants for past discriminatory acts. One of the most egregious was the deliberate setting of a fire that blazed through San Jose’s Chinatown in 1887, destroying homes and businesses and displacing 1,400 people.
And this summer, Antioch Mayor Lamar Thorpe and City Council members signed the nation’s first apology for driving out Chinese immigrants and torching their homes in 1876.
“For me, as an African American woman, it’s really, really meaningful,” Artavia Berry said about Hayward’s apology. Berry, a Hayward resident who chairs the city’s Community Services Commission that drafted the apology, said, “It’s been a very tearful week for me.”
The apology is significant, she said, because it clearly admits the past injustices and includes a 10-part plan that commits the city to addressing the harm caused.
“While it does not fix the past, what it does is it begins a healing process,” she said. “We burned down your community. We bulldozed your community. And here we are decades later and your communities are still suffering because of those policies,” Berry said. “We acknowledge it.”
Former residents of Russell City, their family members and local historians said in interviews that when Russell City was wiped out, more was lost than just a collection of family-built homes, businesses and mostly unpaved roads.
“It wasn’t just a little unincorporated town with Blacks and Mexicans and a few others. It had a real function as far as being a contributor to West Coast Blues,” Stewart said, recalling the famous musicians who played at venues like the Country Club.
“Ray Charles played over there one time. T-Bone Walker was a regular. And they honed their skills there,” added Stewart, who also is the founder of the Russell City Blues Festival that was held annually at Hayward City Hall in honor of the lost community for two decades until ending in 2019.
Toni Wynn, 67, of Vacaville, said as a young girl living in Oakland, she and her family used to visit her great grandfather, Phyls Sanders, on weekends in Russell City, where he owned about 80 acres that included a pig farm.
Wynn recalled the day she and her sister were sitting on a shed and her sister fell into the pig trough. “You should have seen those pigs coming. My grandfather had to get a shovel and knock the mess out of them to get them back while somebody else grabbed her out of the trough. And she was soaked.”
As for Russell City itself, “it was a big community. There were lots of families, and it was just so warm there,” she said.
Wynn’s mother, Charlie Bell Sanders, sang at blues clubs there as well as in Oakland and San Francisco. Sanders’ image is featured on a building mural at A Street and Maple Court in Hayward, singing in a flowing white dress with a band in Russell City.
It wasn’t just the blues that made Russell City special, though. The area had several places of worship offering services in English and Spanish that brought neighbors together.
Ochoa, who grew up in Hayward, also remembers frequently going to Russell City with her family, to attend church.
Though residents petitioned Alameda County officials at least three times to incorporate the community and provide sewage and electricity hookups, they were denied, she said.
“Look what they had done with almost no money,” Wynn said. “Think about where it would be today if they would have let that little town thrive,” Wynn said.
Russell City “wasn’t just a singular community,” said Diane Curry, executive director of the Hayward Area Historical Society. “It had markets, it had farms and businesses, bars, and clubs. It was generally a place where people looked out for each other.”
The community was situated just south of West Winton Avenue — then called Russell City Road — largely west of the railroad tracks.
“I wouldn’t trade them years for nothing,” said Sam Nava, the grandson of Pancho Villa who grew up in Russell City before leaving at age 20.
Until a few years ago, Nava, now 82, helped keep alive a tradition of former Russell City residents and their families who annually gathered in Hayward’s Kennedy Park to reminisce about their once shared community.
“You had a lot of good people out there, a lot of camaraderie,” Nava said.
Nava’s father, Ernesto Nava, claimed to be one of the last people to leave Russell City when officials were evicting residents. The home he had plastered was burned down shortly after he left, Sam Nava said.
Today, the area is packed with industrial buildings.
Wynn said Hayward’s apology seems sincere, but she’s skeptical.
“Yeah, that looks good on paper, but what about money? Give us more money than the little bit that you gave my family when we were there. It’s not like we could not have said, ‘No we don’t want to move or sell.’ You guys took it over,” Wynn said.
“You can’t give us that land back, you can’t give us those memories back, so make it better for us. It’s almost like asking for you guys to finally give us our 40 acres and a mule,” she added.
Hayward Councilmember Sara Lamnin said the skepticism is “completely understandable,” but added that the city is “strongly committed” to undoing decades of “pervasive” racist and harmful policies.
Some steps have already begun, such as planning for a new series of public art installations at Heritage Plaza in recognition of indigenous people, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the eviction of Russell City residents. The city has also been training city employees to use a racial equity lens in their everyday work.
Upcoming efforts could include working with Russell City descendants to “determine appropriate restitution” and creating a first-time homebuyer assistance program, according to city reports.
Berry said she’s optimistic real changes are coming.
“You’ve got to go beyond just the words, and the city of Hayward stepped up,” she said. “I want to see other cities look to little Hayward and say, ‘Wow, how did y’all do that?’ ”
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