For Whites Only; How an East Oakland housing project shaped my election to the school board.

James Harris Feb 27

When we had saved up enough money to buy our first house, it was 2010 and the stock markets had crashed just three years earlier.  Oakland had about 15,000 fewer people and real estate was a lot cheaper than it is now in 2021.  My wife and I scraped together our savings and managed to buy a house in Sheffield Village in East Oakland.  Little did I know of this Village’s history and the profound and historic influence it would have on my election to the school board in 2012. 

The Late Great Alice Spearman

When I saw her, I was certain I was going to run for school board.  There she was: District 7 incumbent school board member Alice Spearman.  She was proud, outspoken, and sometimes straight up belligerent.  One time, during a protest, she came chest to chest with a student, refusing to back down.  She was cold as ice; I liked that about her.  I liked the challenge of what it meant to run against her— my agenda against hers. After all, I grew up in East Oakland too.  

The run up to the election was interesting in a couple of ways.  First, my opponent had developed a reputation for using less than savory tactics.  A few teachers and staff had restraining orders against her.  Second, I was new to politics.  I had never run before and I was among my campaign manager’s first clients.  Third, at the end of the Summer of 2012, I was slapped with a lawsuit contesting my ability to run in the election.  The charge: I am not an authorized resident of Oakland.  

This lawsuit caught me totally off guard.  I had no idea that Sheffield Village residents could and can send their children to both Oakland and San Leandro schools.  And I had no idea that our school taxes were and are paid to the City of San Leandro.  But when that case was filed, I was about to learn the lesson of how it all came to be.  

Turns out, that Sheffield Village, has a very interesting history. To start, as a part of a Federal Housing subsidy program in the 1930’s, the homes in Sheffield Village were advertised by the E.B. Field Company as a “single group housing project” with an elementary school to come, and was an FHA-financed development. And until the law was lifted— the project homes developed on this tract were not allowed to be sold to “Negroes,” consistent with federal housing laws of the day. The year was 1939. Far from any significant population of Black people, Sheffield Village was cast not only a safe mortgage investment, but safe living as well.  It is one local example of the first use of redlining by the Federal government to ensure blacks were properly contained. 

As Richard Rothstein, author of Color of Law, said in an interview on NPR, “… these color codes [redlining] were designed to indicate where it was safe to insure mortgages.” (More here.) At the time of its conception, Sheffield Village homes came with a “Declaration of Restrictions” that guaranteed protection against “the incursion of undesirable neighbors or unsightly homes.”

Though Blacks were not named outright, as I read these brochures from the Oakland Tribune’s 1939 edition, I wondered what it must have been like to live in Oakland back then. And I thought about how the story of the two Oaklands we see today was already under construction.

These early redlines and segregationist practices— authorized by the federal government— are the foundation of the living patterns and school attendance patterns that still impact where we live in Oakland and where our children attend school today.

It was a strange feeling to know that just sixty years ago I would not be welcome in my neighborhood.  Sometimes, on quiet days, you can still feel the project’s divided roots.  

But Sheffield Village is in Oakland, right? 

On the surface, the answer was yes, Sheffield Village is in Oakland and its residents pay Oakland property taxes.  But a lesser known fact is that Sheffield Village residents’ school taxes are paid to the San Leandro Unified District.  This is because when the Sheffield Village Elementary School was closed in 1964, the students were transferred to the San Leandro’s School District. The Oakland School Board approved the withdrawal of Sheffield Village Elementary from OUSD in 1963.  

So, the real question before the judge was could I legally represent District 7, even though my school taxes were paid to another city and even though I could not vote myself, nor could my neighbors vote for me. With respect to the law, the city’s charter says, the office holder “must be a resident” and offers no deeper clarification on the issue.  So, Judge Emanuel Grillo was assigned the case that Spearman filed.

He heard our case for the first time in August of 2012, just three months before the election.  Upon hearing the case, he ruled that I could continue to run for the school board seat. But— he added— if I won, he would subsequently rule on my eligibility to serve.  

After this ruling, I was feeling like I was trapped.  Like, even if I won, the judge could nullify all of my efforts and all of the efforts of my friends, family, and volunteers that were working hard so hard on the campaign trail.  As the election approached, I was deeply torn. 

In March of 2013, Judge Grillo ruled that I was a “resident, and could therefore serve.” 

This is how my service on the Oakland school board began.  I should have known I was in for a ride.  

What I didn’t know then was that this experienced sharpened me; it made me never take for granted that I am a servant of East Oakland.

A Reflection

As I searched the Sheffield Village records and history, I also began to talk to my family and cousins who lived in Oakland in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  My father shared with me the story that one of our cousins, Mr. Lovett, was the first black man to buy a house on 100th and Bancroft in 1966. That’s just over a mile from Sheffield Village, near 98th Avenue in East Oakland.  He told me stories of when they would hear about a family member driving “all the way from North or West Oakland to East Oakland and San Leandro.”

“In those days,” he said, “Black people didn’t really go out there that much.”

The history of Sheffield Village and East Oakland is a living example, not only of the redlining that boxed Blacks out and gave Whites a clear head start in the pursuit of the opportunity to buy a house, but is also an illustration of how linked our residential living choices are to our school choices, and who we feel safe living near and going to school with. 

In the mid 20th century, when Blacks started migrating from the West and North to the Eastern parts of Oakland, Whites simply moved out. And so the dance began. By the 1980’s and 90’s East Oakland and most of Oakland was Black. And starting then, East Oakland schools began their journey as the lowest performing in the district, and crime rates began their rise until District 7 was once crowned “Oakland’s Killing Fields.”  Decreased property values followed.

The same house that my grandparents bought for a modest low five figure sum, in a once Black community, on Aileen Street in North Oakland is now a mostly white neighborhood with some of the highest property values in Oakland.  Schools there are getting better, and Oakland Tech, a north Oakland gem, is among the best high schools in the city. 

Sometimes I wonder how different Oakland would be if we’d made different choices or if we exercised more empathy as we made decisions about what we, together, wanted our city to become.

Even though time has passed, why does Oakland still enforce the redlines? Why do most feel safer above 580 than below it? Why is crime higher in black neighborhoods? Why are illegal dumping instances higher in black and brown communities? Why can’t we break this cycle?  

After learning all of this history, I recall thinking that none of this historic context of East Oakland or Sheffield Village really mattered when we were in court or when the reporters were telling their bifurcated story of Spearman vs. Harris.  There was no conversation about how residential living patterns led to how we attend school and where we attend school or how systemic racism led to how our teachers and community see and treat our young Black and Brown boys and girls.  No real conversation about any of the history that led us here. It was, as it is so often in elections either option A or B. 

In the weeks after the subsequent trial, I waited for word as I attended Board meetings and began to work with my new colleagues, all the while wondering if I’d have a chance to serve my full term.  I hoped that I would be able to show people that no matter if your children attend private school or if you have the opportunity to attend San Leandro schools or Oakland schools, that— if you are citizen of this city— the children and students of Oakland are our collective responsibility.  

In the years after the lawsuit, Alice Spearman would call me and talk to me about the importance of fighting for Black children and Black contractors, and she encouraged me to always watch the money. Alice died in 2015.  I attended her funeral. I went because I appreciated everything she’d taught me, even taking me to court.  Her actions and lessons made me stronger. And I thank her for that. I hope one day we can realize the dream that her and I shared: that East Oakland students are the highest achieving students in Oakland and that East Oakland schools are launchpads for success.  

Maybe we still have time to make that dream come true? 

What do you think?

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