Henry Delton Williams

When Henry Delton Williams was a little boy during World War II  there were lots and lots of servicemen and musical creativity that came out of Seventh Street.

I first came across the famed fashion designer, Henry Delton Williams (b. 1941) on my first visit to the AAMLO. Delton is part of the museum’s oral history project. A collection of his papers and work, including garments that he designed for famous stars such as The Whispers, Richard Pryor, and a host of Motown groups, are part of the museum’s permanent collection.

The African American Museum and Library is located at 14th and Martin Luther King Jr Way. This beautiful beaux-arts building was built in 1902 and is a sight for sore eyes. If you are in need of architectural delight, this is the place for you. This is a Carnegie library and was built with money from the robber Baron Andrew Carnegie, who wasn’t as bad as most. At least he thought it was a good idea to build libraries for everybody, including African Americans. However, this library is the former Oakland main public library and is located on what could be called the symbolically drawn line between West Oakland and Downtown Oakland–between where you could go and where you couldn’t as an African American person back in the early to mid 20th century.

“I looked at this building but was afraid to come in here. We couldn’t go past the library past Castro Street, not even that far. We could go downtown and shop but had to go back west. It was unwritten but you knew, you knew,” Williams said in an interview that is part of the AAMLO’s oral history project.

I find it significant that this former social marker of segregation has become a place that houses the beautiful history and collection of African American people and their contributions to the texture of Oakland. If we can hold on to it, it could serve as a significant permanent mark on the ground for African American people. The challenge is to get the oligarchic powers that be to care enough to leave it there and not destroy it as has been done in the past. This is always one of my fears. It is why I write. Thank goodness for the World Wide Web. It’s hard to erase marks on the ground and otherwise when the world is watching and there are lots of copies of a thing. 

“I remember it well. That was my paper route. 7th and Wood and then 7th and then go north on the other side of 7th street. All of that up in there was my paper route and I saw everything. I saw things that kids shouldn’t have seen. Oh boy isn’t that interesting. The community consisted of uncles and aunts and friends of the family. The whole community. An old African saying, it takes a village to raise a child and it does. That’s how I got where I am today,” recalls Williams. 

When African Americans migrated to West Oakland they built a strong community. The architecture of the neighborhood was perfect for that. In the 1930s, West Oakland consisted of two-story homes filled with intact African American families. Because African Americans were only allowed to live in certain places their homes would consist of extended families. They soon bought or rented the larger homes of their wealthy neighbors and formed complex family and living structures. People lived together and took care of each other because all they had was each other and their Federal government, though offering them jobs continued to corral them. 

“We lived in the projects at the Alameda Estuary Projects.  Then we moved onto Linden street. My mother bought a home. They developed the house which had a huge basement they turned that into a livable place. Into three bedrooms bathrooms everything. My mother my and my grandmother and me and my siblings we lived upstairs. My mother’s twin sister and their youngest sister lived downstairs with their kids,” Lewis told me.

 “It was the same here. We lived right around the corner on Adeline in my great grandmother’s house. We all came from the projects,” Dennis chimed in. 

Dennis and Lewis, an attorney who represents people from the neighborhood, have been friends for over fifty years and grew up together in West Oakland in the late forties and early fifties. 

At the beginning of African American immigration to the north, the people were hungry. They came north, families intact, with high standards, and an ambitious work ethic. They were fleeing to escape being murdered and terrorized. They fled Jim Crow only to experience James Crow. As a result, African American people looked inward for their strength and like in Chinatown, Little Italy and Germantown, isolation bred industry. Seventh Street was a booming lively place just full of servicemen and bankers and doctors, lawyers and railroad workers, shipyard workers and musicians, drug addicts and pimps and prostitutes, and loan sharks. There was nothing new there. 

“It had everything the gays and everything they were more flamboyant than they are now and everybody was there and they worked together they made their money together the servicemen were there and they wanted to have a good time and so you had that going on and then you had Slim Jenkins everybody know about Slim Jenkins,” Williams said.

Seventh Street was like Superman, it had two lives. By day it was a thriving beehive of commerce. There were markets, cleaners, restaurants, hotels, gyms, barbershops, insurance agencies, banks, cleaners, liquor stores, furniture stores, pharmacies, everything you needed to support a thriving upwardly mobile community and all this was owned by African Americans. 

By night Seventh Street put on its clothes for stepping out. Pantages Theater, Creole Cafe, Musicians Union Club, Sweet’s Ballroom, Burma Lounge, and Big Bear Tavern all flaunted their wares. They drew the hottest names in blues and jazz from all over the world Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, The Inkspots, Nat King Cole, and Dinah Washington the renowned Queen of the Blues. All of these artists fostered the birth of the West Coast Blues sound. The 880 seat Lincoln Theater was located at 1620 Seventh just two blocks up from Slim Jenkins and was the largest picture theater in West Oakland. The “Tamale Man” pushed his court hawking tamales to the party-goers who poured out of the club in the wee hours of the morning. Seventh Street had a sexy jazzy crazy identity. Charles ‘Raincoat Jones,’ the local loan shark and former bootlegger, loaned money to finance jazz and blues clubs by running dice games. There were gambling halls, pool halls, and places to eat Southern-style foods. All this to beat of the West Coast Blues sound and the preaching of hellfire and damnation by “The Reverend” who stood on the corner. Seventh street had a heart that was jazzy, bluesy, and alive with hope.

It was a thriving business district and it belonged to the African American people. It was located along Seventh Street between Cypress Streets (currently Nelson Mandela Parkway) and Wood near Oakland Point which includes The Bottoms. And though people lived in segregation, the African American people, like other immigrants, the Chinese, the Italians, the Germans, developed their own neighborhoods. Why did places like Chinatown or Little Italy survive whereas African American neighborhoods did not?