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The Informants

Honor and veneration to the dead and likewise to the living, who trailed and blazed the way for generations to come.
Esther B. "Hettie" Tilghman

We, unlike most Negroes, lived in a tradition of success, achievement, and hope for Negro liberation. With such sterling examples to guide us, surrender to prejudice seemed cowardly and unnecessary. Our goals were dictated by our past, we were obligated by our family history to achievement in our fight for individual and racial equality.
Horace Cayton

Aurelious P. Alberga was born in San Francisco in 1884, the son of a Jamaican seafarer and of Ann E. Caines, a San Francisco resident. In his youth he was a successful boxer, losing one of about forty fights—according to his recollection. He admired Peter Jackson and Jack Johnson, heavyweight contenders of the late ninteenth and early twentieth centuries, respectively. Mr. Alberga worked at a number of jobs. As secretary for a blind millionaire, Louis Metzger, he handled a number of his employer's affairs, including managing some apartment buildings. He also owned a bootblack stand in the San Francisco Ferry Building and ran a bail bond business. Mr. Alberga worked in civil rights organizations and helped found the Booker T. Washington Community Center. He joined West Gate Masonic Lodge and the Golden Gate Lodge of the Grand United Order of Oddfellows. During World War I, along with the lawyer Oscar Hudson, he organized a regiment of Black volunteers, traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, for officer's training, and served as first lieutenant and acting captain in Company A of the 365th Infantry. Mr. Alberga attended Bethel A.M.E. and then St. Peter's Episcopal Church. At the time of the interview in the summer of 1976, he and his wife lived on Isabella Street in West Oakland.

Alfred James Butler, the son of John and Annie "Aunt Ludie" White Butler, was born December 22, 1888, at 1551 Brush Street (now 2151), Oakland. His father came from Baltimore, Maryland, and his mother from San Jose, where her father,


Alfred J. White, owned a barbershop. Walter Butler, the lawyer and NAACP leader, was the informant's uncle, and Mr. Butler identified him in a photograph in the Bancroft Library, thus solving a vexing problem for me. Mr. Butler attended Lafayette school and Oakland High in the East Bay. He obtained a job as a stock clerk for the H. S. Crocker Company through the influence of his uncle, Walter G. Maddox. He worked as a mechanic in a garage during World War I, then with two partners opened the Thirty-Sixth Street Garage at Thirty-Sixth and West Streets in Oakland. He recalled watching Jack Johnson drive down San Pablo Avenue every night, slumped down in the seat. This example prompted him, and his job enabled him, to purchase a car with an old friend, Dr. Earl Lenear. The two also frequently went to the Barbary Coast together. When I interviewed him in July 1976, Mr. Butler lived in San Francisco near the ocean, had considerable vitality and energy, and still enjoyed driving about the city. He died in 1979.

Matt Crawford was born in Anniston, Alabama, on May 18 or 19, 1903, one of several children in the family of a carpet-layer. The increasingly oppressive Jim Crow system caused his parents to move with their family to West Oakland when Mr. Crawford was a youngster. He attended Prescott School, helped his father-who was not able to work at his trade because of race prejudice-clean offices after school, and longed to escape such menial tasks and become his own boss. He worked as a clerk in an insurance office, but knowing there was no chance for advancement, went to chiropractic college. During the Depression, he traveled with Langston Hughes and a number of other young Afro-Americans to the Soviet Union. Racial oppression, his readings, and his travels led him to espouse socialism. During World War II he was quite active in the Congress of Industrial Workers and helped the sociologist Charles S. Johnson compile a report on the Negro war worker. Remaining active in Bay Area labor and race relations and politics, he worked for the Coop Credit Union in Berkeley until his retirement. A photographer, he installed a darkroom in his home in Berkeley, where he lived in the summer of 1976. He was one of the most knowledgeable, articulate, and philosophical of the informants.

Urania Cummings was born on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands around 1889. In 1910 she left for Santo Domingo and then Puerto Rico, where she worked as a nurse taking care of American children. In 1918 she migrated to New York City, working as a domestic for eight years while saving her earnings. A cousin who was a train porter told her California was very much like the Virgin Islands, so she migrated once again. She was active in women's clubs and attended some United Negro Improvement Association meetings of Marcus Garvey. Mrs. Cummings married, started a family, and purchased a home in Berkeley during the Depression. After her four children were grown, she took courses in public speaking and art. Beginning in 1958, she exhibited a number of her paintings, many depicting West Indian scenes, and she has been featured in articles on her career and her art. She died in 1978.

Elbert A. Daly was born on November 16, 1891, on the campus of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. His parents had a thirty-acre farm, raised sweet and white potatoes, peanuts, watermelons, cantaloupes, cotton, sugar cane, and corn while caring for the university grounds. He grew up on the farm. attended Talladega College, and lived in Atlanta and Pittsburgh before being drafted for the World


War. He was wounded in Europe; after he recuperated he became a school principal in Florida. He worked at a number of jobs, including stints as a chef on a steamer, as head of his own housecleaning business, as a janitor, and as a clothes presser. He migrated to California in 1922 and eventually went into the newspaper business with his wife, who had acquired considerable printing experience with her brother-in-law in Florida. Eventually they assumed control of the California Voice , a weekly which they ran for five decades. Mr. Daly was active in politics, registering voters and supporting candidates, and joined East Gate #44 Masonic Lodge and the Shriners. Shortly after the interview in August 1976, he turned the California Voice over to another editor.

Walter Leslie Gibson was born in San Francisco on November 27, 1895. His mother, Telazine Cornell, attended San Francisco's public schools and worked as a servant. Most notably, she preserved her school notebooks, a number of photograph albums, articles of clothing, and furnishings, which she handed down to her son. The Gibsons moved to Oakland around 1900. Mr. Gibson attended public schools, worked as a newsboy, and became a licensed "ham" radio operator. He worked in the Bethlehem Shipyards and then was drafted during World War I, serving in the 812th Pioneer Infantry. Afterwards he took a postal examination and passed it. He worked for the post office thirty-eight years, rising through the ranks to the position of supervisor. He was an officer in the American Legion and active in Acacia Masonic Lodge #7. Mr. Gibson successfully preserved a number of nineteenth-century photographs and artifacts and was kind enough to permit me to copy them. At the time of the interview he lived with his wife in their East Oakland home. He died in early 1979. His wife, Mrs. Veola Gibson, who has also passed, was close to her mother-in-law, and was consequently more informative about the people in the photographs than her husband.

Edward J. "Buster" Johnson was born in Oakland in 1906. His father migrated west from Montgomery, Alabama, shortly before the turn of the century. His mother grew up in Shasta County, in northern California, the daughter of a woman who came west as a slave around 1848. He lived in Berkeley, sold newspapers, and acquired carpentry skills in a musical instrument shop while attending Berkeley High. Like his father, he railroaded for a period of time, traveling all over the United States. In the 1930s he was doorman and then maintenance man for a number of apartments owned by an affluent San Francisco family. After a stint in the military during World War II, he worked as a redcap at the Ferry Building. Eventually he became a building contractor and built a parking garage in downtown Oakland. At the time of the interview in 1973, Mr. Johnson lived in the Berkeley home his father purchased shortly before World War I.

Eugene Pascual Lasartemay was born in the Hawaiian Islands in 1903. Of Puerto Rican and Basque descent, he migrated to California in 1923. Unable to get a good job in San Francisco, he went to sea for fifteen years. Starting as a fireman, he progressed through several positions as wiper, water tender, and deck engineer until becoming a licensed second assistant, and then first assistant engineer. His Hawaiian birthplace enabled him to join San Francisco's Marine Engineers and Beneficial Association Local #96, which like most unions rarely admitted Blacks. While ashore, he made extra money singing with a group of shipmates who were also Hawaiian. He grew up speaking pidgin English and Spanish, and still


maintains ties with Hawaiian Islanders. In 1965 he helped found the East Bay Negro Historical Society, where he and wife could be found at the time of the interview in 1976. Mr. Lasartemay is also an accomplished photographer, a skill he acquired during his travels at sea, and a founder of Las Arts Camera Club, now known as Acorn Camera Club.

Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1886, Dr. Earl Lenear was brought to San Francisco as an infant. His father, Dr. Reuben Lenear, was a chiropractor. The elder Lenear started a school to teach the profession, and his son followed in his footsteps. Dr. Earl Lenear frequented the Barbary Coast with his friends as a young man. He joined several lodges and was a charter member of Adonis Lodge. He maintained an office on Grove Street in Oakland when I interviewed him. On first seeing Dr. Lenear, I was struck by the fact that he could easily pass for white.

Freddie McWilliams was born in Vallejo, on the northwest shore of San Francisco Bay, January 26, 1904. His mother's family, the Clarks, were from West Oakland, and his father came from the south. As a youth Mr. McWilliams lived in Oakland, where he fraternized with Blacks, and in San Francisco, where he associated with Italian-Americans. For a while he was a messenger, then he started in vaudeville as a tap dancer. He was in show business for a number of decades as a dancer, a tap-dance teacher, and a coordinator of entertainment acts for local lodges and clubs, among other full- and part-time roles. He went on tour in the 1930s, visiting Hawaii, the Philippines, and China. In addition, Mr. McWilliams worked for the government until his retirement, after which he studied real estate and tax laws. One of the most spry of the informants, Freddie McWilliams demonstrated a number of dance steps in the course of the interview. He has also saved numerous photographs from when he was in show business. In 1976 he lived with his wife in North Oakland.

Mrs. Vivian Osborn Marsh was born in Houston, Texas, and came to the Bay Area in 1913. She attended Berkeley High and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied anthropology and wrote a master's thesis on Negro folklore in the Americas. She was also a charter member of Kappa Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, founded by Black students at the university. Moreover, Mrs. Marsh joined the Phyllis Wheatley club. She was an officer in a number of women's clubs and civic groups, played a leading role in Bay Area politics and social life, and traveled extensively. In the summer of 1976 she was still actively involved in civic affairs. A resident of Berkeley, she has also saved a number of photographs of her family and social life.

Martel Meneweather was born in Marshall, Texas, the daughter of college graduates. After attending college herself, she married and in 1919 moved to the Bay Area with her husband. She was not quite thirty years of age. They first lived in San Francisco, but, like many other Blacks, they moved to Oakland in the 1920s. She worked with a number of groups, such as the Garveyites, and helped organize the California Association of Colored Women. Besides raising a family, the informant was active in church, in politics, and in civil rights. She also worked to abtain jobs for Afro-Americans in Bay Area schools, hospitals, and other public institutions. In 1977, still active in civic affairs, Mrs. Meneweather lived in Oakland.


Ethel Terrell was born in Newark, New Jersey, near the end of the last century. The daughter of a railroad man, she learned to play piano and started a career in show business after completing school. She played for silent movies, toured with Sisseretta "Black Patti" Jones's group, and also traveled the vaudeville circuit with a show band, the Syncopated Seven. In the early 1920s the Orpheum vaudeville route brought her to San Francisco, where she decided to settle. She led her own band, the Franciscans, married, moved to the East Bay, and continued to play piano, though she stopped touring. Mrs. Terrell was active in women's clubs and during the 1930s supervised a WPA theatre group in the musical Change Your Luck as well as other productions. In the 1970s she played an advisory role in musical productions set in the 1920s and 1930s. She passed in late 1977.

Royal E. Towns was born February 10, 1899, in West Oakland. His father and mother had lived in the Bay Area for several decades, raising a large family before the birth of their last child, Royal. Besides attending the local schools and actively participating in sports, he inherited a family tradition that mirrored the history of the Bay Area. From his older brothers he learned the details of that history and acquired several photograph albums. Mr. Towns worked in industry and on the railroad before becoming one of Oakland's first Black firemen. He rose to the rank of lieutenant, fought to win better jobs for Afro-Americans, and was active in political, civic, and Masonic organizations. He founded and for eleven years edited the Prince Hall Masonic Digest , which chronicled the history and contemporary activities of the oldest Black fraternal order. He also studied photography, building a darkroom in his home to pursue the craft in depth; researched his family's history on the Pacific slope; helped found the East Bay Negro Historical Society; and remained involved in civic and social affairs in the 1970s.

Eleanor Carroll Watkins was born in Oakland in 1912. She attended St. Augustine's Episcopal Church. After completing public school at an early age, she enrolled in the University of California, obtaining a B.A. and a degree in Library Science. While at Berkeley she joined the Kappa Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta. Mrs. Watkins worked in the public libraries of the East Bay until her retirement. She saved a number of late nineteenth-century studio portraits and twentieth-century photographs from her family's collection. These records, her training, and her experience resulted in a historical consciousness that reflected years of residence in the Bay Area. In the summer of 1977 she and her husband lived in El Cerrito, a suburb north of Berkeley.

John Watkins was born in Oakland in 1910. Both his parents had lived in the Bay Area a number of years. He attended Oakland's public schools, where he played in the band, excelled in athletics, and planned to join the service to become an aviator. After graduation he encountered racial prejudice in the military and, consequently, worked in an insurance office and on the railroad. During the Depression he became a union organizer on the waterfront. In World War II he was a mechanic, then an instructor, and subsequently a planner in a defense plant. After working in the post office, he realized a lifelong ambition when he opened an equipment rental business in the suburb of Walnut Creek. Recently Mr. Watkins started studying photography, developing film and making prints in his El Cerrito home.


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