I previously wrote about a book that I picked up while traveling to Sacramento that discussed Sacramento’s Golden Past. I also picked up a book about the more modern history of Sacramento called “Sacramento Renaissance: Art, Music and Activism in California’s Capital City” by William Burg. Burg is a long time resident of Sacramento and has written several books on the history of various parts of the city. The book primarily takes the reader on a topical and geographic journey through the evolution of several Sacramento neighborhoods during the 20th century. It covers a great deal of the history of the struggle against racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and general civil rights that took place and in some cases were even started in Sacramento.
It was stunning to read about the level of racism that took place in Sacramento in the 50s. One example was Nathaniel Colley who was a veteran and Yale Law graduate who fought for civil rights and won several anti discrimination cases. Traditionally when I read about the history of racism in the United States there is a lot of coverage of the blatant, brutal and violent Jim Crow south but very little of talk of the arguably more dangerous casually indifferent racism that took place in the West. One of my favorite anecdotes from the book was a story about Myra West, a white woman, who joined forces to fight against housing segregation. When asked why she cared about segregation in neighborhoods where she did not live, she replied “I don’t approve of segregation in Mississippi either”.
The other major atrocity that is difficult to read about from California’s history is the Japanese internment that affected so many innocent Californian’s during World War II and whose impact was seen long after the war was over.
Later chapters discussed centers of the beatnik movement in Sacramento that spilled over from San Francisco. These included coffee shops, book stores, and craft stores where artist sold their wares. The book also covered the origins of the Black Panther Party which was founded in Oakland in the late 1960s. It focused on the less controversial origins of the organization which included a free breakfast program for kids and discussed how in order to become a Black Panther initially applicants had to go through a six week training program which included an extensive reading list.
If you walk through any city in California you are likely to come across Ceaser Chavez St., or Ceaser Chavez Park, I was glad to finally read about him and his work. Ceaser Chavez was a labor organizer for the United Farm Workers union which was created to help promote farm worker equality. He was an excellent public speaker and organizer and was accompanied by a “paramilitary art collective” known as the RCAF (Royal Chicano Air Force).
The RCAF is one of the most intriguing and bizzare organizations that I have ever heard of. They took a lot of inspiration from the Black Panther movement (most notably holding their own free breakfast program for kids) and made a significant impact in the development of the culture of Sacramento in the 1960s. In addition, they served as a key link between the Mexican community and the state and local government.
Burg dives into the controversial issue of redevelopment of the downtown area. For better or worse, the area currently known as Old Town Sacramento was known as the “Labor Market” and was full of single, low income workers living in SROs. The Sacramento History Museum painted a pretty rosy picture of redevelopment. I appreciated that Burg took a look at the human cost of redevelopment and provided a fascinating alternate viewpoint.
I think one of my favorite parts of the book was reading about the history of the Delta King. I had the pleasure of enjoying lunch onboard this boat while I visited Sacramento. It was a functioning river boat between Sacramento and San Francisco. During World War II it was leased to the Navy to help place anti submarine netting in the bay. One the US entered the war it played a crucial role in troop movements around the bay. After the war it appeared in several movies including Huck Finn. Then there was a long legal battle around its ownership, and after sinking, twice, it became the permanent hotel, bar and restaurant that we see today.
There were many other groups, neighborhoods, and stories that I have failed to mention from the book. One common theme that still resonates today is how during every era of transformation Sacramento has attempted to redevelop. For better or worse, various parts of the town seem to perpetually be “coming soon”. Another thing that I learned from reading this book is that during my travels I need to do a better job getting out of downtown and exploring other parts of a city. There are tons of places that Burg has inspired me to revisit that were not even on my radar the first time around.