Sunday, March 21, 2021

What Is History?

What is history? If you grew up when I did, history was likely taught as a series of boring sets of dates and names. Very American- and European-centric, and exceedingly white male dominated. Of necessity for time, history taught in grade school and high school was condensed to a subset of that.

Even allowing for that condensing of events, history generally came across as series of "great men doing great things". This U.S. president did this thing, this rich guy did this thing, this general defeated that general in a battle. Some of that is self-promotion, some of that is "history is written by the victors", and some is information lost over time, but much of it is simply an accepted but distorted view of things.

The reality of history is far more intricate, and far more interesting. A president may have signed a bill into law or started a war or given a speech, but it was countless unnamed people who made that thing happn. A rich person did things of note, but much of the actual work was probably done by countless unnamed people. A battle may be won or lost because of the strategy of generals, but battles are fought by individuals who do brave things, cowardly things, and live or die during the battle.

As a historian, it's easy to fall into the trap. People were famous by standards of their time because of their political office, their wealth, their geneaology, and so they are the ones who appeared in newspapers, history books, and official documents. Those things lead to their names being given to cities, parks, streets, and geographical features. And they were the ones who could afford to document their families with paintings, photographs, and other tangible items. So naturally the references to those people are more numerous and easier to find. Much of that is systemic: men as head of household, white men as owners of property, holders of political office, and so on. But frequency doesn't necessarily mean importance.

It's important to always take a step back when researching a historical figure. Look at who raised them, where they went to school and who taught them, the people who worked with them and for them, and look backwards and forwards to where and how their parents and children lived, where they went to school, etc.

And most importantly, remember that those other people are a part of history, whether they were "famous" or not. Your great-grandparent or great-great-grandparent who you know little about? They were part of history. The ones who fought in wars, whether in the U.S, or elsewhere, whether they were were a foot soldier or an officer, they were part of history. The one who drove a truck or wagon, the one who worked in a shop or the open field, the one who died without much fanfare. They were not only part of history—they made history, even if they didn't make it into the history books and newspapers.

Check out this presentation from the Oakland History Center, "Revisiting Historical Narriaves through Genealogical Research":

And I strongly encourage you to work to preserve your family's history, through photos, letters, films, and so on. After all, your ancestors made history, too.

If they're part of Oakland history, the Oakland Wiki ( is great place to document your family. Unlike Wikipedia, there's no requirement of them being "famous enough".

P.S. Those people in the photo are my great-grandparents. Andrew Anderson came from Sweden to Oakland about 1880. Emma Williams (Anderson) came about the same time. He worked on one of the ferryboats that plied SF Bay before there was a bridge, and they lived on Myrtle Street in West Oakland. But I can't tell you much else...they weren't famous.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Black Panther Power tours

Steve McCutchen, Dr. Saturu Ned, Katherine Campbell at de Fremery House in Lil' Bobby Hutton Park
There are a number of walking tours around Oakland, especially if food is your thing. When it comes to tours focused on history, there are fewer options: Oakland Urban Paths, Oakland Heritage Alliance, city of Oakland walking tours, and Mountain View Cemetery. And when it comes to black history tours, there's only one regularly scheduled tour, the city of Oakland's "New Era, New Politics" tour, which occurs on various Wednesday and Saturdays, May through October.

"New Era, New Politics" focuses on the political changes that came about in Oakland as African Americans started being elected to city council, mayor, and other positions. I've led it a number of times, and people are sometimes disappointed that it doesn't cover more about the Black Panther Party. When I give it, I talk about Bobby Seale's run for Oakland mayor, but there's too much to cover in 90 minutes.

So once a year, Oakland Urban Paths and the city of Oakland walking tours program team up to do a 2.5 hour walking tour on black history in Oakland. That gives time to talk about more people and cover more topics, though it's still not enough time to do more than give a taste. I always encourage people to find out more, with a good starting point. But it's best to learn about a place from people who lived the history, and as well as I know Oakland history, I was too young when the Black Panther Party was active and I definitely didn't live the history.

That's why I was really excited to get an email from Visit Oakland, the local visitor's bureau, asking if I wanted to go on a Black Panther Party tour, led by a former BPP member. I went on a BPP tour of North Oakland a couple years ago (2014) with It's About Time and learned a ton, but as mentioned, there aren't regular tours, so I jumped at the chance to go on this.

And I wasn't disappointed. Saturu Ned, who started with the BPP in Sacramento led the tour, along with Kathy Campbell and Steve McCutchen. Each of them had stories to tell and personal details to add to their time with the BPP. We toured sites in West Oakland (e.g., the BPP party headquarters), North Oakland (e.g., Merritt College, where Huey Newton and Bobby Seale met and formed the BPP), East Oakland (e.g., the BPP Community School) and finished up back by Lake Merritt, where we could see the courthouse steps, site of the "Free Huey" protests, and 1200 Lakeshore, where Huey lived for a time under tight security.

If this wasn't enough, it wasn't just a one-off. It was in part to announce that Black Panther Power led by Saturu Ned will be giving regular (or at least more frequent) BPP history walking tours. The details haven't been announced yet, but you can add yourself to the email list at to learn more.

Whether or not you go on the BPP history tours or not, there's lots to do for Black History Month in Oakland. Check Visit Oakland's list of BHM events, as well as the list on the Oakland Wiki.


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

signs: McCaulou's

Not the best sign ever by any stretch, but definitely a sign of the times. After who-knows-how-many-decades, the McCaulou's in Montclair Village is moving out of its distinctive building on Medau Place for smaller quarters nearby on Mountain Blvd.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Town Folk Project

There's a relatively new photo project / blog called the Town Folk Project: A photo project focused on the people & stories that made Oakland what it is today. Includes photos and short interviews with people all over Oakland—go check it out!

Thursday, January 31, 2019

52nd California International Book Fair - Feb. 8-10

The following is a guest post from Denise Lamott. I love history, and I love books, so what's not to like about old books?

Purchase Tickets
The 52nd California International Antiquarian Book Fair, recognized as one of the world's largest and most prestigious exhibitions of antiquarian books, returns to Northern California, Friday, February 8 through Sunday, February 10, 2019 at the Oakland Marriott City Center.

Sponsored by the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA) and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) and featuring the collections and rare treasures of nearly 200 booksellers from dealers from around the world, the three-day Book Fair offers a rich selection of manuscripts, early American and European literature, modern first editions, children's books, maps and autographs, as well as antiquarian books on history, science, law, architecture, cooking, wine and a wide range of other topics.

Book Club of CA

This year's Book Fair will include a special exhibit by the Book Club of California, an active association of over 800 major California collectors with interests in rare books and manuscripts of all types. Founded in 1912, the Club's library is dedicated to collecting and sharing works of California fine printers; resources on book making, book design, and book history; and books of historical significance. One side of this bi-faceted exhibit will display a selection of materials by California women printers and book artists, with a spotlight on Jane Grabhorn's test prints for the illustrations of the Grabhorn Press' Shakespeare plays. Also on display will be some of the Club's oldest and most sought-after publications.

L. Frank Baum

Joel Harris, a local member of the International Wizard of Oz Club, will be loaning a portion of his collection for a curated exhibit of first edition books by L. Frank Baum and the subsequent authors of the "Wizard of Oz" series. The theme of a Saturday lecture jointly sponsored by the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America and the Bibliographical Society of America will be Cyclone on the Prairies: The Magic of the Land of Oz.

Other highlights of the Book Fair include an interactive and entertaining exhibition that showcases local artists and organizations specializing in book arts. Calligraphers, bookbinders and a small press operator will once again be creating unique souvenirs for attendees to take home.

The Book Fair is the perfect introduction for those new to the world of rare books. Sunday, February 10, will present a variety of seminars and discussions. During Book Collecting 101, visitors can learn to create a strategy for collecting books, as well as how to spot a "first edition," judge a book's condition, and learn bookish terms and jargon. Presented by ABAA president Vic Zoschak, Jr., Tavistock Bookshop. During What's This Book Worth, Zoschak will discuss the primary factors that give books commercial and monetary value, as well as strategies for appraising and selling books. Discovery Day is the public's chance to discover if those old books gathering dust are worth something. The public will receive free, expert oral appraisals on up to three books. Appraisals are limited to a first come, first served basis – within the scheduled times.

Designed with the budding collector in mind, "Book Fair Finds" is a program in which dealers spotlight items priced at $100 or less. Visitors can look for the Book Fair Finds sign in participating booths.

For the full schedule, visit and plan your visit today!
February 8th 3 - 8 | February 9th 11 - 7 | February 10th 11 - 5
Oakland Marriott City Center, 1001 Broadway, Oakland, CA.

Tickets are available online or at the door. Friday admission tickets are $25; Saturday and Sunday tickets are $15 and all tickets allow return admission for the remainder of the fair. For more information about tickets or exhibiting, visit