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Before 2015, East Bay commuters traveling to San Francisco on BART could look forward to passing the vibrant, unforgettable sign for Esther’s Orbit Room every morning. It featured the name “Esthers” in saucy red script and “Orbit Room” in purple space-age bubble letters, a cheerful orange rocket taking off from the “T.”
The Orbit Room sign was the last vestige of a once-bustling African American business district. Between the 1940s and ’60s, Seventh Street in West Oakland was the center of black life and culture in the city. During the day, it was the place for African Americans to buy groceries, stop by the pharmacy or have lunch, all at black-owned stores.
At night, it was a lively blues music scene, competing with San Francisco’s Fillmore District for the title of “Harlem of the West,” boasting performances by Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, and Sammy Davis Jr. But like so many thriving black neighborhoods in the late-20th century, economic and political forces came together to gut it in a few short decades.
‘Seventh Street was the center of black entertainment’
Today, if you look around Seventh Street with its vacant land and parking lots in the shadow of the BART tracks, it’s hard to picture its glory days. Ronnie Stewart, the executive director of the West Coast Blues Society, has been fighting tirelessly since 1989 to preserve the street’s musical legacy. “Seventh Street was the center of black entertainment for the West Coast,” Stewart says. “The clubs were lined up on both sides.”
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His organization worked with the city of Oakland to secure funding for “The Music They Played on 7th Street: Oakland Walk of Fame,” acknowledging the musicians, club owners, record companies, and businesses that made the street a creative force. The first 88 brass Walk of Fame plaques were unveiled in March 2015. Another 88 plaques were installed on sidewalks earlier this year, but the unveiling ceremonies planned for April 3 and 4 had to be canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“One of our goals is to perpetuate the history in Oakland’s contribution to the world of culture,” Stewart says. For example, blues artist Jimmy McCracklin honed his skills on Seventh Street, and went on to inspire country and rock artists such as Alan Jackson and the Rolling Stones. “It’s black history that influenced white history. That tickles me to death to know that the Rolling Stones covered black songs that were created and written at Bob Geddins’ studio at Seventh and Center,” Stewart says.
Even though most of the original clubs have been torn down, Seventh Street seemed on track for a live-music revival with the opening of 7th West — a bar, restaurant, music venue, and beer garden operating as a community hub — in August 2018. 7th West joined Full Out Studios, The Crucible art studio, Blue Dream cannabis lounge, and Mandela Partners as a group of Seventh Street businesses determined to maintain the character of the neighborhood and serve the needs of its residents. Now, COVID-19 has put the neighborhood’s remaining cultural life in peril again.
West Oakland’s first boom happened right after it became the endpoint of the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869. The Oakland wharf was a juncture for Southern Pacific and other big railways, where train travelers could take a ferry across the bay to San Francisco. Southern Pacific, as well as nearby canneries and shipping companies, hired a diverse workforce that included immigrants from Greece, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, China, Japan and the Philippines.
Black men were recruited to work as Southern Pacific’s sleeping car attendants, then known as Pullman porters. Thanks to a long union struggle between 1925 and 1937, the Pullman porters helped lay the foundation for the black middle class in early 20th century Oakland, as more and more African Americans migrated to the city, fleeing racial terrorism happening in the South.
As the city flourished, Seventh Street became the main drag for West Oakland, with Latino- and black-owned businesses opening along the strip. In 1918, Sidney Dearing launched the street’s first black-owned music venue, the Creole Café, which showcased New Orleans-style jazz and big-band music. In 1921, the Lincoln Theatre debuted as both a cinema and stage, offering everything from film screenings to vaudeville shows.
Prohibition didn’t slow the flow of liquor or jazz music on Seventh Street, but the partying became more discreet, taking place in unmarked “after-hours clubs,” many run by Charles E. “Raincoat” Jones, a powerful local businessman who had a hand in bootlegging and gambling operations. Jones always put the money he made back into the community, financing black-owned businesses and helping families who were down on their luck.
The day Prohibition ended in 1933, Harold “Slim” Jenkins opened Slim Jenkins Supper Club on Seventh Street. This spot, which drew a racially mixed middle-class crowd, quickly became Oakland’s Cotton Club, the place to see and be seen, hosting big-name acts like B.B. King, Miles Davis, Earl “Fatha” Hines, the Ink Spots, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole. “Slim Jenkins was the quintessential African American high-class club with all the top entertainment,” Stewart says.
During World War II, West Oakland’s African American population exploded, just as the neighborhood’s Japanese American residents were sent to internment camps. The Southern Pacific rail became a vital wartime lifeline, delivering servicemen and supplies to the West Coast.
Oakland shipbuilders became desperate for laborers to churn out war-supply ships, while the U.S. military built bases at the Port of Oakland to ship men, weapons and vehicles to the Pacific Theater. This demand for workers drew thousands of Southern African Americans, causing Oakland’s black population to grow from 8,000 in 1940 to 21,000 in 1945. The practice of “redlining” kept black Americans from buying homes in Bay Area suburbs, confining the black population to older urban districts like West Oakland.
This meant that more and more black-owned businesses — furniture dealers, cleaners, butchers, liquor stores, cafes, and ice cream parlors — opened on Seventh Street. After a hard day’s work, the bars along Seventh became the spots for the new African American middle class to gather and let off steam. By the mid-1940s, the corridor boasted more than 15 music clubs.
The Oakland blues sound
The neighborhood was such a fertile ground for creativity that it developed its own blues sound.
Saunders King, who came up playing in Slim Jenkins’ house band, recorded the first hit blues record from the Bay Area in 1942, an innovative electric-guitar-infused song called “S.K. Blues.” According to the West Coast Blues Society site, the Oakland blues, shaped by artists like “Terrible Tom” Bowden, Charles Brown, Jimmy McCracklin and Lowell Fulson, had been thought of as “slow and mournful with simple 1-4-5 blues changes,” but Texan musicians arriving in the ’40s brought a brighter, faster shuffle to the sound.
Also, “Oakland blues is distinguished by a horn-driven sound, versus the harmonica-driven sound of Chicago blues,” says Stewart, who remembers being wowed by seeing Fulson in a dapper suit and gold shoes at a Seventh Street corner store as a kid.
Iconic producer Bob Geddins recorded and pressed many of these hit records at Big Town Records. Geddins wrote “Mercury Blues,” first recorded by K.C. Douglas in 1948, which later became a country smash for Alan Jackson, and Jimmy Wilson’s 1953 hit, “Tin Pan Alley.” Geddins discovered Roy Hawkins, who co-wrote “The Thrill Is Gone,” which became a hit for B.B. King in 1953. He also produced “Three O’Clock Blues” by Fulson, another song King turned into radio gold in 1951.
Esther Brown, who migrated to Oakland from Texas in 1942, started out as a waitress at Slim Jenkins’ club. By the 1950s, she had saved up enough tips to open her own Southern food restaurant nearby, Esther’s Breakfast Room, where she met and married William Mabry. Eventually, the couple acquired a liquor license and bought the building. Their supper club started to draw big names like Bobby “Blue” Bland, T-Bone Walker, Big Mama Thornton and Etta James.
Still, the end of the war in 1945 was harsh on West Oakland’s residents, as wartime shipping and building jobs went away and the railroad declined. The neighborhood suffered from overcrowding and poverty. City officials started to describe the area with loaded terms like “blighted” and “slum,” and the American Housing Act of 1949 empowered the city to employ eminent domain to tear down African American homes that were getting run down.
Several midcentury “urban renewal” projects targeted West Oakland, uprooting the black residents who had created the rich culture of Seventh Street.
First, the two-tier Cypress Freeway (where the Mandela Parkway is now), which was completed in 1957, bisected the neighborhood and forced out 600 families and dozens of businesses. Starting in 1960, 12 square blocks off the southern side of Seventh, including storefronts and 400 residential Victorians, were razed to make room for a giant U.S. Postal Service distribution center, a move that also required Esther and William Mabry to relocate across the street. The couple opened Esther’s Orbit Room, with its fantastic sign, in 1963, and the club continued to draw top blues and R&B acts like Mary Wells, Lou Rawls, Pee Wee Crayton, Al Green, and Ike and Tina Turner.
Construction on the postal facility didn’t begin until 1966, so many of the gutted lots sat empty for years. Finally, BART was being built in the mid-1960s, and to cut costs, officials decided the West Oakland station and tracks would be erected right over Seventh Street, which, Stewart says, claimed thousands more homes. “If BART had been built underground in West Oakland, can you imagine how good that would have been?” he muses. “Seventh Street would have revitalized itself.”
Slim Jenkins moved his club to Jack London Square in 1972, but the predominantly white scene was not a friendly place for the club or its patrons, and it quickly shut down. When the West Oakland BART station opened in September 1974, it was the death knell for live music in the neighborhood. The deafening screech and rumble of the trains passing every 10 minutes made enjoying the musicians impossible. The remaining clubs were reduced to neighborhood bars, and by the 2000s, Esther’s was the only one standing. Esther, “The Grand Lady of Seventh Street,” passed away in 2010, and her iconic sign was taken down in 2015.
As a musician who regularly plays with the West Coast Blues Society Caravan of All-Stars, Stewart has performed in New Orleans’ French Quarter and on Beale Street in Memphis, and he’s seen how these historic jazz and blues districts bring in millions of tourist dollars to their local economies. In Oakland, “the city officials didn’t know they had a treasure on Seventh Street,” Stewart says.
Now, Seventh Street’s fledgling music scene, and the few remaining blues clubs elsewhere in Oakland, are threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic. “There’s a lot of clubs that are closed that ain’t coming back,” Stewart says. “Black entertainment is going to suffer a lot, because, again, it ain’t that many places. When clubs do reopen, it’s going to create a dogfight for the few little gigs. They’re going to hire the white blues bands first anyway. That’s just the landscape. We’re the last hired and the first fired.”