Alameda Museum: 74 Years of White History?

The Alameda Museum was founded in 1948; seventy-four years ago. It is a public institution, which is dedicated to fostering public interest in the history of Alameda.

The mission of the Alameda Museum is three-fold:
  1. To accumulate, catalog, conserve, and display appropriate documents, photographs, objects, and artifacts relating to the city and its residents;
  2. To foster the preparation and publication of materials relating to the history of the city and its residents; and,
  3. to provide educational opportunities and experiences relating to the history of the city and its residents.
In these 74 years, the Alameda Museum has focused almost exclusively on a few things in Alameda’s history:
  • The Victorian Era Colonization of Alameda, including:
    • Historic Alameda Home and Garden Tour
    • Historic Architecture
  • Railways:
    • Trans-Continental Railway Terminus (Western Pacific Railroad)
    • Narrow Gauge Commuter & Regional Railways
  • Neptune Beach – often referred to as the “Coney Island of The West”
  • [Sterilized] Biographies of People Who Lived In Alameda:
    • Exclusively white people;
    • Almost exclusively rich;
    • Often responsible for racist or discriminatory policies, or just went on record (themselves) as having racist beliefs;
    • Sometimes donors to the museum;
    • Furthers the idea of White Exceptionalism, while excluding everyone else.
Alameda Preservation Society newsletter, featuring story about the “History of the Alameda Legacy Home Tour”. The Alameda Preservation Society, Architectural Society, and Alameda Museum are inextricable from each other.

On its face, Alameda is being billed as the Bay Area’s “playground of the rich”, a “Garden Island Paradise”, the “Coney Island of the West”….

Advertisement for Neptune Beach, in Alameda, California
A place held as a shining example of Western Conquest,
The pinnacle of [White] Society.

The embodiment of “manifest destiny”, proof of divine providence; and vindication for everything America did in the name of White Supremacy, and the freedom to believe in White Exceptionalism.

This is the paradise white people had to build, to justify everything.

Because, if the “Second Great Awakening” was just a lie; and white people weren’t chosen to rape, pillage, and burn every village they encountered…. If God didn’t give them a pass for enslaving other humans, or any of the other atrocious shit Protestantism, or Christianity, or whatever says “He” gave them a pass for… that means something unimaginable. And white people would never have had to deal with it, if they had just killed us all. But they didn’t.

And, the short-term thinking behind a blitzkrieg that left people alive is coming home to roost now. Because we are still alive. And the affects of white terror, and the attempted genocide, exclusion, abuse, and torture of human people has never been fully addressed by white people. In fact it makes them really fucking uncomfortable. It should.

It’s easier to exclude us from history when no one’s around to tell the story. White people certainly haven’t talked about it. So, it never happened, right?

Dedication of plaque at Lincoln Park (1909). Ishi, the last Yahi, is seen (center) with Alfred Kroeber, and T. Waterman. In a few months after this picture, Ishi would die from colonizers’ Tuberculosis.

This fantasy “Victorian paradise island” narrative continues to be presented, despite the obvious cracks in its alabaster facade. Despite the sustained objections to Alameda Museum’s focus on only white, colonial history, and the museum’s neglect & omission of non-white history during any month which isn’t an [AAPI/Black/Indigenous/…] History Month.

But, the Alameda Museum Displays Native American Artifacts….

It’s true that the Alameda Museum has Native American Artifacts. Some of these are actually Ohlone Grave Goods, stolen from the shellmound on Mound Street. (And all of them were mis-attributed to “a branch of Miwok”.)

Native American exhibit on display at Alameda Museum. Many of these artifacts are stolen grave goods, which were mis-attributed to the Miwok Nation (not even correctly to Coast Miwok), instead of the Ohlone Tribal Nation, who actually were the First Alamedans.

Let’s be honest, though: a collection of mortars and arrowheads, and a picture of the dedication of the plaque at Lincoln Park to the people found in the the Shellmound at Mound Street, doesn’t really cover the story.

The Alameda Museum isn’t capable of answering questions about the Native American Artifacts they have on display, much less the history of anyone else. So, they refer people immediately to the Alameda Free Library any time there is a query on this topic, or pretty much any other topic that isn’t Alameda’s White History.

Shellmounds are cemeteries. The plaque in Lincoln Park has a number of Native American remains recovered and used to pave Bay Farm Road: 350.

When you call the Alameda Museum to ask about the shellmounds, the “alameda indian mounds”, you might get someone who actually tells you that shellmounds were trash heaps. Which is so shockingly ignorant, you have to ask if you’re really calling a museum.

The Alameda Museum has no mention of this event, or the practice of using shellmounds to fertilize the gardens that Alameda was so famous for.

Even the gardens at the Meyer Home, which is owned and curated by the Alameda Museum, were fertilized using Ohlone remains from the Shellmounds of Alameda.

Meyers House with plaque.

The Meyer Home, sits on an estate with four buildings.

One of which has exhibits dedicated to architectural salvage, and building design. There is another building (almost an accessory dwelling unit) which serves as an art gallery. And yet another adobe-like structure which held more objects from expeditions in Africa, and other things which rich white people in the Late 19th, and Early 20th Centuries would collect as “curios”.

The author would like to note that the abundance of objects, like: furniture, architectural salvage, dolls, toys, fashion accessories, the Kitchen Display & Lady’s Study, and more; which clutter the Alameda Museum belong in, and would be marvelously curated in a house.

Seems like a lot of unnecessary work to recreate and maintain the facsimiles of rooms in a house, when the Meyer House is available as a museum itself; the way the USS Hornet – Sea, Air and Space Museum is an aircraft carrier; and the Air Naval Museum is an air terminal.

This would actually give the Alameda Museum the space to focus on curating the City of Alameda’s History beyond just its founding, and Victorian Era.

Alameda Black, AAPI, and Indigenous History Have More Parallels than Intersections

In the context of the Alameda Museum: our representation is limited to brief, tokenized explanations of our existence, without the revelation of Alameda’s history of racism and discriminatory practices. These recognitions and acknowledgements only come once a year, during our respective “History Months”.

Even though the Alameda Museum Lecture Series invites people to lecture on their personal experiences, heritage, history, and culture, there are still no permanent exhibits to nonwhite history. So, when the echoes of our voices fade from the walls of the Eagle Hall, so does any representation of us and our existence throughout Alameda history.

We’ll circle back to this.

The Alameda Museum is not the only museum which exists in the city.

There are four other museums:
  • The Pacific Pinball Museum
  • California Historical Radio Society Museum
  • USS Hornet – Sea, Air and Space Museum
  • Alameda Naval Air Museum

Here’s how their multicultural representation breaks down….

I was actually really surprised by the positive representation in the Air Naval Museum. I really enjoyed listening to some KDIA playlists I found through the California Historical Radio Society. And the inclusion of the Walking Ghosts of Black History into the USS Hornet’s programming is awesome, and a long time coming.

Pacific Pinball Museum

I found out “#pinballsowhite” is a thing. And, pinball does use a lot of racist, and sexist imagery. I’m not sure what I was expecting to find, but the answer is “racist”. Pinball has historically used racist, and offensive images.

California Historical Radio Society Museum

I found an article about KDIA Boss Soul Radio. Which is really cool. And I was surprised to find this information. But music is black af. I don’t care what you think about Elvis, or the Beatles, or Bob Dylan, they all stole that shit from Robert Johnson.

USS Hornet – Sea, Air and Space Museum

Recently, during the month of February, Black History Month, of 2022, the USS Hornet hosted three exhibits by The Walking Ghosts of Black History. These exhibits were on the hangar deck–next to the Apollo Mission stuff–and featured:

  1. African American Medal of Honor Recipients
  2. Outstanding African American Achievements in the United States Military
  3. African American Military Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Program Participants [think: NASA; like Katherine Johnson, and Guy Bluford.]

This isn’t the first time the Hornet has hosted The Walking Ghosts of Black History, either. It almost makes up for the fact that The Hornet has almost no black representation, normally. (They do have a whole section for Japanese-Americans who served during the war, however. Which is actually really intense, and the most reverent section of the entire ship, IMHO.)

Alameda Air Naval Museum

The Alameda Air Naval Museum is devoted to the history of the Alameda Naval Air Station. I was actually worried I wouldn’t find anything about Black People or African American History, because the USS Hornet didn’t seem to have anything the first time around.

But I found a really nice obituary, and biography, of Clifton Wainright. Clifton was employed at the Alameda Naval Air Station as a Program Manager, and Flight Test Engineer. He was also the first black All City quarterback and the first black Oakland Tribune “Athlete of the Year”.

Overall, I was pretty impressed by the thoughtful and meaningful efforts to curate inclusive, and relevant history, and happy that I found what I did. I actually learned a lot.

Representation isn’t just showing a face or a picture, it’s recognizing the contributions of that person, and their excellence and achievements, in their field.

These bits of history from other museums stimulated my curiosity, and fascination. I want to learn more about Alameda History:

I want to see what the Chinese Gardens looked like, as a model. I want to be introduced to their garden designs, crop management practices, and the vegetables they grew to feed Alameda.

I want to see a wall with portraits of the African American families who came to Alameda around the passage of the 13th Ammendment for the Abolition of Slavery. And I want to see their kitchens, fashion accessories, fancy dress, architectural salvage, and business displays, too.

I want to know about the BVs, and the housing on the former Alameda Naval Air Station. I want to know if the Alameda Housing Authority was really liquidated to pay for the Chuck Corica Alameda Municipal Golf Course.

Cover art regarding the June 1966 “camp-in” at Alameda’s Franklin Park, by Mabel Tatum, and the Citizen’s Committee for Low-Income Housing, to protest the eviction of hundreds of families from an Alameda Housing Authority housing project, without re-location assistance, or placement at another Alameda Housing Authority property. [Because the other housing projects were White-Only.]
I yearn for an Alameda Museum which is inclusive, accurate, and fair. And I think it’s their duty, as a public institution, to provided history relevant to all Alamedans.

I want to be super clear here: this has nothing to do with the fact the Alameda Museum is volunteer-run. The Black Panther Party For Self Defense was also volunteer-run. The Alameda Native History Project is also volunteer-run.

The issue is that the Alameda Museum is supposed to be a city museum. It is supposed to curate and present to us the history of Alameda. Not just a small slice of some zealously over-idealized fantasy of an island that did not exist the same way for People of Color.

The issue is that the Alameda Museum has excluded us. All of us.

And when you actually look at the history of Alameda, you can see why: Alameda was a town full of really racist white people, who definitely did not want to de-segregate housing; and who have reaped all the benefits and rewards of the discriminatory policies laid by the founders of this island, and re-inforced subsequently by acts of the City Council up until … when? The 1990’s? Some people would say it’s till happening.

Why Making Marginalized People Do The Work You Never Did, Isn’t the Win You Think It Is

Picture of the “Clinton Family Exhibit” at the Alameda Museum, in 2018. This exhibit was the first mention of African American History in the 70 years Alameda Museum has existed. This exhibit was supposed to be permanent when it was installed; however, there are no pictures or mentions of this exhibit today, four years later. [Picture taken by Rasheed Shabazz.]

The Alameda Museum was open for 70 years before they offered a single “permanent” exhibit on African-American History, in 2018.

At this time, George Gunn, was celebrating his 47th year as Curator of the Alameda Museum. (His first day was March 20, 1971, according to an Alameda Museum publication.) So, this would also mark the first time in 47 years of curating Alameda History that he’s ever actually curated the history of nonwhite Alamedans.

Though, if you visit the museum’s website, you will notice this exhibit isn’t listed anywhere. In fact, the only reporting on the existence of this exhibit is from Rasheed Shabazz, in 2018. Probably because he did all the work of getting the exhibit installed.

The reason this exhibit even existed was because it was a half-hearted attempt to address the extensive, and documented history of racist actions and policies committed or enacted by the City of Alameda–specifically racial housing discrimination, and forced re-location of Alameda’s Black Families–

And to respond to direct criticism of Alameda Museum’s Curator, George Gunn, as someone who is uninterested in curating anything other than white, colonial, history–to the point of excluding the history of any other group of people, and obstructing research by people of color, by gatekeeping, and denying that materials on anything other than Alameda’s White History even exists within the Alameda Museum’s Archive.

Other authors ignore–or are ignorant of–Black Alamedans, and choose to focus primarily on architectural preservation. George Gunn, curator of the Alameda Historical Museum’s book Documentation of Victorian and Post Victorian Residential and
Commercial Buildings, City of Alameda, 1854 to 1904, painstakingly compiles Alameda housing records, yet does not include the lost homes of the Hackett brothers at 1608
Union and 1828 Grand St.

Rasheed Shabazz, “Alameda Is Our Home”, 2013, University of California Bachelor’s Thesis in African American Studies, Social Science.

In fact, George Gunn’s unresponsive, and dismissive treatment of the research into Alameda’s nonwhite history by people of color has been noted by several historians, and researchers. Take this other quote from Rasheed Shabazz’s Tumblr account (DaSquareBear):

In 2012, i visited the Museum when i started my research. I asked the curator, George Gunn, if the Museum had materials related to African Americans in Alameda. He mentioned the Clintons, but directed me to the library instead.

On February 10, 2018, during my first Black Alameda Walking Tour, we stopped at the Clinton home. An heir of the family told me that they had donated materials to the museum.

I visited that afternoon. The material was in four boxes. Gunn showed me the materials. When he showed me the glasses and told me, “They were of substance…. they had nice things.”

I replied, “They lived. That makes them of substance.”

Rasheed Shabaz, March 10, 2018, via Tumblr

Rasheed Shabazz wrote “‘Alameda Is Our Home’: African Americans and the Struggle for Housing in Alameda, California, 1860-Present“, for his bachelor’s thesis. It’s extraordinarily researched. Has a great voice, and measured perspective. It deserves to be re-published, and celebrated, just like Imelda Merlin’s “Alameda: A Geological History”. Except Shabazz’ work is better, because it’s actually about the people of Alameda.

This seems to be the only research, or work published on Alameda’s African-American History, where African-American History is the sole focus. And the first mention of the African-American, or Black History, of Alameda, by the Alameda Museum, in its entire existence.

This work was also created without the help of the Alameda Museum.

Because of curator George Gunn’s obstruction, it’s sadly notable that Shabazz did not have access to the Alameda Museum’s archives–a trove of primary sources, and relevant artifacts–while he researched the history of Alameda. This means that there are more materials, and stories, which are actively being excluded from Alameda’s history by (of all institutions) the Alameda Museum.

Not only did Shabazz finally gain access to some of the materials he was looking for, the Alameda Museum made him a Director, and Shabazz holds walking tours, and organizes lectures on Black History every February.

But is this really a win? A seat at the table where you can’t eat; and the “privilege” of doing their work for them? There is no African American exhibit, anymore. That’s a back-step. The Alameda Museum still has no meaningful representation of any other group. And Shabazz has fallen silent on these issues since becoming a Director at the Alameda Museum.

This raises uncomfortable memories, and even more uncomfortable questions. As someone who used to be “invited” to take part in the annual “Thanksgiving Show” at a radio station, somewhere in the North Bay, I know what being the token person of your race feels like. And I have been placated by shallow buy-ins, and bald-faced lies, as a youth organizer.

So, when I see Rasheed Shabazz’s name and face on flyers. Hear his voice speaking in lectures. Then watch, as the Alameda Museum quietly removes the Clinton Family exhibit, and relegates Shabazz to Black History Month only. And all the energy and movement behind representation suddenly stop…. It looks like the usual pattern of pacification and superficial conciliation.

What can you do to help?

Call the Alameda Museum: (510) 521-1233

Let them know that 74 years of focusing exclusively on White History is enough.

Email the Alameda Museum

Send them questions about your own history, culture, and heritage. Ask them where African American people, Asian American, and Pacific Islanders were during the time of the Victorian Era, and how come nonwhite people are excluded from permanent exhibits.

Call Alameda Museum Curator, George Gunn: (510) 521-0802

Invite him to retire.

UPDATE: George Gunn has retired. Apparently, the Alameda Native History Project was one critic he did not survive.

Four or five moments – that’s all it takes.

Rasheed Shabbaz reached out to me to let me know that he was personally bothered by some of the comments I made here.

I agree with him, and am glad that he reached out to me; because, now I understand. So, I think I need to make this absolutely clear to the reader:

In my criticism of the Alameda Museum, I did note the circumstances surrounding Shabbaz’s election to the Alameda Museum Board of Directors. What I failed to mention is that Rasheed had tried to join the board two times before; and was stonewalled. I also failed to tell you that it’s a big deal he’s even on the board because of Alameda Museum’s 74 Years of Unassailed Whiteness.

Rasheed Shabbaz worked hard to get where he’s at. His work deserves to be given the same attention and adoration that works by Evanosky and Merlin receive. Rasheed’s advocacy, and organizing for the renaming of Jackson Park was the engine that turned it into Chochenyo Park. Rasheed’s growing list of accomplishments and contributions cannot be understated.

As such, I do not want you to come away with the impression that Rasheed Shabbaz is anything less than brilliant, and committed.

What this paper is commenting on is the Alameda Museum, and speculating on whether or not letting Rasheed Shabbaz join the board was not done because he was the only black person around, but because Alameda Museum realized its exclusion of BIPOC people could not continue any longer, and they would have to integrate, because their exclusionary practices were coming to light, and beginning to make Alameda Museum look bad.

After all, how can you really turn down a qualified candidate for director when there’s no limit on how many qualified directors the Alameda Museum can have?

Whether or not Rasheed Shabbaz actually performs the duties, posesses agency, or authority, or is just there for show was not the question I was asking. I was really asking whether Alameda Museum had any intention of actually focusing on any nonwhite history beyond Black History Month, AAPI History Month, etc.

It’s my opinion that the Alameda Museum’s conduct in excluding BIPOC has been racist as fuck. And I wonder how hard Rasheed has to fight to get anything done.

If there are false promises like, “oh, just help us catalog the collection, then we’ll work on ‘your thing’;” or, “just help us with this history month”, then we’ll get to you; then it’ll happen; “we’ll get to whatever you’ve got going on.”

I know this is stuff he can’t comment on because he is a board member. And it’s kind of unfair to talk about this while he can’t really say anything. But maybe that’s a symptom of the problem, and not really a personal jab.

Maybe I’m saying, just because Rasheed is a member of the board, and head of a committee, doesn’t mean the board is going to suddenly vote for everything he pitches. I’m not saying he doesn’t have agency. I’m saying the board didn’t elect him twice before, what makes any of us think they’re going to suddenly vote for his plans and ideas–no matter how well thought-out and presented they are.

Because I can guarantee he’s tried to change the exhibits (for the better) at the Alameda Museum on at least two occasions; and one of them was after he was elected.

And the placation and silencing that I spoke of is par for the course in Non-Profit Politics.

But, yeah, Malcom X did have some shit to say about the Million Man March; and his perspective on the march being rebranded and reappropriated, denatured, and watered-down is the example I am pointing to. Am I trying to attack the character of, or indict the one person who is the most qualified to actually be on the board? Absolutely not. I’m saying that this looks like some sus nonprofit board shit that white people pull when they have no intention of actually doing anything more than looking good and pretending to be inclusive; while at the same time setting someone up to be the scapegoat for how come this sudden inclusion didn’t work.

Full disclosure: the Alameda Native History Project has also been having significant issues gaining access to Native American, and Alameda Historic Collections since 2019, when this project began. Though my personal inquiries into this topic began in the early 90’s, when I was a child, and I just never gave up. [And I never will.]