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The Lost Community of Russell City: Stories & Music of a Bay Area Blues Mecca

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In the late 1940s, Russell City was a thriving hub of blues music in the Bay Area. The city was home to dozens of musicians who played in local venues and recorded for labels like Bluebird Records.

What About Russell City?

The Russell City neighborhood in Hayward, California – known for its blues music scene and historical ties to the Civil Rights Movement was once home to a thriving African-American community. Following World War II, many African Americans migrated from the South to work in shipyards and factories.

They founded numerous businesses, a hog ranch, sheepherders, and nightclubs. The neighborhood also had its library and fire department. But in the 1950s, officials declared Russell City a “blight” and decided to transform the area into an industrial park.

What Happened to the Residents?

A Russell City home circa 1950

Despite resistance from residents who had unsuccessfully petitioned officials to provide them with basic amenities, such as sewage and electricity, and to pave the dirt roads, local governments began forcibly relocating residents and bulldozed the entire community in 1963. Many families, therefore, moved to areas in and around East Oakland and Kelly Hill.

The discriminatory policies and practices of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) forced many families to seek refuge in unincorporated areas like Russell City. One lesser-known part of this history is that, during the first half of the twentieth century, racial steering—where real estate agents and developers actively directed people of color away from white neighborhoods while prohibiting non-white homebuyers from purchasing houses in those areas—was also practiced.

The destruction of homes and businesses in Russell City was more than a property loss; it uprooted residents and scattered families across the Bay Area. However, some who were able to resettle relatively close made a concerted effort to keep the bonds forged alive through ongoing gatherings.

Did the Government Do Anything?

Last November 16, 2021, the city of Hayward issued a formal apology to the descendants of Russell City residents whose thriving community was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for an industrial park.

What’s New?

On September 3, KQED presents The Lost Community of Russell City: Stories & Music of a Bay Area Blues Mecca at The Commons, KQED Headquarters, 2601 Mariposa Street, San Francisco.

Join them for a live concert that celebrates the history and uncovers the joy of this forgotten Bay Area community through on-stage interviews with people who lived there. The band will take us back in time, honoring the town’s musical legacy where blues thrived until the bulldozers rolled in.

The event is priced at $15 per person, but if you’re interested in attending virtually, there will be no fees!

What Happened to Russel City Is Not Good but Should Be Remembered

It was a time when the Bay Area was a hotbed for blues music, and the city of Russell City was at the center of it all. Now, decades later, we have lost much of this community and its culture. However, through careful research and documentation, we can learn about what once was and what we have lost. The history of blues is a story that needs to be told to preserve its legacy and ensure that it continues in our hearts and minds.

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