Imagining a Past Future

On any given workday in downtown Oakland, thousands of commuters enter and exit the 12th Street City Center station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, rushing past a large bronze bust of John B. Williams. The statue, like many memorials, fails to meet its mission: to remind Oakland’s residents who John B. Williams was and what role he played in the city that named its downtown plaza and part of its intercity highway for him. The charismatic director of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency from 1964 to 1976, Williams was once called the most “powerful and effective Black man in city government.” 1 Lionel Wilson, Oakland’s first Black mayor, has noted that before his own election in 1977, Williams had been considered a potential mayoral candidate. 2 He is now difficult to locate in the public record and in the public imagination. But like the bust at City Center Plaza, his legacies hide in plain sight. Williams’s story is central to the history not only of this particular place but also of many communities upended by the urban renewal programs of the mid-20th century.

John B. Williams, the charismatic director of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency, was once called the most ‘powerful and effective Black man in city government.’.

In 1949, the federal government passed the Housing Act, making funds for urban renewal projects available to many American city governments. Oakland undertook a program of aggressive redevelopment, redlining vulnerable working-class communities to make way for new infrastructure and industry. 3 The city’s African-American community, which had tripled in population in the decades before and after World War II, was disproportionately affected. 4 Racialized housing restrictions confined the majority of this growing community to overcrowded West Oakland — just west of downtown — where the housing stock was increasingly becoming derelict.

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