The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in WWII, 1993

Marilyn S. Johnson’s 1993 work The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in WWII explores the “human dimension of the war experience” connecting it to the structural dynamics of the East Bay area during America’s involvement in the Second World War. Paying close attention to the role of migrants Johnson “seeks to contribute to an understanding of internal migration in the twentieth century, evaluating its impact on migrants and non-migrants alike”(3). Historians have tended to argue that WWII either accelerated processes already in evidence prior to war or that WWII transformed cities in ways that no longer resembled their previous incarnation. Johnson acknowledges the validity of each but remarks that often it depends on the specifics of the locality in question, thus for Oakland and the East Bay, WWII stood as a more transformative process than in other urban regions. The value of a community study Johnson argues is that it “enables us to see these conflicts by exploring social relations in the family, neighborhood and city.” (5)

At the turn of the century, Oakland emerged as the more significant city in the Bay Area. Serving as a shipping and railroad transportation hub, not until the completion of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridges did San Francisco finally outpace its East Bay neighbor. The movement of defense industries to Oakland led to the arrival of migrants from the southwest, south and Midwest. However, the regional, class, and racial divisions between them prevented any immediate unity. Additionally, prewar residents, white and black, grew to resent newcomers blaming them for the less savory aspects of their expanding metropolitan regions. Migrants and blacks found themselves blamed for numerous ills from drunkenness to prostitution to juvenile delinquency. Moreover, war housing established under federal auspices but carried out and implemented by local housing authorities established a physical and psychological separation from “old timers” and the newly arrived. Blacks and women especially suffered the brunt of local fears. Black men and women found themselves excluded from the major unions, though some more progressive organizations attempted to be more inclusive, while struggling to find housing in a private market that actively discriminated against them (even war housing established racial quotas for residents). Overcrowding occurred in many places during the war but especially black homes as housing options rarely appeared. Unlike Eastern and Midwestern cities that often created segregated sections of the city to house blacks, this process did not occur in Western metropolises until during and after the war, as more and more African Americans moved West in search of labor. Where anti-Asian racism once dominated, the sudden influx of blacks resulted in whites shifting their racial hostilities.

Though unions established themselves, they often competed with the corporate welfare of the time. Migrants from the South and Southwest viewed unions suspiciously while attempts by corporate fathers such as Kaiser’s health plan won over many who soon considered their employers to be of greater value than the unions. With that said unions proved important briefly after 1945 as they played a key role in electoral victories in Oakland (1947) behind the OVL (Oakland Voters League – an interracial coalition that drew veterans, blacks, progressives, and unions in an alliance to push back against the conservative Knowland machine which like many West coast metropolises favored the interests of business, real estate, and developers). Attempts to alievate the housing shortage resulted in “migrant ghettos” that, as noted before, physically and psychologically separated migrants from each other and native residents. Ultimately, these housing patterns though allegedly temporary, laid the foundation for post war residential development over which racial tensions played a significant role. Slum clearance and urban redevelopment enjoyed support by both liberal and conservative leaders but for different reasons, “Liberals saw it as an opportunity to rehouse needy veterans and war migrants; conservatives embraced it as a means of removing undesirables and returning housing project lands to private development.” (238) [see The New York Approach]. Though liberal forces promoted public housing, by 1951 anti-communist rhetoric, racial anti-pithy, and internal divisions within the liberal coalition combined to return conservative leadership to local government. As well, as in eastern, Midwestern, and post war southwestern cities [see Logan Fighting Urban Sprawl], individuals or organizations questioning redevelopment and slum clearance found themselves portrayed as obstructionists or worse. Always opposed to public housing since it removed private lands from development, conservative leaders and others convinced voters to pass Prop 10 which made the construction of new public housing eminently more difficult (it required levels of approval that were unlikely). Moreover, numerous East Bay municipalities removed war housing for new developments, “By the mid fifties, Berkeley, Oakland, and Richmond had disposed of most of their temporary war housing. The removal of public housing struck minority tenants the hardest.” (231) Though meant to drive migrants and blacks away, it failed to do so in many cases. The pattern of racial succession that followed often depended on public housing. Many blacks lacking options in the private market appealed to officials for a removal of racial quotas that had limited black residency, however, this resulted in the creation of completely black public housing. “Blight” and similar terms were harnessed to justify slum clearance and renewal. Race had become the determining factor, though working class white areas also found themselves similarly labeled. The experience of African Americans in the immediate post war years served to lay the foundation for 1960-1970s resistance that erupted in Oakland and surrounding environs.

Since a cohesive working class culture failed to develop in the East Bay, the family served as the primary social and organizational unit. Outside of family some level of regional and racial solidarity existed. Notably, Johnson explores the role of women noting that their participation in industry. Women enjoyed employment opportunities previously not open to them but also experienced limits. Management positions rarely if ever went to women, while even female war workers found themselves the subject of suspicion regarding promiscuity and child care. Women and blacks suffered from accusations ranging from drunkenness to prostitution in public spaces. The proliferation of commercial amusements only magnified this process. Divorce rates rose as did incidents of domestic violence. Moreover, non-essential workers found themselves disparaged, while they themselves often resented the favoritism accorded war industry workers. As in San Diego, single women in public spaces, especially commercial amusements, could find themselves locked up and quarantined if suspected of prostitution or venereal disease. Rapes and sexual assaults often refocused blame on women themselves, accusing them of promiscuity.

In terms of politics, unlike other post war cities, Oakland’s working classes emerged in the immediate aftermath to challenge the machine. As previously mentioned, this proved to be a momentary victory before conservative forces regrouped and assumed power again. Ultimately, this process at least enabled minorities and labor to establish the organizational structures that would benefit in the 1960s and 70s, “By the 1970s, machine rule was coming to an end, pushed out by a new generation of progressives seeking to fulfill the lost hopes of the wartime coalitions.” (238) [this included shifts to district elections, mass transit improvement, fair employment legislation, rent control, education/social services]

Johnson points out that preoccupation with the war as watershed has blinded historians to more important questions regarding the impact of World War II …. Historians of the homefront would do better to identify exactly where and how specific changes occurred and how the war reshaped existing social and economic trends.” The pace of such events also matters such that “understanding that rapid unplanned social change produces different results that the same phenomenon spread over several decades.” (236)

[Johnson also notes cultural contributions that brought blues, country music, evangelical religion, southern food, and the establishment of working class suburbs as well]

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