Civil Rights Movement in Piedmont

Civil Rights Movement in Piedmont
Frist  Tomas - Oakland_Tribune_Thu__May_
Thomas Williamson - Oakland_Tribune_Wed_

Almost 30 years after Sidney Dearing was forced out of Piedmont by his neighbors in 1924, the first documented (through newspapers and DC Historical Society) student of color in the Piedmont school system was Thomas Williamson who moved to Piedmont in 1952. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed more than ten years later to outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public (public accommodations). Initially, the powers given to enforce the act were weak, but they were supplemented in later years.

In 1964, Thomas graduated Piedmont High with high academic and sports honors. Letters to the editor of the Oakland Tribune mention Thomas and a new principal being warned of trouble within Piedmont due to race relations. While the Tribune and other national newspapers had reported Thomas' story, he was officially recorded in our city on Wednesday, March 22, 2017 when his obituary was printed in our print newspaper, the Piedmont Post -- thank you, Gray. To this day his story of being the first Person of Color is not mentioned anywhere in the plethora of Piedmont Historical Society publications nor is Sidney Dearing's story (as of 2021). Meanwhile a bathtub in a grotto and "Piedmont’s 4th of July Parade began in 1965...after noticing a low in patriotism during the Vietnam War years" type of minor stories were recorded and are repeatedly printed in our local historical publications. [PHSociety page]

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was the culmination of a campaign against housing discrimination and was approved at the urging of President Johnson, one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Its primary prohibition makes it unlawful to refuse to sell, rent to, or negotiate with any person because of that person's inclusion in a protected class. Piedmont, however still has redlined restrictive wording in its deeds to this day. A Piedmont relator and resident said to me in 2021 "Some preliminary title reports have not been updated and may contain some very old verbiage regarding race restrictions... Any preliminary title report showing this verbiage should be updated." And a city council person here told me "it takes a lot of lawyers to get it taken out". I would love to know more about our town's redlining but it doesn't seem to be officially documented anywhere beyond publications in the Exedra and High School Highlander newspaper post 2020.

What were race relations like in the in Piedmont beyond Sidney and Thomas' experiences? The historical accounts, stories and documents related to the subject do not seem to be available in our city and one has to search archived newspapers, ask for oral histories and comb through the ends of the internet to find out more about our town's history. I hope with more people willing to write our town's history from all perspectives we will be able to gather a better idea of what Piedmont was truly like for everyone of all socioeconomic statuses and races .

An insight to race relations in Piedmont came through an alumni board I found.  The class before to Tom Williamson's graduation, 1963’s alumni, had an alumni from that year scan, upload and post pictures of students in Rigma, PHS social club, having a costume party with at least two members in blackface and another alumni embracing the name “Der  Feher." One would suspect they meant der Führer (title of Adolf Hitler) and I am ignorantly assuming it is the person in a hat, small mustache and boots next to the man in blackface. These pictures have been public for at the very least 5 years and every living alumni from the class has been tagged on the site and had a chance to see them so I'm recording them on my site of Piedmont's history since our town hasn't publicly recorded these stories anywhere that I can find. One of the members of the Piedmont Historical Society was in that graduating class of 1963 and I suspect being a history lover of Piedmont, she would be a great person to share some insight on what race relations was like in the 60s.

What were race relations like in the in Piedmont beyond Sidney and Thomas' experiences? The historical accounts, stories and documents related to the subject do not seem to be available in our city and one has to search archived newspapers, ask for oral histories and comb through the ends of the internet to find out more about our town's history. I hope with more people willing to write our town's history from all perspectives we will be able to gather a better idea of what Piedmont was truly like for everyone of all socioeconomic statuses and races .

An insight to race relations in Piedmont came through an alumni board I found.  The class before to Tom Williamson's graduation, 1963’s alumni, had an alumni from that year scan, upload and post pictures of students in Rigma, PHS social club, having a costume party with at least two members in blackface and another alumni embracing the name “Der  Feher." One would suspect they meant der Führer (title of Adolf Hitler) and I am ignorantly assuming it is the person in a hat, small mustache and boots next to the man in blackface. These pictures have been public for at the very least 5 years and every living alumni from the class has been tagged on the site and had a chance to see them so I'm recording them on my site of Piedmont's history since our town hasn't publicly recorded these stories anywhere that I can find. One of the members of the Piedmont Historical Society was in that graduating class of 1963 and I suspect being a history lover of Piedmont, she would be a great person to share some insight on what race relations was like in the 60s.

Another interesting part of Piedmont's little known history is that after three years of Fair Housing Act was passed in notoriously redlined Piedmont, the Oakland Tribune was tipped off about residents Mr. and Mrs. John Stanley Stephens who are shown below at 55 Craig, in the doorway of their home they bought in 1948.  John Stephens, son of a Confederate Army veteran, displays the confederate flag half a dozen times a year at their house in Piedmont.

Then, 5 months after the Tribune posted the couple with the confederate flag, a small group of citizens in Piedmont wanted to start a historical society. A year later, in the same house at 55 Craig, the Piedmont Historical Society held its first meeting:

"In January, 1972, a small group of dedicated historians proposed the creation of an historical society for Piedmont. Mrs. Harmon Bell presented the plan to Mayor Arthur Flegal and the City Council, and a town meeting was scheduled to determine community interest in an historical society. The Society’s Formation Committee gathered a small collection of historical artifacts and displayed them in the Octagon Room at the Recreation Center. The display and the town meeting which followed on April 12, 1972, were a success. Piedmont residents showed a great deal of interest in an historical society, and the Piedmont Historical Society was formed. Nine directors were nominated, and the first membership meeting was held at 55 Craig Avenue, the former Hugh Craig home, on September 10, 1972.  Source: Piedmont Historical Society - https://piedmonthistorical.org/who.html

Year before piedmont historical society
Historical society.jpg

Oakland Tribune - Thursday - August 19, 1971

If you know any more history about Piedmont during the Civil Rights Movement and would like to share, please contact me.