The demographics of San Leandro have changed dramatically in the last few years. According to the 2011 census, just 27% of San Leandrans identify themselves as white, down from 51% in 2000. In 1970, however, a full 97% of San Leandrans were white. Africans American today make up almost 12% of the population; in 1970 they were 0.1%. Those numbers were not happenstance, rather, they were the result of very specific and very successful policies of racial discrimination that kept non-whites, and in particular blacks, from moving into the city. Originally, non-whites were kept out of town by restrictive covenants. Once these were ruled unconstitutional, elected officials, the Chamber of Commerce, homeowner associations, apartment owners and realtors all conspired to prevent blacks from renting or buying property in town. Realtors would not show houses to blacks, owners would not sell them, and anyone who refused to tow the line would feel the pressure from the rest. Only in the late ’80s did San Leandro start to integrate.
San Leandro’s dirty history as one of the most racist town in America was definitely known to African Americans in nearby communities. It became known to the rest of the country due to a couple of TV news stories (The Suburban Wall and the Invisible Wall) that showcased the problem. But as time went on, and new people came to town, San Leandro’s racial history seemed to be forgotten. It wasn’t until comedian Brian Copeland started his one-man-show “Not A Genuine Black Man”, which deals, in part, about perils he suffered as a black boy who moved into San Leandro in the 70’s, that the issue came back to light. But not everyone was happy with that.
In 2005, City Manager John Jermanis and Public Library Director David Bohne decided to commission a book on the history of San Leandro. They hired a young writer to do this, he produced an outline that included a chapter on this unpleasant aspect of San Leandro history. The writer also proposed to talk to Brian Copeland about his own experiences. Jermanis and Bohne ordered him to leave that part out of the book; when he refused on ethical grounds, they cancelled the whole book project. Of course, they did that as quietly as possible.
I found out about the botched history book through an e-mail by Brian Copeland that a friend forwarded. I set out to find out what had actually happened, and contacted Jermanis, Bohne and several city council members. Jermanis originally talked to me, but when he realized that he couldn’t make his actions look in any way legitimate, he quickly stopped the conversation. Bohne, meanwhile, made excuses for months to not accept my calls. When I finally met him at a public event, he refused to even speak to me. Jermanis, meanwhile, ordered the then public information officer Jane Crea to come up with a “story” to justify what they had done. Unfortunately, her story had many holes and contradicted other facts. What I learned from all of this, was that the racist policies that had driven this city until the 1980’s were alive and well at City Hall and at the Public Library.
I documented some of my conversations at the time on a webpage that I shared my friends and colleagues. I’m sharing it with the public now because history – even history about the desire to censor history – needs to be known.
Jermanis retired a few years ago as City Manager, but Bohne continues to head the library. Neither the City Council nor the Library Commission ever held either of them into account for their attempts to censor San Leandro history.