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Life Stories of Early African American UC Berkeley Faculty



By Cathy Cockrell, UC News

In 1942 a young African American Ph.D., David Blackwell, interviewed for a teaching job in UC Berkeley’s math department. He got a job at Berkeley, but not for many years.

< p>When finally invited to join the statistics faculty in 1952, several of Blackwell’s new colleagues told him there was a backstory to his failed application a decade earlier.

It had been decided to offer him a position, they said, but the wife of the departmental chair, who sometimes invited the faculty to dinner, insisted she would not have a Black person in her house — and the offer was squelched.

Blackwell, who eventually became the first tenured Black professor in the University of California system, shares this vivid memory in a 10-hour interview with the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office (ROHO).

His life history is part of a recently completed oral-history series on 18 pioneering African American faculty and senior administrators, hired before the advent of affirmative-action policies in the 1970s, who broke barriers and laid the groundwork for those who followed.

Twelve years in the making, the series involves more than 250 hours of interviews, tracing the subjects’ life journeys and recounting transformative events, such as the Third World College Strike of 1969, which led to curricular and institutional changes at Berkeley that reverberated across the nation.

The oldest of the interviewees is dramatic-arts lecturer Henrietta Harris, born in 1916. Blackwell was born in 1919 and died in 2010.

The interviews shed light on the courage involved in being a pioneer and role model, the role of historically Black colleges, and how the interviewees’ lives intersected with major historical events and figures, says Neil Henry, ROHO interim director and associate professor of journalism.

He notes that some pioneering colleagues — among them Barbara Christian (African American studies), O’Neil Ray Collins (botany), Harry Morrison (physics), William Shack (anthropology), Kenneth Harlan Simmons (architecture) and Staten Wentford Webster (education) — passed away before they could be included in the project.

A number of the interviewees, now in their 70s and beyond, were on hand for a historic reunion in the Morrison Library May 16, which happened to be the eve of the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public education, which figures large in the lives of many of those gathered.

“This is a party we’ve been waiting 12 years to have… There couldn’t be a better day to have this celebration,” said Bancroft director Elaine Tennant.

Both Russ Ellis, professor emeritus of architecture and former vice chancellor of undergraduate affairs, and keynote speaker Patricia Williams, legal scholar and Nation columnist, spoke of the joy of reading interviewees’ words. The life stories serve as “a lens through which we can better understand what needs to be done for the next generation’s survival,” Williams said.

Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, a historian as well as anthropologist, predicted the series will become one of ROHO’s “most important and enduring” contributions.

Honorees present included, among others, composer Olly Wilson, professor emeritus of music and one-time faculty assistant for affirmative action; Chancellor’s Professor Troy Duster, professor emeritus of sociology; Mary Lovelace O’Neal, professor emerita of art practice; and Harry Edwards, professor emeritus of sociology, whose activism led to the black-power salute protest by two African American athletes at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Library exhibit

Following formal presentation of the completed oral histories, each bound in blue, interviewees were invited to view “The Originals,” an exhibition showcasing photos and excerpts from the project, on display in the Rowell Cases, located in the Bancroft-Doe corridor, through August.

The series website includes complete transcripts and video excerpts of the oral-history interviews:

Caption: Mathematics and statistics instructor David Blackwell, hired in 1952, became the UC system’s first tenured African American professor. Photo courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

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Arts and Culture

Voices & Visions of Change ™ Scholarship Fundraiser Online Art Sale for AAMLO

The Friends-Stewards of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (Friends-Stewards of AAMLO), a 501(c)(3) organization, is excited to host Voices & Visions of Change ™ Scholarship Fundraiser Online Art Sale from October 1–16, 2021.



Friends-Stewards of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland/Facebook

The Friends-Stewards of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (Friends-Stewards of AAMLO), a 501(c)(3) organization, is excited to host Voices & Visions of Change ™ Scholarship Fundraiser Online Art Sale from October 1–16, 2021.

East Bay award winning painter and sculptor Lawrence H. Buford will present individual Giclee (18” x 24”), Limited Edition, S/N-25, prints of the Honorable Shirley A. Chisholm, U.S. House of Representatives, rendered in graphite and the Honorable John Lewis, U.S. House of Representatives, rendered in watercolor. 

Each beautiful portrait is unframed, printed on conservation grade paper, and accompanied with a Certificate of Authenticity.

For your viewing pleasure, the portraits will be on exhibit starting October 1-16, 2021, at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO), 659 14th St., Oakland, CA 94612, during the hours of operation Mon. – Thurs. 10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.; Fri. Noon – 5:30 p.m. and Sat. 10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Buford’s art work was recently displayed in the exhibition titled “Men of Valor” held at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO), January 2019 through September 2019.

This Online Scholarship Fundraiser will help to protect and preserve our cultural and artistic treasures and the stories of our shared history. Your support will enable us to establish pathways to lifelong learning, to inspire, uplift, and educate our community about African American History & Culture for present and future generations.

To support our scholarship fundraiser, please visit for more information about the portraits available for purchase.

To DONATE or to become a member of the Friends-Stewards of African American Museum and Library at Oakland (Friends-Stewards of AAMLO), please visit our website at

Please join us to make this event a success!

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

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Moe’s Books Union and Supporters Picket Store

The Oakland Post spoke to five different Moe’s workers. When we asked them why they were protesting, they claimed they were concerned about what they saw as “union-busting tactics,” low wages, and understaffing.



Unionized Moe's Books workers, IWW members, and supporters stand together near Moe's Books in Berkeley on Saturday September 26. Photo by Zack Haber.

Unionized Moe’s Books workers picketed with supporters outside the Berkeley bookstore from on September 25, to demand better working conditions and pay.

“It feels really relieving to be finally talking to people about what’s been going on at Moe’s,” said Moe’s worker Kalie McGuirl at the rally on Saturday afternoon. “I feel like people have no idea how bad it’s been for us.”

McGuirl was one of 10 unionized workers who stood with a crowd of about two dozen people that day. They held signs, handed out flyers, and talked to hundreds of customers and those passing by the Berkeley bookstore. An instagram post from the Moe’s Union account called the event an “informational picket” and claimed the aim was not “impeding business” but “to spread the word about our conditions and gather community support for the union.”

The Oakland Post spoke to five different Moe’s workers. When we asked them why they were protesting, they claimed they were concerned about what they saw as “union-busting tactics,” low wages, and understaffing.

Doris Moskowitz, who took over ownership of Moe’s Books after her father, Morris “Moe” Moskowitz passed away in 1997, denies the claims. In March, she voluntarily recognized her workers’ request to form a union with the Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as the IWW.

But workers have not been happy with how Moskowitz has interacted with the union. Recently, Moe’s Union filed an Unfair Labor Practice claim with the National Labor Review Board accusing Moskowitz of offering promotions with the goal of removing workers from the union.

Workers say one person who received such an offer,was Barry Bloom, a 74-year-old Moe’s Books union member who has worked as a book shipper since the late ’90s. Bloom said Moskowitz offered him the opportunity to become the supervisor of the shipping department. But at the time of the offer, Bloom was the only member of that department.

“My immediate reaction was to wonder ‘who would I be supervising?’” Bloom said. “I pretty much instantly saw it as a union-busting tactic.”

Union rules state that managers and supervisors cannot be part of the Moe’s Books Union. Bloom wanted to stay in the union, so he declined the offer, which did not come with any proposed salary increase. Since the offer was proposed, a worker has been assigned to do shipping work with Bloom for three hours a week, but Bloom still sees no good purpose to the existence of a shipping department supervisor at the store.

Moskowitz claims her offers of promotions to workers have been unrelated to the union.

“I believe an employer has the right to offer promotions to its employees even when they have a union,” she said. “We have not made any job offer or offers of promotions in order to encourage any employee to break from their support of the union.”

Owen Hill, a Moe’s Books union member who has worked at the store for over 35 years, described the staff makeup as “top heavy.” There are currently 13 unionized workers and seven managers, supervisors, or owners who are not qualified to be in the union, but many of the managerial and supervisory job titles did not exist until talks of the store unionizing began.

“Who is this management team?,” said Hill. “Suddenly someone you’ve been working with has this title. It really draws battle lines.”

Moskowitz sees it differently and thinks little has changed.

“Many long-term employees [have been] in supervisor positions even though we never called it that because, up until now, Moe’s has functioned as more of a collective,” she said. “We didn’t think we needed job titles before.”

Moe’s Books workers are asking for higher wages. At the informational picket, they talked to people about their demand that all Moe’s workers make at least $20 an hour. Kalie McGuirl, who has worked at Moe’s for three years, said her salary of $18.50 means that she pays 40% of her income on rent even when her two roommates, who are more financially secure, have agreed to pay a higher portion of the rent costs they share.

She is disturbed that some workers, like Bloom, who have been at the store for decades, still make less than $20 an hour. Currently, unionized Moe’s employees make between $16.50 and $23.50 an hour. Moskowitz has been negotiating with the union and has met with them about a dozen times. Although she would not talk specifics because she does not “want to be accused of bargaining through the media,” she said she believes “the proposals we are making are competitive, especially in the retail niche that we occupy.”

Moe’s Books worker Noah Ross would not reveal specific offers the union had received while they are still bargaining but characterized offers the store ownership had proposed so far as “almost offensive,” and noted that a nearby chain Mexican restaurant, Chipotle, has been offering starting wages of $18$ to $18.50.

In response to questions about wages, Moskowitz said the bookstore has been “struggling to survive during a global pandemic,” and that “like other employers, we have faced many challenges since the beginning of shelter-in-place.”

Moe’s Books storefront was closed from mid-March to mid-June of 2020, and even its online store was closed for a few weeks. Individuals helped the store during this time, donating just over $89,000 through the Moe’s Books 2020 Lifeline GoFundMe campaign. Since then, the store has been open at reduced hours.

Noah Ross, who counts money made through in-person sales during closeout after workdays, said that despite the reduced hours, he thinks things are going well financially for Moe’s.

“The store is making a ton of money,” Ross said, “probably more than it did before the pandemic started.”

While only counting in-store figures, not online sales, Ross said the store regularly pulls in $4,000-$6,000 on an average day, and around $8,000 on an average Saturday.

Solomon Wong, who works with the Moe’s Books website, said internet sales are doing great, and that Moskowitz has sent him e-mails indicating she is happy with the sale numbers.

Moskowitz told The Oakland Post that “internet sales are OK,” but that the daily in-store closeout numbers Ross is claiming are incorrect and “don’t take into account the considerable expense of running an independent business, especially in the Bay Area.” Moe’s Books’ sale figures are impossible to know precisely. Moskowitz said the store is “a private company that does not publish confidential and proprietary financial information.”

Moe’s Union has called on more workers to be hired and claim they are “stretched thin” and unable to currently do all the work they would like to do in the store. In a recent instagram post, they stated “In the past few months, our staff has shrunk by 4, and we’ve extended our business hours…After months of begging management for more help, they have hired just one new employee.” Moskowitz told The Oakland Post the store has no immediate plans to hire new workers.

Starting about two months ago, Moskowitz began again raising money through a Moe’s Books General fund GoFundMe campaign. In the fundraiser’s write up, she states “Moe’s Books does not own the [storefront] building…we pay rent and live with the hope that our landlords let us stay.”

It is unclear who the landlords are that Moskowitz refers to. County Assessor records show that a trust managed by the lawyer Peter Lippett owns the Moe’s Books building. When asked about the trust and who the beneficiaries are, Moskowitz stated “I would prefer not to discuss the details with you.”

In the GoFundMe write up, Moskowitz also wrote, “Although I am a beneficiary of the trust that collects rent, none of the money collected here will go to me or my siblings personally.”

At the informational picket, workers said they received mostly positive responses. Although a few people criticized their picketing a small business, more than 50 people signed and hand delivered a pre-written letter in support of the union’s demands as they entered the store.

“[Moe’s Books] is part of a larger community and people have gone out of their way to support them, especially during quarantine,” said Oakland based artist joy tirade, who talked to union members at the picket and hand delivered the union letter. “So, they should take care of the people that represent their store.”

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

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Arts and Culture

The Madame X Academy, a spy-themed experiences program for insatiably curious girls

The Madame X Academy is about sparking the imagination in kids because inspiration stimulates innovation. Building community also matters, because if they’re comfortable with who they are, nothing can stop them from reaching their full potential.



Madame X Acamedy Leader in a chair during an “Ain’t MisBEEhavin’” class, Photo courtesy of Madame X Academy website

It’s hard to remain anonymous in a town you grew up in, but to a small number of Bay Area families, that’s the case with Madame X, the somewhat fictional headmistress of The Madame X Academy, a curated, high-end experiences program for girls 7-12 years old, that ties African-American cultural relevance to each unique pop-up style activity.

An example of the organization’s unique offerings is a class called “Ain’t MisBEEhavin’”, a multi-sensory experience where the children learned all about bees. They were taught about pioneering African-American zoologist and behavioral scientist Charles Henry Turner, known for his groundbreaking research on honey bees while observing live bee colonies and learning about them from a professional beekeeper. The kids manually uncapped honeycombs from bee panels and used a hand-powered extractor to harvest the honey. They also strained, bottled, labeled, and gift-wrapped honey. They also experienced a professional honey tasting with a flight of 10 samples from around the world. The class learned the concept behind flavor wheels, and how they could apply it to describe various nuances found in the honey’s taste, flavor, and texture. In addition, the children watched a video of Madame X and the beekeeper tour the bee boxes of the bees used in the program, so they could see them in their local habitat, and learn more about their “bees’ to bottle” origin story. All of the kids in the program received spy-themed activity packets related to the curriculum, their tasting notes, and bottled honey. The Madame X Academy’s covert spy theme permeates all of the kids’ activities and its communication with the families.

“I love spy-everything, and being part of a secret organization for girls, enables them to use their imaginations and suspend disbelief, which elevates the fun factor and makes them feel like they’re part of something special,” Madame X  says excitedly. “I have several interesting ways of communicating with the kids and their parents, including, through ciphers that they must decode, but I won’t tell you anything else, or it might ruin the fun.”

The philosophy behind The Madame X Academy is that to be competitive in today’s world, children need exposure to diverse experiences, so that they can think more creatively when problem-solving. “If you gain exposure to a lot of interesting, disparate ideas, skills, and experiences; you can better make connections between and among concepts, enabling you to be more innovative in how you think,” she says.

“There’s also a huge social benefit to being an interesting person who has had a lot of fascinating life experiences. People want to know those people. It’s also why Madame X has a spy theme. James Bond can do anything and be anyone because he has a ‘particular set of skills.’ Madame X wants girls in the program to think expansively and to be able to move through society and the world effortlessly. In part, that’s why they offer professional etiquette classes like a Malaysian/British high tea service scheduled in October.

What also makes Madame X Academy different is that it uses African-American instructors and vendors for their experiences.

“I want the kids to see themselves reflected in positive role models who represent professionals across industries and occupations.” Building community is also a big part of the organization’s mission. “There are under-resourced children who lack opportunity, as well as very privileged ones, who feel socio-economic and cultural isolation. I want to bring everyone together, including their families.”

Visit The Madame X Academy for more information. Register here for the Saturday, October 23, professional etiquette class and Malaysian/British high-tea.

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