Hundreds of people all of ages and races gathered Sunday afternoon at a celebration organized to honor William Byron Rumford, a 50-year resident of South Berkeley and the first African American elected to a state public office in Northern California.
The South Berkeley Legacy Project organized the block party, which was held on Sacramento Street, between Ashby and Julia. The organization said that as well as an opportunity to honor Rumford, it hoped the event could foster community building.
There were food trucks, music, arts and crafts for children, and a screening of Fair Legislation: The Byron Rumford Story, a documentary highlighting the trials and tribulations of Rumford’s life. Speakers from the Berkeley City Council and the Alameda County Board of Representatives, among others, told stories of how Rumford had had a positive impact on their lives.
The highlight of the event was the unveiling, at around 3 p.m., of a memorial sculpture of Rumford, created by artist Dana King. The audience cheered as King removed the kente cloth covering the sculpture, revealing Berkeley’s first permanent sculpture of a Black man. The sculpture stands directly across the street from the pharmacy Rumford ran for many years at 2960 Sacramento St., and is a project of the Public Art Program of the City of Berkeley. Carole Kennerly, co-founder of the South Berkeley Legacy Project along with Zach Franklin and Mildred Howard, said that she felt a sculpture was the only permanent way to honor Rumford.
“This is the right way to honor a man who represents honor, excellence, and hard work,” she said. “When people drive by this sculpture, they’ll be reminded of what they can accomplish.”
Rumford, a man of many accomplishments, is often overlooked when people speak of the rich culture and history of the city. He was the first Black person hired by Highland Hospital’s pharmacy department in Oakland. He was an advocate for civil rights, not just in Berkeley, but nationwide. He was also the author of the groundbreaking 1959 Fair Employment Practices Act, and the 1963 Rumford Fair Housing Act, which banned discrimination in employment and housing.
At Sunday’s event, Kennerly said people can still look to Rumford for guidance and solutions today, as Berkeley deals with an ongoing housing crisis. Franklin, who said he moved to South Berkeley 13 years ago, agreed, saying he took it upon himself to learn the history of South Berkeley when he arrived. In doing so, he learned about Rumford and all the great work he did for the city.
“As someone who moved into the neighborhood, it’s my obligation to learn the history,” said Franklin. “I hope that people will do the same. Learn about Mr. Rumford and everyone else who did great things for this city.”
In addition to his public service at the state level, Rumford played an integral role in the South Berkeley community. His former pharmacy now houses a clinic named in his honor.
Kennerly said the South Berkeley Legacy Project hopes to continue to honor those who have done great things for the city and to preserve the city’s history. She said they don’t want long-time residents to be forgotten, as the city becomes increasingly gentrified and new residents arrive.
“When we realized how easily forgotten someone like Mr. Rumford could be,” said Kennerly. “We started to think, “what does that mean for the rest of us?”
The block party was a public-private partnership between the City of Berkeley and the South Berkeley Legacy Project to build on recommendations made in the Sacramento Street Action Plan of 2014. Merchants and neighbors developed the action plan with help from the city to address neighborhood concerns by outlining priorities for business and neighborhood improvements.
The sculptor Dana King was the final speaker to take to the stage Sunday and her brief time on the mic was spent professing the honor and duty she felt when she was approached by the Legacy Project to do the sculpture. King, who was a journalist before she began sculpting, said she understood the importance of storytelling through art, and she wanted Rumford’s statue to tell the story of African-American achievement.
“I felt a huge responsibility to honor Mr. Rumford,” she said. “In times like now, where housing is in short supply for low-and middle-class individuals, we have to search for ways to do what Mr. Rumford did. His legislation still has an impact. That’s the mark of greatness.”
Where would you get your local news if it wasn’t for Berkeleyside? Please support independent local journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside Member. You can choose either a monthly payment or a one-time contribution.