Art project or statement? Statue of pioneering Black Berkeley legislator briefly defaced

Someone put a white skeleton mask and some graffiti on the statue of William Byron Rumford on Sacramento Street.

The defaced William Rumford statue on Jan. 8, 2021. Photo: Christine Schwartz

Update, 1:35 p.m.: This may have been part of an art project. The URL on Rumford’s hand leads to this website with photos of other masks the artist appears to have placed on the statue. Berkeleyside has reached out to the artist for more information.

Original story: The bronze statue of William Byron Rumford, the Black Berkeley Assemblymember who pushed through landmark fair housing legislation in the 1960s, was briefly defaced Friday night.

Christine Schwartz spotted the defacement as she was driving on Sacramento Street near Julia Street around 8:57 p.m., she said. She noticed something white covering the lower part of Rumford’s face and parked her car to get a closer look. She then saw there also was something white and red on the statute’s hand.

“It looked like it had been disfigured somehow,” Schwartz told Berkeleyside.


When she returned home she posted photos on Facebook. The post immediately drew expressions of concern that a statue of a Berkeley icon would be defaced.

City Councilmember Terry Taplin wrote: “I’m really heartbroken to see this but thank you for bringing this to my attention. I will see this addressed.”

Alexandria Rodriguez wrote: “Disgusting 😞 This makes me so sad but I know that is Berkeleyans are better than this and know that racism and ignorance has NO PLACE in Berkeley!”

The defaced William Rumford statue on Jan. 8, 2021. Photo: Christine Schwartz

But shortly after Schwartz posted the photos, the mask and other covering were removed from the statue. Berkeleyside reporter Supriya Yelimeli went to the scene around 10 p.m. and the statue appeared normal, she said.

Schwartz called the Berkeley police department, which sent an officer to check the statue. He called Schwartz back around 11:30 p.m. to tell her no signs of the defacement remained, she said. The officer said police would continue driving by to keep an eye out.

Rumford’s face was covered by what looks like a white skeleton mask. His wrist was wrapped in something resembling gauze tinged by red. The baton he holds was wrapped in yellow paper with words on it including “BLM 100%,” “look away,” and a website address.

The left wrist of the defaced William Rumford statue on Jan. 8, 2021. Photo: Christine Schwartz

“This is inappropriate, especially at this time,” said Schwartz. “You just don’t do this, especially to our bronze statue of Rumford. He stood for equality in housing. It is so disrespectful and disheartening.”

Lisa Bullwinkel, the chair of the civic arts commission, which paid for the statue, posted on Schwartz’s Facebook post: “Thank you for letting us know. I’m going to put it on the Art Commission’s agenda for discussion. We need to protect our public art from this type of political use.”

Rumford was a pharmacist with a store in South Berkeley. He became the first Black Assemblymember in the state when he won election in 1948. Among his many accomplishments was his successful introduction of the 1963 Fair Housing bill, which sought to eliminate discrimination in the selling or renting of real estate. At that time, redlining in Berkeley and other California cities, the use of restrictive covenants, as well as the refusal of property owners to rent to people of color, was rampant.

In Jan. 1963, the Berkeley City Council had passed an anti-segregation law that included criminal penalties for those guilty of housing discrimination – one of the first efforts of its kind. But voters went to the polls and quickly overturned the law.

The same things happened with the Fair Housing Act, which became known as the Rumford Act. Real estate interests collected signatures to overturn the law through a proposition, Proposition 14, and voters overwhelmingly passed it along racial lines. The new law was struck down in 1966, however, when the California Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional. Rumford died June 12, 1986, at 78.

Dana King made the bronze statue of Rumford which was unveiled in July 2016 during a community celebration organized by the South Berkeley Legacy project. It is Berkeley’s first permanent sculpture of a Black man and its stands across the street from the pharmacy Rumford ran for many years at 2960 Sacramento St.

On Aug. 17, 2019, the New York Times finally ran an obituary of Rumford as part of its “Overlooked No More” series.

This article headline was updated after publication to add the possibility this was an art project, not a racially-motivated act. 

Frances Dinkelspiel is co-founder and executive editor of Berkeleyside. Email: frances@berkeleyside.com.