From his house on Wood Street, young Tom Bowden watched weary porters and sailors trudge home toward 7th Street’s boarding houses. As a boy he shined shoes for a nickel and later racked pins at the local bowling alley. As he got older, Bowden didn’t just play music on 7th Street. He knew the place; watched the people; understood how his little corner of 7th Street worked. He is often referred to as “The Mayor of Wood Street.”
Lowell Fulson was born on a Choctaw Indian Reservation in Oklahoma in 1921. But it was on Oakland’s 7th Street that his musical career began.
Conscripted into the army and stationed in West Oakland, Fulson occasionally played his guitar on street corners and at house parties. When local record producer Bob Geddins met Fulson, he told him, “If you ever come back through this way, I’ll record ya.” Continue reading “Lowell Fulson”
Saunders King was a blues and jazz giant who began performing on 7th Street as a teenager. His father, the Reverend Judge King, was pastor at the Christ Sanctified Holy Church on 7th Street, where the young King sang in the gospel choir.
King grew up to become one of the most famous musicians to come from West Oakland. On 7th Street, he was part of the house band at Slim Jenkins’ Place, but his fame soon swelled beyond the confines of the neighborhood where he was raised.
In the 1930s, he debuted at a downtown Oakland club called Sweet’s Ballroom, sang on the radio with a group called The Southern Harmony Four, and became a staff artist for NBC Radio. He created a new kind of jazz, and many tried to emulate it. Continue reading “Saunders King”
Before he helped organize the nation’s first African American union, C.L. Dellums had dreams of becoming a lawyer. Born in Corsicana, Texas in 1900, Dellums moved to Oakland in the 1920s but found prejudice as alive and well in California as it was in Texas. Discovering that few good jobs existed for blacks, Dellums found work as a railway porter with the Pullman Company. At the time, the company was the premiere owner and operator of railway sleeping cars, a mode of transportation that was sweeping the nation. Dellums took the job but remained committed to his dreams. He read voraciously, and held the written and spoken word in high esteem. People who knew Dellums say that he could have easily been mistaken for a Harvard graduate.
Dellums worked for $2 a day plus tips and owned a billiard parlor on 7th Street to supplement his income. The company expected railroad porters to work 400 hours, or travel 11,000 miles per month, to receive full pay. Porters received no overtime and had to pay for their own uniforms and supplies. Continue reading “C.L. Dellums”
Born in Augusta, Georgia, in 1878, Charles “Raincoat” Jones had a hand in many of the businesses on 7th Street – both legitimate and under-the-table. “Raincoat,” as he was called, worked as a café owner, club owner, sausage maker, barbecueman, candy store operator and a pawnshop operator. But he was best known as a loan shark who ran several successful gambling dens and owned big chunks of real estate in West Oakland. A slender, dapper man, Jones was arrested more than once for illegal dice games. But for all his back-alley activity, he was admired as a savvy entrepreneur and philanthropist. He helped raise money to keep afloat struggling clubs and businesses in the Bay Area, including The Sun-Reporter, an influential black newspaper based in San Francisco.
Esther Mabry, also known as “Mama Nip”, is regarded throughout West Oakland as one of the few successful female entrepreneurs on 7th Street.
Esther came to West Oakland from Texas in 1942. Two years later she was working as a cook and waitress at Slim Jenkins’ Place. Though she had a good relationship with her boss, Slim Jenkins, Esther always wanted to go into business for herself. Jenkins encouraged her to go for it. In 1950, when Mabry had saved enough money to open her own place, Esther’s Breakfast Club opened right across the street from Slim’s. Continue reading “Esther Mabry”
Harold “Slim” Jenkins owned the most high-profile club on Seventh Street, and his role as a community leader earned him the title of “unofficial mayor of West Oakland.”
Jenkins was a commanding presence. He was 6’5” and always dressed in a three-piece suit, swishing an unlit cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. His closely-cropped silver hair was never out of place.
Jenkins was born in rural Monroe, Louisana, in 1891. As a young man, he joined the military. As soon as World War I ended, Jenkins moved to Oakland and started waiting tables and saving money, with the dream of one day opening his own club. He finally made that dream come true in 1933, when he opened Slim Jenkins’ Club at 1748 Seventh Street. Continue reading “Harold “Slim” Jenkins”
Bob Geddins recorded most of the musicians of 7th Street, including Saunders King, Lowell Fulson and Sugar Pie DeSanto. He helped countless musicians get their start and wrote blues songs that topped the charts in the ‘50s and ‘60s. However, because Geddins didn’t copyright his work, he “got cheated out of all kinds of money,” as he said in a 1977 interview.
Geddins came to California from Texas in 1933. He lived in Los Angeles until 1943, when he and his large family (he had 13 children) joined his mother in West Oakland. Like so many Southern transplants, he found work in the Kaiser shipyards. Continue reading “Bob Geddins”