Russell City was once a thriving unincorporated town with homes, churches, jobs, schools, farms, and clubs. Russell City was a town located in Hayward. Before it was an Industrial Park It was the pinnacle for various migrants and immigrant groups like Spaniards, Danes, Germans, Italians, African Americans, and Mexicans.
Due to racial discrimination in Alameda County, there weren’t many areas for minorities to live and call their home. There were only a few neighborhoods: Fillmore (in San Francisco), West Oakland, Palo Alto, and Russell City (Hayward).
Many minorities set up businesses to make a living. Aisha Knowles’ grandfather used to own an automotive shop in Russell City; she stated, “I hear the stories from people who lived there, who had business there, and about what the town meant to them and how special of a place it was,” said Knowles.
On Saturday nights in the 1940’s and 50’s, Russell City was the place to be. People would be dressed in their finest suits and clothes, dancing it up on the dance floor to some of the greatest R&B and Blues musicians, such as; Grammy award-winners Ray Charles, B.B. King, and other artists like Lowell Fulson and Dottie Ivory. People from all over the bay came to hear them perform. There were two clubs in Russell City: the Russell City country club and Miss Alva’s Club.
Dr. Maria Ochoa, Ph. D., is the author of the book Images of America Russell City. She is also a San José State University Professor Emerita of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences. The book is based on the history of and dedicated to the people of Russell City. She mentions how great the well-being of a community in Russell City once was. “I lived in Hayward across the street from Chabot when it was all fields. I remember going to Mass in Russell City as a little girl. I remember it being a place where my parents made friends with Latinos, African Americans, and Whites. The community was together as a whole,” said Dr. Ochoa.
Russell City public school was located just five miles away from downtown Hayward. The book described Russell High School as a valuable three-story high school with iconic Greek architecture and the nation’s most elegant school. The book also described Russell City public school from the 1st grade to the 8th. Before the high school in Russell City was built, students who wanted to continue their education had to go to Oakland High.
The classroom experience sometimes included manual labor, and sometimes teachers would take their classes into the fields. Dr. Ochoa stated, “There were cows and chickens in the streets. People had school gardens which were orchards, and vegetables were growing. It was all agricultural.”
Russell City itself was an agricultural town. Gardens were common in residents’ homes. There were a lot of orchards and vegetable gardens. The town had dairies and a pig farm. The smell of hogs was horrible, as described in the book.
Four stores in Russell City supplied food, cigarettes, aspirin, and other things. There were restaurants in that town that weren’t segregated. The money always went back into Russell City.
Alameda County never provided services like water, electricity, and sanitation. “It was a difficult situation. They had no roads, no indoor plumbing, and they had no utilities like electricity. People living in Russell City had to get Car Batteries to bring electricity into their homes, schools, and businesses.” Says Dr. Ochoa.
So, what happened to Russell City? What happened to this thriving minority town? For one: it was an unincorporated town. Two: the residents were still interested in bettering their town. It was that they were denied the opportunity by the government, the county, and by Hayward. Both the county and the city devised a plan to turn Russell City into the industrial park you see today. Residents were forced to move, and businesses were forced to close.
By the late 1950s, the town was in turmoil. Residents were forced to move, and arsonists burned properties to the ground. When the town was expanded to Hayward, the city used eminent domain to remove the last of the residents in 1966 for the industrial park.
“Many who lived in Russell City are in their 70’s and 80s. talking about it can be painful because they remember what they lost when it was destroyed,” said Knowles. Russell City now is a question of “What it could have become” since 1964.
The residents of the once-forgotten community weren’t willing to let Russell City fade in their memories and let it be unknown. Ruby Tolefree-Echols and Henry “Billy” Garron, two former Russell City residents, founded an annual reunion picnic. Echols died in 2002; unfortunately, Mr. Billy Garron passed away some years ago.
“The reunion picnic was held in 2022 after being suspended during the height of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. It is unclear if the picnic will continue as the people who lived and worked in Russell City are few in number now, largely due to the passing of so many. The people who now come to the picnic have not necessarily lived or worked in Russell City. They have heard stories from their elders and want to learn more,” said Dr. Ochoa.
There are tributes to Russell City in Hayward. Russell City is commemorated in the downtown Mural where Hayward had officially apologized. On Nov. 16, 2021, the Hayward City Council voted unanimously to issue a formal apology for the City’s historical role in and the perpetuation of racial discrimination and racially disparate impacts of its past actions and inactions. The property of Russell City today is worth millions.
“One of the things that happened with Institutionalized poverty is that people try to survive, and to face some of the challenges requires having a strong sense of community, and I think people there developed that.” Says Dr. Ochoa.