This article resulted from an effort to locate Black migrant life and history in Marin City, California, by uncovering strands of the author’s family history in the Sausalito News, a weekly paper (1885–1966) that covered events in and around Marin County. As the center of social and political change during World War II, Marin City, a community that began with the construction of a massive shipbuilding complex in Sausalito in 1942, would give way to a Black migrant community that would enrich the Bay Area, remaking the region into “a new black frontier.” Using the newspaper as an archival mine, I flesh out the contours of the Second Great Migration and the postwar era in Marin City, highlighting an alternate archive, one that pushes against dominant narratives and allows Black people to resist historical erasure by preserving specific acts of Black placemaking, political activism, and community engagement unique to the Bay Area.

Located in an unincorporated pocket on a hillside north of the San Francisco Bay, in between Sausalito and Mill Valley in Marin County, Marin City has long been a minor stage where Black lives and futures were fashioned and cultivated before being played out on larger stages in more visible urban spaces in the greater Bay Area. Jenifer Warren describes Marin City, nestled between Highway 101 and the sloped woodlands and hillsides that make up the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, as being “wedged in a bowl-shaped valley four miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge,” replete with “bay views, mild weather[,] and a short commute to San Francisco.” It is a place, she continues, that “most Marinites…know little about…noticing only its peach-colored, high-rise public housing buildings, which are visible from the freeway.”1

That high-rise public housing complex, Golden Gate Village, is one of the last physical remnants of Marin City’s history as a migrant destination during World War II. For Black southerners who moved west seeking work and new opportunities, this housing complex, and the now demolished temporary defense workers’ housing that once surrounded it, was where migrants and their descendants “would construct their own social world[,]…cultivating regional subcultures that would eventually permeate the larger community.”2 Drawing on existing literature about migration west to California and the Bay Area, specifically the “structural changes in the economy and the dynamics of urban development,”3 I build upon the work of previous scholars by examining how the war effort not only altered the landscape, urbanizing large parts of the country, but also produced an intimate, human story, one that I turn to the archives and family history to flesh out.

Focused on the Second Great Migration and the human aspect of the war boom in Marin City and its postwar development, I went in search of my paternal kin whose stories might illuminate how Black migrants fared. Within the archives, I found my people reflected back to me in a small local newspaper, each detail of my family’s history a sliver of Black migrant life. They had come to the Bay Area like the millions of other war migrants, drawn to a West where the concentration of defense industries would lead to the transformation of “the racial and cultural diversity…[and the depths and texture of] social relations and cultural life.” It was this tremendous wartime influx that would become “one of the most powerful forces in the spatial rearrangement of the population in the twentieth century,”4 essentially remaking the region into “a new black frontier.”5

In the shipyards, the arrival of unskilled migrants triggered “a radical restructuring from skilled crafts to mass production…[and] unions tightened their control of the membership, resulting in undemocratic practices and new forms of labor organization.”6 At the center would be a “struggle between black workers and the Boilermakers union which resulted in the California Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the case of James v. Marinship.”7 This ruling, that jobs requiring labor union membership could not exclude Black workers, and the political activism that produced it, reflected the broader grassroots experience and organizing savvy that many Black migrants brought with them from the South. And it was this political undercurrent that would flow through the lives of Black migrants, who “comprised less than three percent of the region’s shipyard labor force in 1942” but would grow “to seven percent in the following year and to more than ten percent by the end of the war.”8

Among them would be my great-grandmother, Bernadine Novella Holmes, and her husband, James J. Dunn, a tank cleaner and rigger, respectively. Like many others, they had chosen to move west to California because, as historian Shirley Ann Wilson Moore notes, the “California lifestyle held out the promise of social freedom as well as economic advancement and stood in marked contrast to the Jim Crow existence…[they] had known in the South.”9 But they and other Black migrants would encounter California’s unique brand of racism—Jim Crow of the West—and it was in this context that they would ground their struggles for equality and access beyond the defense industry. Moving through the arenas of education and housing, Black migrants would collectively expand their power “to become a major contender in postwar urban politics.” And although the quality and stability of education and housing would become precarious by the 1950s, the enduring political activism and kinship ties among the residents “demonstrated the powerful potential of the war as an agent of social and political change.”10

Marin City would become one of these centers of social and political change, undergoing a significant population boom during the war years. Once a dusty outpost just north of the Marinship Corporation’s shipyard, the town became a major setting for the story of my father’s people, who had arrived there from Louisiana. Like other migrants struggling to set up homes and raise young children in the temporary workers’ barracks, they would lay down roots and raise families in what appeared to be a pastoral scene. These Black newcomers, “determined not to be ‘Jim Crowed’ in California, helped shatter racial barriers that had marginalized African Americans for decades.”11 They would also push to build communities despite racist policies, actions, practices, and covenants, and would enrich Black life in the Bay Area through their many ordinary and extraordinary efforts: “finding schools and housing; locating markets, churches, and medical services; establishing new institutions; building reciprocal relationships with other migrants; and maintaining ties to those back home.”12

Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo reminds us that when it came to the Great Migration, “black migrant women [mainly] facilitated chain migration by encouraging friends and family to join them and by providing newcomers with food, shelter, and emotional support until they found their own jobs and housing.”13 Black women were instrumental in nurturing and growing these communities, adapting practices and skills they had brought with them from the South and applying them to their new Bay Area surroundings. Wilson Moore points out that collectively, Black migrants’ “‘traditions from home,’ while critical to the emergence of their political, economic, and social voice, were distinct, malleable, and inextricably linked to forces within and external to the black [migrant] population.”14 And so, with Black women at the helm, Black migrant populations “built community-supporting institutions that contributed to social and political change”15 across the entire region, providing the staying power needed as “many migrants remained in their new destinations, extending the process of chain migration to friends and relatives into the postwar period.”16

Both of my grandparents would experience much of their formative years in Marin City before young adulthood and marriage thrust them into jobs in the surrounding communities. By searching for pieces of their lives, I seek to do what Marilyn S. Johnson describes her work as doing: “to move beyond the structural dynamics of wartime cities to explore the human dimension of the war experience.”17 In the context of my family, Marin City would eventually become a distant memory as my grandparents’ lives tapered into a Black middle-class story centered on a rocky postwar marriage, four inquisitive children, complicated private lives and secrets, and an eventual separation in an increasingly changing San Francisco. While Marin City would all but disappear from view, it would remain a footnote in my father’s boyhood, where we find memories of occasional visits to the home of Jesse Polk, a family friend from New Iberia, Louisiana; there, my father might swim in his pool—a luxury for upwardly mobile Black migrants trying to make a life in the Golden State.

In my family—whose stories of past lives are few, told in little detail, and held preciously tight by those who lived them—Marin City has become a distant symbol, if not an even greater myth, of what Black migrant families could achieve if they worked hard for and grasped the promised opportunities for home ownership and prosperity. It is a place where some of my father’s extended family still lives, through decades of urban renewal, displacement, and premature death. And it is where memory and nostalgia coexist in those of us who hold the best parts of our deceased grandparents close to our chests: I would discover a lifelong friendship between my grandfather, Walter Thompson Jr., and Jesse Polk, his best friend, with whom he took drunken fishing trips to Rio Vista and who was by his side as my grandfather lay dying in a hospital bed.

Wanting more details of my grandparents’ lives in Marin City, I went searching. And when living memory failed to produce facts, I would dig deeper in the archives, locating a long defunct Sausalito newspaper that would help me fill in some of the blanks.

Chanee Fabius writes that “storytelling is a way in which members of a community pass down traditions to younger generations, as well as make meaning for themselves. Storytelling and oral tradition are ways to teach younger members of the family their history.”18 As such, storytelling has come to exist as a powerful tool for Black families who use it to recount and take account of family history, genealogy, and kinship ties, projecting their values and expectations for the future. But storytelling also leaves room for the tailoring of information, allowing the storyteller to excerpt or embellish their role in the story, editing out or adding in key scenes, events, details, and people. In this sense, life stories and family histories not only provide knowledge and ground one’s place within a longer lineage of human experiences, but exist as living projects, archival texts that can be contested or refuted by others who remain invested in and related to those same stories and storytellers.

Because the stories of Black elders remain “influenced by unique historical and personal events and circumstances [and]…shared through the development of one’s narrative identity,”19 our elders have become both living archives and the authors of their own life stories, written and rewritten in response to anti-Black violence, to insist on Black being. However elaborate or abridged, each story continues to operate as an important navigational tool and a map that teaches successive generations where they come from and how they might move forward. Additionally, when shared with younger family members, each story “allows for generativity, or a connectivity of generations,”20 thus comprising the circuitry of Black memory, Black kinship, Black knowledge, and Black belonging within families and extended communities.

When family stories, or the family itself, have become fractured, other modes of recollecting and research are necessary if we are to succeed in recapturing, preserving, and disseminating memory and knowledge. For Black families, having access to a diversity of family data has always been especially important for conducting research, because these pieces of information “are windows into the lives of poor, common, and unnoticed” people.21 Many Black folks’ relatives, including mine, were economically marginalized, ordinary, everyday, mostly unfamous people. So, while Black family stories could be considered a starting point for studying family history, these stories become all the more rich when paired with contextual “information…gleaned from photographs and primary data from state archives, county and local records, slave owners’ records, and manuscript censuses, as well as newspapers, school records, and other local history data from areas in which family members have lived.”22

But what happens when family members’ reluctance to tell their stories is coupled with a lack of family archives that could document the intricate details of their lives? Where can a person who wants to know and tell their family history turn? What will their tools be? Their map? So many elders, believing their story to be unimportant or useless to the next generation, withhold personal history and memorabilia—or worse, discard them. In other cases, some family stories and mementos have been retained but remain in the possession of family members with whom one has a geographically distant or emotionally fractured relationship. Turning to public archives—newspapers in my case—can be of great help in locating one’s place within a lineage that neither begins nor ends in a foggy city by the bay.

These questions and more would guide me as I faced the gaps and silences in my own family history after receiving a few of my great-grandmother’s and grandmother’s photo albums from my father. Filled with images documenting joyous, celebratory, and quiet mundane moments, these albums also devoted a great deal of film to the family’s migration out of Monroe, Louisiana. In true chain-migration fashion, my great-grandmother left first, departing for Gary, Indiana, while her daughter, my grandmother, was left in the care of her grandparents on their farm, a peach and pecan orchard. Once settled in the north, my great-grandmother sent for her daughter and both (re)started their lives in Gary, later migrating to Marin City accompanied by my great-grandmother’s husband, James J. Dunn.

They told me few stories about their early days in the North Bay, and I admit to not following my curiosity inward and seeking to understand their—and my—history while they were alive. However, looking closely at these photographs in the present, after both had passed away, sparked my desire to situate their stories within the larger narrative of the Black West and Black California—specifically, the making and development of the Black Bay Area. And so, like historian Saidiya Hartman, who became motivated to examine her family’s history as a young girl while visiting relatives in Montgomery, Alabama, I would go digging for the same.

Hartman first learned about her enslaved kin from a maternal great-grandfather named Moses in the summer of 1974. It was his storytelling that propelled Hartman forward “in search of people who left behind no traces.” Decades later, upon locating her maternal great-great-grandmother “in a volume of slave testimony from Alabama, while doing research,” Hartman felt both joy and crushing disappointment at the discovery of this relative’s testimony, which amounted to only a three-word remark. Like Hartman, I found myself propelled by what I learned from my father and his siblings about his parents, fleshing out their stories shaped within the periphery of Marin City and beyond. However, I also found that he “could fill in only the bare outlines of their lives,”23 so I went in search of my people and the intentional and unintentional traces they had left behind.

By chance, I would locate them in the pages of the Sausalito News, a privately owned weekly paper that reported on happenings in and around Marin County from 1885 to 1966. For many Black migrants, newspapers were a vital resource for disseminating and gathering information needed for the journey out of the South. This was, after all, one of the ways that the First Great Migration got under way: “‘Northern fever’ permeated the Black South, as letters, rumors, gossip, and Black newspapers carried word of higher wages and better treatment in the North.”24 These major Black newspapers, most notably the Chicago Defender, “afforded thousands of prospective migrants glimpses of an exciting city with a vibrant and assertive black community.”25 They also provided a dangerous vision of freedom that challenged the white supremacist stronghold that controlled many parts of the Jim Crow South. Because of this, local law enforcement deemed Black newspapers subversive, and confiscated and suppressed them, forcing them “underground, able to reach…subscribers only through the mail.”26

Today, those Black newspapers, many now defunct and indexed into databases, are one of the few places where one can find evidence of the Great Migration. In their pages we encounter the written testimonies of Black southern migrants seeking to leave, discussing arrival, or soliciting work, transportation, and housing, all preserved in the printed word. A more obscure resource is the smaller, local newspapers and small-town tabloids, created in and for wartime communities where local news was migrant news, whose daily reports included migrants’ concerns and covered their affairs. In the present case, the buyout of a tabloid covering Marin City by a larger, countywide newspaper led to the discovery of my kinfolk in the archive.

In 1946, the Sausalito News announced that it had bought the Marin Citizen, a “source of community information and a house organ for progressive values”27 that had been published in Marin City for more than two years. Founded in July 1943, the Marin Citizen can be attributed to the organizing efforts of individuals like Milen Dempster, a former Socialist Party gubernatorial candidate and the chief of project services for the only integrated wartime housing project in the country, who “encouraged self-government in Marin City…[and] organized an elected city council as a vehicle for residents’ concerns.” City council politics would draw the “most socially concerned residents, who elected female and black members.”28 And it was these council members who had decided “to publish a weekly newspaper…[as a] source of community information and a house organ for progressive values.”

As such, the Marin Citizen would present a mix of “social notes and complaints about local merchants with editorials denouncing racial prejudice.”29 Led in part by Black women, grassroots organizing would give way to a progressive news tabloid reflecting a common belief that political concerns and collective needs were central to the joint projects of racial advancement and community development. Among migrants, “newspapers were understood not simply as carriers of information but, more crucially, as educational instruments.”30 Each letter to the editor, each op-ed, each story about the unique anti-Black structural barriers faced by residents, was an opportunity for readers to engage with the print medium, the world, and the public around them. They would continue that engagement until 1946, when the plan to merge the contents of the Marin Citizen with the “Marin City News” section of the Sausalito News was “decided upon as the natural course, in view of the changed economic picture in Southern Marin due to the cessation of the shipyard.”31

If not for this merger, I wonder how long the Marin Citizen would have continued to be published in Marin City, and whether it would have made its way into the archive. As it turned out, it was because of its acquisition by the Sausalito News, which would run until 1960, that I would eventually see parts of my grandparents’ lives in print, alongside news stories, announcements of engagements, and weekly advertisements of meat specials at the only market in Marin City. This type of intimate reporting—records of everyday life, small accomplishments, local disorderly conduct, and intimate partner violence—made Marin City seem more like a sleepy town than a once-booming shipyard migrant worker community integral to the defense industry.

Benjamin Fagan points out that the field of “African American literary studies insists not only that we remember the people along with the print but also that our own approaches be shaped by the theories and practices developed by the black men and women who lived with the print we study.”32 By uncovering family history in a defunct newspaper, I began to flesh out some of the contours of Black migrant life in Marin City and understand how such a small place could launch so many working-class Black southerners into middle-class comfort while trapping others in a tiny, unincorporated corner of a once mostly Black, gentrifying community in the otherwise white and affluent Marin foothills. Finding the traces of my kin in this way is an example of how difficult retaining or reclaiming Black family histories can be, especially if elders have passed on and living relatives have become distant or estranged.

Facing gaps and silences in the archive, individuals can sometimes feel like they’ve been dispatched on a continuous search-party mission. And much like Saidiya Hartman, who writes that “I had been looking for relatives whose only proof of existence was fragments of stories and names that repeated themselves across generations,”33 I realize that I, too, had long been looking.

The development of Marin City began with the construction of “a massive shipbuilding center” in 1942 in nearby Sausalito, a site that at one point employed “75,000 people—many of them African-Americans recruited from southern states.”34 Defense industry jobs on the West Coast offered a potential escape from economic exploitation, setting off a westward exodus among Black southerners. Those who arrived came “for work in shipbuilding and aircraft productions, initially lured by recruiters.”35 Between 1942 and 1943, Kaiser Shipyards, located in Richmond, attracted “nearly 38,000 workers on ‘liberty’ trains.”36

Marinship in Sausalito, “one of the ‘instant’ wartime shipyards created by the United States Maritime Commission”37 and managed by W.A. Bechtel Company of San Francisco, primarily produced 78 T-2 tankers, in addition to the cargo vessels known as “Liberty ships.”38 It was so effective in producing for the war effort that “by late 1944 the yard was launching a ship per week.”39 But this level of production required manpower for which “Marinship competed…with Kaiser and several other Bay Area shipyards and defense contractors.”40 By 1942, Black workers “were being recruited at all Bay Area yards,”41 with the majority arriving from Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. The following year, Black workers “were by far Marinship’s largest minority group, comprising nearly ten percent of all employees.”42

As the number of Black workers grew, discrimination in labor practices at Marinship would come under fire, and the shipyard would be a site of Black organizing and protest. Like other Maritime Commission yards, Marinship’s management enforced the Jim Crow practices of various unions that operated under “closed shop” labor contracts. This meant that Black workers were routinely excluded from membership and forced to create separate and subordinate auxiliaries in which “members had no vote on local union matters and no representation at national conventions…[and] received smaller union insurance benefits than white members.”43 On November 24, 1943, the all-white Boilermakers union ordered “management to fire 430 black workers unless they paid their auxiliary dues in twenty-four hours.”44 This demand triggered a walkout by more than eight hundred Black workers three days later, a direct action that would give way to a lawsuit resulting in the California Supreme Court case James v. Marinship, a major landmark in civil rights.45

Overall, the war effort placed around “16,000,000 persons under arms and enticed another 15,000,000 migrants to become defense workers or camp followers.”46 This massive upheaval would cause a dramatic shift in the American landscape, turning ordinary citizens into part of the wartime masses: “the young, disabled, black, female, Mexican, and elderly [who] marched into the war factories and shipyards”47 to labor for themselves and their country. Responding to the rapid growth of Black migrant communities in the Bay Area, Urban League executive director Seaton W. Manning noted that the “migration of Negroes into San Francisco and the Bay Area is still continuing.…I find it hard to believe that there are any Negroes left in Texas and Louisiana.”48 Ultimately, the war effort led to the racial and spatial reorganization of American cities, regions, and society and turned Marin City into an extension of the war production complex, which included sites in Ypsilanti, Michigan; Portsmouth, Virginia; Ogden, Utah; Bremerton, Washington; Spokane, Washington; Richmond, California; Vallejo, California; and Wilmington, California.49

As Marin City became a migrant destination and an important site for new beginnings, people like my grandparents found that arriving in a community that was still developing allowed them to leave their mark on their new surroundings. With the construction of Marinship completed in just nine months, defense workers faced an urgent need for housing, schools, and retail amenities. A partnership between the Bechtel Corporation, which oversaw construction, and the Marin County Housing Authority, which handled management, would give way to “the 6,000-person Marin City.”50 It was an impressive feat, and upon its completion, the dean of city planning historians, Mel Scott, “deplored the loss of meadows and hills, but called Marin City ‘outstanding among war born developments, both in planning and in community facilities.’”51

Three housing developments rose from the ground, one consisting “of 1,200 rooms for single men, one of 700 apartments for couples, and one of 800 houses for families. The dormitories for men…[were] located about a mile from the apartments and houses.”52 Designed to be temporary housing for the large number of new arrivals, the structures were built quickly, drawing “construction contractors [who] stopped building subdivisions and began erecting war housing.”53 In photographs, Marin City appears to be a modest and humble arrangement of barracks, rather than the model community offering a modern and complete living environment lauded by planners. And it would be a while before adequate retail and amenities arrived to accommodate the number of residents living there. But another feature made Marin City stand out among all the other housing projects for defense workers: its intentional construction as a racially integrated community.

In his 1957 novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac writes about Marin City: “It was, so they say, the only community in America where whites and Negroes lived together voluntarily; and that was so, and so wild and joyous a place I’ve never seen since.”54 But the voluntary nature of racially integrated living frequently required intervention, and that joy that Kerouac wrote about was oftentimes superseded by intense expressions of anti-Blackness from white tenants. Implementing both nonsegregation and nondiscrimination policies under the administrative leadership of Milen Dempster, “Marin City began, without debate or discussion, to assign dormitory housing to black employees” in August 1942, and within a month, “whites in the dorm were complaining about their [black] neighbors.”55

To quell white resentment and animosity, management sent a letter to all tenants, reiterating their policy: “We must tell you that it is the policy of the Management to house all Main County shipyard workers for whom we have accommodations, irrespective of their religion, race, color, or position in the shipyards. We must further tell you that when any difficulty arises as a result of racial difficulty, the Management will be forced to request the originator of the trouble to move immediately.”56 This policy would continue after the war, when, in 1945, Ira De Augustine Reid wrote: “Marin City houses about 5,000 people, or 1,500 families, some 20% of which are Negroes. The residents live amicably side by side without discord or misunderstanding.”57 Whether Black and white residents were amicable about the integrated living arrangement or merely tolerant given the management’s policy, Reid does not specify. But even as the veneer of a racial cordiality failed to mask the underlying anti-Blackness of white Marin City residents, Black migrants like my great-grandmother and grandparents made a way.58

Joined by people “who had a shared knowledge of cultural forms, people with whom they felt kinship, people with whom they shared stories about the day or the latest joke, people who shared a vernacular whose grammar and vocabulary struggle to articulate the beauty and burden of their lives,”59 my great-grandmother and her only child, Herberdine Eddie Lee (Jones) Dunn, would become proud residents of Marin City. In several photos in her album, my great-grandmother stands in front of her home, unit A-17-132. In one, she strikes a dignified pose with her hands on her hips, head cocked to the side, hair perfectly coiffed, smiling with no teeth, her shadow cast on the wood slat wall behind her (Figure 1). She wears a jacket and matching skirt, a blouse, hosiery, and black pumps. She is stylish in the midst of temporary wartime housing, built hammer to nail. Behind her are pieces of décor applied to glass, a window and door adorned with touches of migrant individuality that gave the unit an essence of personality and home. Overhead hangs an electrical power line. To her left in the foreground is the bare, shadowy outline of a plant, grown to beautify otherwise identical-looking buildings.

Figure 1.

The author’s great-grandmother, Bernadine Holmes, standing outside her unit in Marin City, 1940s.

Courtesy of the author

Figure 1.

The author’s great-grandmother, Bernadine Holmes, standing outside her unit in Marin City, 1940s.

Courtesy of the author

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In another photo, she stands in front of a garden bounded by a low picket fence, a symbol of white suburban middle-class achievement and American prosperity (Figure 2). During the postwar era, “white picket fences surrounding modest middle-class homes in racially homogenous neighborhoods with good schools served as important markers of their success and prosperity.”60 Here, they project the image of modernity and middle-class sophistication, something that many Black migrants sought through their planning and labor. That my great-grandmother stands beside a robust garden with flowering plants attests not only to the length of time that has passed since the image in Figure 1 but also to the time, energy, and care continuously put into the beautification and individualization of her unit, a lush oasis in an otherwise nondescript war workers’ housing development.

Figure 2.

The author’s great-grandmother, Bernadine Holmes, standing outside her unit in Marin City, 1940.

Courtesy of the autho

Figure 2.

The author’s great-grandmother, Bernadine Holmes, standing outside her unit in Marin City, 1940.

Courtesy of the autho

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Reaching into his childhood memory of Marin City—a nearly South-like, ruralish, Black country on the periphery of the City by the Bay—my father describes a densely wooded hillside descending into a flat dusty tract, sparsely vegetated and punctuated with military-style barracks. These barracks, arranged in long rows with units attached to each other, shared an elevated wooden porch, like a boardwalk, that connected the homes to other community features, a necessity when unpaved roads became muddy and unwalkable in wet weather. Aside from personal touches and other beautification efforts—decorative window curtains and objects adhered to the windows, a white picket fence around one’s front yard, geraniums growing beside one’s front steps instead of common weeds or patchy grass—the units were identical with the same structural makeup and numbers of windows, rooms, and doors.

Because there was very little privacy between the units and because so many migrants hailed from the same state or parish, there was an added layer of intimacy among the already tight-knit Black southern diaspora community. Many of the units housed extended family members, reflecting the propensity for chain migration to places where the presence of already established kin “minimized the disruption of relocating as well as the shock of arrival in new surroundings” by providing “information about the journey[,] or about conditions at the destination,”61 and ensuring lodging, one of the biggest challenges migrants faced outside of readily available employment.

In many ways, this would be how my grandfather experienced migration, leaving his home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, as a youth to follow in the footsteps of his eldest brother, Austin “Tommy” Thompson, who arrived in Sausalito years earlier, in 1941. Stories of fast money, greater freedom, and good weather had lured both men west, like numerous other teens and young men attracted by “tales about the high wages in the shipyards.” Without many opportunities in rural communities and small towns back home, the USO Travelers Aid reported that even boys not yet of legal age arrived “in search of the first real money they have ever known. Though posing as such, they are not always sixteen years old. They come with mutilated birth certificates, and with false ones, with their older brothers’ and with none at all.”62 Turning up motherless and fatherless in Marin City, my grandfather moved into house 359, where he would live with Austin’s family, including Austin’s two children, Janet and LeRoy, until a house fire in 1949 destroyed all of the family’s possessions.

A single photograph of my grandfather that I found in my grandmother’s photo album not only reveals that the two had crossed paths as young people in Marin City, but indicates that memory work in this community—the recording and keeping of history through ephemera and images—is heavily gendered labor, embodied in the informal archival practices of Black women. In this image, my youthful grandfather stands to the far left in a picture that has been intentionally cropped, hands on hips, jeans cuffed at the ankle, legs slightly spread, screwdriver at his feet, cap pushed back on his head (Figure 3). He looks directly at the camera as if to say, “Come find us, granddaughter, we’ll be here in the archives waiting for you when you are ready.”

Figure 3.

The author’s grandfather, Walter Thompson Jr., in Marin City, 1940s.

Courtesy of the author

Figure 3.

The author’s grandfather, Walter Thompson Jr., in Marin City, 1940s.

Courtesy of the author

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I started with a simple search of my kinfolk in the Sausalito News using the California Digital Newspaper Collection, an online database. Combing through the newspaper’s sections, I would find fragments of their stories hiding between wedding announcements, disorderly conduct arrests, grocery advertisements, and reports of community achievements. It was a record of a fresh start, cut anew from the familiar meat and gristle of struggle and survival. One of the obvious fruits of this new life was an education, one that gave a daughter the ability to rise to her potential beyond her mother’s domestic labor. Attending an integrated school filled with the children of shipyard workers, my grandmother would graduate in 1946. By then, the war was over and defense industry communities had become shells of their former boomtown selves.

Around Marin City, the war’s end resulted in the abandonment of industrial plants and shipyards, but not of wartime housing. For many migrants who had left kin, community, and home back in the South, walking out on their new homes was not an option. Thus, some residents, concerned about the possible annexation of Marin City by Sausalito, became involved in community activism, pushing the Marin County Housing Authority to continue funding programs and services in Marin City. My grandmother thrived in this setting. Surrounded by friends, she grew adept at navigating, as a student, the unique racial etiquette of Bay Area institutions and social situations. One of my first sightings of her name in print was in a story in the Sausalito News announcing the upcoming graduation at Marin City School:

The Marin city school is humming with graduation plans this week. Its halls are decorated with prize papers and pictures, showing off some of the finest and best of the year. The grand finale will be Friday evening at 8 o’clock. When graduation exercises will be held in the auditorium. After the ceremony, refreshments will be served in the cafeteria.…

Outstanding for the excellence of their scholastic record, according to Mrs. Close were…Herberdine Dunn…among the girls.63

Studious and high-achieving, my grandmother was one of the few Black students in her class pictures in the lower grades. But by her middle-grade years and into high school at Mount Tamalpais High School in neighboring Mill Valley, she would be flanked by more and more Black peers, her photo albums revealing that many of the newcomers had become her friends. Snapshots taken on day trips to the beach and the many collected senior portraits of classmates suggest that my grandmother was quite popular, independent, and carefree (Figure 4).

Figure 4.

The author’s grandmother, Herbedine Jones, standing third from the left with friends at the beach, 1940s.

Courtesy of the author

Figure 4.

The author’s grandmother, Herbedine Jones, standing third from the left with friends at the beach, 1940s.

Courtesy of the author

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But she was also connected to life and kin back home in Louisiana. In a common practice among migrant parents, children would often be sent down south to stay with relatives during school breaks to reconnect with extended family, acquire some “home training,” and give parents some much-needed rest and relief from child-care duties. On at least one occasion, my grandmother traveled back home to Monroe for a long summer visit in 1947, and prior to her return, the Sausalito News reported the trip in a section that covered general comings and goings: “Herberdine Dunn of A-17-132, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James Dunn, is expected back Saturday from a six weeks’ visit with her grandparents in Monroe, La.”64

The following year, traces of both my grandparents would appear in a story about a talent show sponsored by the local NAACP Youth Council:

Approximately 100 people gathered last Friday night in the auditorium of the Community Building to witness the Talent Show presented by the NAACP Youth Council.

Ruby Johnson won first prize, a compact for two piano solos.

Mattie Berry and Herberdine Dunn shared the second prize, a pen and pencil set, for their duet.

“On behalf of the NAACP Youth Council,” said Herbert Holloway, publicity chairman, “and also on behalf of the senior group of NAACP, we wish to thank Frank Kelly of the Marin City Drug Store for donating these prizes.”

Originally scheduled solely as a Talent Show, the program also included a five-act play written by Walter Thompson, a member of the Youth Council. Entitled ‘Murder of the Bobby-Soxer,’ its cast included Jo Ann Howard, Arty Lou Brown, Birl McKnight, Henry Lee, Herbert Holloway, Arthur Brown, Dolores Williams, Etta May Thompson and Walter Thompson.

According to Holloway, another Talent Show is planned for the near future. Teen-agers interested in participating may contact Walter Thompson at House 359 or by calling Sausalito 570-W.65

As one of a constellation of organizations created by young people during the Great Depression era, the NAACP Youth Council emerged from the twenty-sixth annual NAACP Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, in July 1935. It shifted from loosely formed circles of youth organizing and activism to coordinated junior branches working to challenge Jim Crow after “the board of directors voted to restructure its youth division.”66 While there is some evidence in my family that points to my grandparents being racially conscious, no one ever indicated that my grandfather, a man who came across as gruff and fierce in person and in family lore, had an aptitude for writing—playwriting to be precise—and playing with dark storylines.

After I came across a report in the Sausalito News, however, I realized that his own story had perhaps taken a dark turn. An incident that occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1948 would lead to two young men—one bearing my grandfather’s name—being charged with a horrific crime. To see this reported, I have to admit, was overwhelming. I was unsure if the name listed was the same person as my grandfather. In fact, I desperately hoped it was not. The house listed in the story wasn’t the same number as the one in other stories about him. Still, I would read it over and over—the bare thread of the details, the same outline of violence that many of the women in my family, including myself, have lived through—and hesitate over whether to include it with the rest of my findings, before deciding against it.

In doing archival work, nothing prepares a researcher for the discovery of evidence that a family member has committed a violent, predatory, or abusive act. In an effort to preserve the image and reputation of family members or to honor family secrets, one might wonder if this information should remain unfound and kept buried forever. Here, I think about the lengths a family may take to preserve itself when image and reputation have been forfeited. I also wonder, given the expansive capacity of the archive, and the fact that the possibly relevant crime I uncovered was never spoken about in my family, what the many unrevealed pasts of my own relatives might be.

In 1949, a fire raged through Austin’s home, displacing the family and making the papers: “Marin’s Red Cross was ‘on the job’ in Marin City last Friday morning in the wake of the fire which completely destroyed the home of Mr. and Mrs. Austin Thompson, and damaged the adjoining home of the Alex Holloway family.”67 Austin and his family, along with my grandfather, would be rehoused in another unit, but all their possessions, including all photographed, written, and kept objects that documented their lives up until that point, were destroyed. What started the fire is unknown—no cause is reported in the paper, and none of the occupants of either residence are quoted as saying what they thought had caused it. I wonder whether it was arson—a form of revenge for the victim of the crime my grandfather (perhaps) was accused of? But it also could have been caused by faulty electrical wiring, a burning stove, a cigarette, or any number of other hazards.

In 1950, my grandmother reappeared in the Sausalito News in a graduation announcement for Tamalpais Union High School: “Twenty-eight Sausalito students and twenty-three from Marin City will be among those graduating in the largest class in Tamalpais Union High School history. When 259 seniors and three veterans receive diplomas at 2 p.m. Sunday.”68 That same year, she would marry my grandfather at the age of twenty. In an undated newspaper clipping folded between the pages of my grandmother’s photo album, news of their pending nuptials provide a glimpse into their young lives before their launch into parenthood (Figure 5): “Mr. and Mrs. James Dunn are announcing the engagement of their daughter, Herberdine, to Walter Thompson. The young Miss Dunn is a graduate of Tamalpais High School and attended Marin last year. She is now working as clerk typist at Hamilton Field, California. Mr. Thompson is now attending Marin.” Pursuing their education beyond high school and the geographic limits of Marin City, my grandparents would both attend the College of Marin in Kentfield in 1951. And despite being newly married, my grandfather would continue to be listed as living at his brother Austin’s house in Marin City.

Figure 5.

Undated newspaper clipping announcing the engagement of the author’s grandparents in Marin City.

Courtesy of the author

Figure 5.

Undated newspaper clipping announcing the engagement of the author’s grandparents in Marin City.

Courtesy of the author

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By the mid-1950s, my grandparents would all but disappear from the Sausalito News, likely reflecting their new responsibilities as a married couple and their eventual choice to move to San Francisco, where they would buy a single-family home and raise their young children. As for other Black migrant families in the 1950s, the postwar era represented two main possibilities: a step up into the middle class or a precarious leap into a future marred by unemployment and displacement in a radically changing Bay Area. Those who could afford to move away did so, retreating to surrounding cities like San Francisco and Oakland. There they dove headfirst into first-time home ownership, new jobs, better schools, and new roles. When they left, they took parts of Marin City with them, if only in memory.

With return visits diminishing, Marin City for my family represented a launching pad. It was where Black southerners collectively and individually enacted their agency, embracing self-reinvention through the adoption of new names and backstories, building aspirational dreams through new aesthetic homemaking practices, reuniting with friends and family before planting new seeds elsewhere. It was also a place where horrible acts were sometimes committed against other Black people and where, given Marin City’s covert geography and temporary nature as a wartime community, these acts could be partially contained or wholly buried so that those who committed them could leave altogether and start anew.

Reflecting on Marin City at its height, Reverend Leon Samuels, who left Shreveport for the shipyards during the war, recalls: “We had a grocery store, barber shop, restaurant, post office—you name it.…Back then, we were a regular, nice town that had all the necessary services.”69 But following the war’s end, Marin City fell into decline. Jenifer Warren attributes this decline to multiple contributing factors, noting that “as the shipbuilding industry withered, the town’s economic base crumbled. Whites moved out to find new opportunities. Discrimination blocked African-Americans from housing elsewhere in the county, and Marin City’s legacy of unemployment and racial isolation was spawned.”70 It is important to note that Marin City did not fall apart all at once; it did so slowly, as small losses and major setbacks accumulated.

Some would choose to ride out this transition, holding on to the economic gains made during the war years while putting their personal touch on the community’s political future. But by the 1960s, Marin City was like many other cities across the country, where largely Black and poor areas, deprived of resources and neglected by municipal leaders, were designated “slums” and gutted in urban renewal projects. As county officials increasingly overlooked conditions in Marin City, residents felt not only contained within it but deprived of basic necessities required to move up and out. They would be literally cut off when “a plan to run BART (Bay Area Rapid Transport) through Marin County was turned down owing to the county’s population being too small to support the tax base needed for the project.”71

Left off the main road of wealth accumulation while progress and development happened around them, many young Black people, feeling trapped, became frustrated with the limited employment and social outlets available to them. Rob Nixon’s notion of slow violence—“a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all”—applies here to the intentional withholding of resources and the refusal to invest in Marin City, leading to the foreclosure of so much Black potential and so many Black futures.

Taking a backseat as the rest of Marin County grew in wealth and status, Marin City would continue to exist as a small, almost-hidden depression in the lush emerald hillside, discernible mainly by its high-rise public housing project and high crime rates, both of which stood in contrast to the million-dollar real estate of surrounding Mill Valley, Sausalito, Strawberry, Tiburon, and Belvedere. By 1992, Marin City would appear to be a shadow of its former self, described as

a glaring pocket of urban-style poverty. Its unemployment rate is nearly 10 times the Marin average, one-quarter of its 2,000 residents live below the poverty line and drug trafficking—particularly in crack cocaine—is rampant.

In a county that is 90% white, Marin City is mostly black. It has no supermarket, doctor, post office or public school. About all it does have is a hot dog stand and a weekend flea market that plagues the streets with traffic and trash.

For three decades, residents here have watched with bitter envy as the rest of Marin County has blossomed.72

Thinking about what it means to grow up in a community that one must leave in order to manifest one’s vision of personal advancement, I wonder if my grandparents ever looked back as they planted the seeds for their children’s futures in neighboring San Francisco. Now that they are no longer with me, turning to archival newspapers to find them has not only personalized the Second Great Migration but has helped me understand the collective impact of everyday migrants’ footsteps in the making of the Black Bay Area. I also wonder how scholars confront some of the things they dredge up from the morass as part of their research process. Nothing can fully prepare us for what we might find in the archive, and sometimes the data and sources one finds interfere with existing oral versions of events or complicate one’s desire to re/uncover a straightforward, clean family history.

My research has made me certain about a few things: migration was not always straightforward or clean, people were not always fixed on landing in a single destination, arrival was not always defined by a completed journey, and home was not always built around the finality of arrival. This is most clear when looking at the obstructions and refusals that Black southerners faced in California. Housing insecurity, job insecurity, municipal policies, and racial restrictions implemented through violence that limited where they could venture and raise children safely forced many Black families to continue migrating until circumstances and surrounding conditions permitted them to “’joy their freedom.”73 But even in constant movement, migrant families found a way around these indignities, working to give the next generation the best footing they could.

Locating parts of our kinfolks’ lives in print reminds us of the initial importance of going searching and of the tremendous roles that small, community-based newspapers play in documenting and preserving stories that are not covered by larger media outlets. In each case, every announcement becomes a clue, each advertisement a narrative unto itself, each story a glimpse of a life, an artifact. While the standard of newspapers is to publish condensed stories and concise reports about events of the day, the information, descriptions, and testimonies included offer rich content and context for understanding the lives of ordinary Black people like my grandparents who otherwise had to rely on informal methods of leaving behind fragile clues and faint traces.

It should be noted that countywide newspapers have rarely reported with such focus and consistency on local Black life and progress, and so most newspapers will be less valuable than the Sausalito News as a source for research on Black family history. But when newspapers—and especially smaller, community-based ones—do serve as archives of historical knowledge and as potential sources of family stories, they become so much more than instruments for recording and reporting on the facets and details of everyday life. Their plain, printed text has the power to transform our own personal narratives and stories, to alter and deepen the way we see the world, to connect us in ordinary and spectacular ways to larger historical events and developments. Holding traces of our ancestors’ footsteps, for those of us who have gone out searching, newspapers as historical archives become yet another way to bring home the news.


Jenifer Warren, “The Other Marin: As the Trendy County Flourished around It, the ‘Gilded Ghetto’ of Marin City Languished in Poverty,” Los Angeles Times, December 20, 1992.


Marilynn S. Johnson, The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 4.


Ibid., 1.


Ibid., 2.


Charles Wollenberg, “James vs. Marinship: Trouble on the New Black Frontier,” California History 60, no. 3 (1981), 262.


Johnson, Second Gold Rush, 4.


Wollenberg, “James vs. Marinship,” 263.


Ibid., 262.


Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, To Place Our Deeds: The African American Community in Richmond, California, 1910–1963 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 3.


Johnson, Second Gold Rush, 5.


Moore, To Place Our Deeds, 1.


Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, Abiding Courage: African American Migrant Women and the East Bay Community (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 3.




Moore, To Place Our Deeds, 2–3.


Lemke-Santangelo, Abiding Courage, 2.


Johnson, Second Gold Rush, 2.




Chanee D. Fabius, “Toward an Integration of Narrative Identity, Generativity, and Storytelling in African American Elders,” Journal of Black Studies 47, no. 5 (2016), 424.






Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, “Documenting Family History: The Diary of Mary Sprow,” Negro History Bulletin 60, no. 2 (1997), 11.


Shirley J. Portwood, “In Search of My Great, Great Grandparents: Mapping Seven Generations of Family History,” Journal of Illinois State Historical Society 92, no. 2 (1999), 95.


Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journal along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 13.


James R. Grossman, Land of Hope: Chicago, Black Southerners, and the Great Migration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 3.


Ibid., 4.


Ibid., 44.


Margaret Crawford, “Daily Life on the Home Front: Women, Blacks, and the Struggle for Public Housing,” in Donald Albrecht (ed.), World War II and the American Dream: How Wartime Building Changed a Nation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 129.






Benjamin Fagan, The Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2016), 10.


“Marin City Newspaper Is Merged with Sausalito News,” Sausalito News, February 7, 1946.


Fagan, Black Newspaper and the Chosen Nation, 10.


Hartman, Lose Your Mother, 13.


Warren, “Other Marin.”


Quintard Taylor, “African American Men in the American West, 1528–1990,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 569 (2000), 112.




Wollenberg, “James vs. Marinship,” 263.


Ibid., 264.






Ibid., 266.


Ibid., 264.


Ibid., 267.


Ibid., 269.


No family stories or records exist indicating that my great-grandmother or her husband participated in the strike.


Roger W. Lotchin, “California Cities and the Hurricane of Change: World War II in the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego Metropolitan Areas,” Pacific Historical Review 63, no. 3 (1994), 396.




Albert S. Broussard, “Strange Territory Familiar Leadership: The Impact of World War II on San Francisco’s Black Community,” California History 65, no. 1 (1986), 20.


Margaret Blenkner and Jeannette M. Elder, “Migrant Boys in Wartime as Seen by USO Travelers Aid,” Social Service Review 19, no. 3 (1945), 325.


Roger W. Lotchin, “World War II and Urban California: City Planning and the Transformation Hypothesis,” Pacific Historical Review 62, no. 2 (1993), 152.


Ibid., 152.


Jean C. McGregor, “Marin City Saga,” American Journal of Nursing 43, no. 8 (1943), 720.


Lotchin, “California Cities and the Hurricane of Change,” 396.


Jack Kerouac, On the Road: The Original Scroll (New York: Viking, 1952), 162.


Crawford, “Daily Life on the Home Front,” 129.


Ira De A. Reid, “Persons and Places,” Phylon 6, no. 1 (1945), 85.




No word or record exists that speaks to my great-grandmother’s or grandparents’ specific experience living alongside whites given the integrationist housing policies.


Robin D. G. Kelley, “Black Working Class Opposition in the Jim Crow South,” Journal of American History 80, no. 1 (1993), 85.


Willow Lung-Amam, Trespassers? Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017), 6.


Jack S. Blocker Jr., “Black Migration to Muncie, 1860–1930,” Indiana Magazine of History 92, no. 4 (1996): 306–307.


Blenkner and Elder, “Migrant Boys in Wartime,” 331.


“Marin City School to Graduate 28 Pupils Friday Night,” Sausalito News, June 13, 1946.


Sausalito News, September 4, 1947.


“NAACP Youth Council Stages Talent Show,” Sausalito News, December 2, 1948.


Thomas Bynum, NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1936–1965 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2013), 2.


“Red Cross Aids Fire Victims,” Sausalito News, April 7, 1949.


“Tamalpais to Hold Graduation Sunday,” Sausalito News, June 15, 1950.


Warren, “Other Marin.”




Ericka Erickson, “Does the Marin Transportation System Shut Out People of Color?,” Poverty & the Environment 15, no. 2 (2008), 75.


Warren, “Other Marin.”


Phrase taken from Tera Hunter’s book To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1997.