Update, April 23: The Board of Trustees of the Berkeley Public Library voted against renaming the South Branch after civil-rights leader Tarea Hall Pittman at its April 22 meeting. (See who is on the Board and listen to a recording of the meeting on the Library’s website.) The leader of the campaign in favor of the idea, Charles Austin, told Berkeleyside reporter Natalie Orenstein he was devastated, and that supporters would protest the decision at the next Berkeley City Council meeting. “Racism is alive in Berkeley,” he said. The South Branch of the Berkeley Public Library was remodeled two years ago, and soon it might be rechristened too.
Original story: On Feb. 10, the City Council passed a proposal to rename the library, at 1901 Russell St., after Tarea Hall Pittman, a civil-rights leader who lived in South Berkeley and died in 1991. The Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) will have the final say on whether the change will be made.
Pittman “was just a pillar in the community,” said councilwoman Linda Maio, who sponsored the item. A community petition in support of the name change garnered over 2,000 signatures.
In spite of the council’s stamp of approval, the proposal might not meet the BOLT’s criteria, said member Jim Novosel. Library branches can only be named after a person who has “contributed mightily to the libraries or to a branch — superlative, above-and-beyond service to the library system,” he said.
It is unclear whether Pittman had a direct connection to the libraries, but supporters of the name change say she was was a strong advocate of education.
Pittman, born in 1903, moved to the Bay Area from Southern California to attend UC Berkeley. She quickly became heavily involved with the local NAACP chapter, where she helped desegregate the Oakland Fire Department and end discriminatory hiring practices at shipyards during World War II. She eventually served as director of the Western Region of the organization, and successfully lobbied to pass the California Fair Employment Practice bill.
But, locally and nationally, Pittman was perhaps best known as the longtime host of the radio show “Negroes in the News,” broadcast on Oakland’s KDIA.
“I listened to her on the radio a lot,” said Idella Melton, who was a young mother in South Berkeley when Pittman was active. She was also a patient of Pittman’s husband, the first black dentist in Berkeley.
Pittman “tried to encourage people my age that we weren’t trash and that we could go to school. I said, ‘Here’s a black lady on the radio.’ I was inspired by her,” Melton said.
Around the time of the library remodel, Charles Austin, who lives across the street from the building, discovered that Pittman would have been his neighbor. She lived just up the street, at what is now 2930 MLK Jr. Way. Austin was involved in the library planning stages, and came up with the idea of naming the revamped branch after the late activist.
“I said, gee, this lady lived right down the street,” said Austin, a retired management consultant. “I started discovering that she did a lot of things for a lot of people. She was truly a local hero.”
Austin got to work collecting signatures and telling everyone who’d listen — at brunch at Thai Temple across the street, at the antique stores on Ashby — about Pittman’s accomplishments. He gathered a group of friends and neighbors that he christened the Convening Committee, and sent them out to gather petition signatures too.
“Ironically enough, I was born here and didn’t know much about her,” said Willy Phillips, a member of the Convening Committee who grew up in South Berkeley in the 1950s and 60s. He remembers the discriminatory housing practices of the era. Pittman herself struggled to find UC Berkeley student housing that would allow a black resident, and later advocated for fair housing.
People like Austin, who are living in areas that once were heavily white, are testaments to activists like Pittman’s hard work, said Phillips. But he’s watched the black population in Berkeley dwindle in recent years, and he credits the bleak housing situation.
“Mr. Austin sees a need for a connection from past to present,” Phillips said. So young people can see we didn’t just get here by accident. Particularly young African-American women.”
Austin was blown away by the amount of support he received. The Shotgun Players wrote a letter to the council urging them to vote for the proposal, as did a Malcolm X kindergarten teacher, who said the name change would be good for Berkeley’s youth. “Her name means ‘homework,’ in Spanish, for goodness sake!” he wrote.
On Sunday, Feb. 15, the Convening Committee and a few of their supporters gathered in front of the library to celebrate the council’s approval and to remember Pittman.
“This is a must for our community,” said Sally Hindman, director of Youth Spirit Artworks on Alcatraz. “We need to affirm our heritage here in South Berkeley and the giants that made it what it is.”
Making a playful jab at Austin’s persistence, she said, “He’s just been like a thorn in your side! The idea of not coming today never occurred to me.”
The Board Of Library Trustees will hold an information meeting in March to determine whether the proposal is eligible for a vote in the future, said director Jeff Scott.
Novosel, who has served on the BOLT since 2010, said he does not know of any other attempts to rename any of the library branches. When the South Branch was remodeled, the BOLT considered calling it the Lorin Branch or the Ashby Station Branch, he said.
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