The South Berkeley Senior center will reopen its doors in the late spring, and if a number of City Council members have their way, it will eventually bear the name of Henry Ramsey Jr., a former Berkeley councilman and Alameda County Superior Court judge who died in 2014 at the age of 80.
The senior center, at 2939 Ellis St. (at Ashby Avenue), has been closed since January for $693,000 worth of repairs, which include painting, new floors made from either wood or sustainable materials, and making the customer service counter more accessible. The city has said it is renewing its commitment to getting the community more involved in the center once it reopens.
“We hope to build a space that is one-of-a-kind, reinvigorated, and forward-looking,” said Councilman Ben Bartlett, who has been one of the forces behind the effort to revamp the senior-services facility. “Our goal is not just to commemorate Judge Ramsey and his career in public service but also honor the contributions of our seniors to the resilience of our communities.”
The South Berkeley Senior Center already provides services such as recreational activities and community partnerships, but the center aims to expand its focus on reaching low-income seniors, said Bartlett. Breathing new life into the center may also increase its popularity.
Eleanor Ramsey, the widow of the late judge, and president of Mason Tillman Associates, an Oakland consulting firm that did a study responding to allegations of racism in employment practices by the city of Berkeley in 2014, said her husband was a fierce champion for seniors when he was a councilman, from 1973 until 1977.
“For my husband [the construction of the Berkeley Senior Center] was one of his proudest accomplishments,” she said. “This grand plan came into being because there was a visionary who wanted to take seniors out of the basements of churches and integrate them into the city’s primary mission to create a more equitable environment for people of all backgrounds.”
The City Council voted unanimously April 4 in favor of renaming the South Berkeley Senior Center in honor of Ramsey and referred the issue to the Public Works Commission. There was not much debate about the initiative. After all, Ramsey had built a reputation as a seasoned prosecutor, a judge (Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him in 1981), a legal scholar, and a lifelong public servant. Much of his work was dedicated to the betterment of African-American communities, especially seniors.
Ramsey’s understanding of civil rights can be traced back to his childhood when he was raised in Jim Crow South Carolina, his days as a college student at UC Riverside, and later, as a student at Boalt Law School.
He got his start actively fighting for civil rights in March of 1965 while he was working as a deputy district attorney in Contra Costa County. Ramsey, then a father of two young children, was among millions of Americans who witnessed the violence unfolding in Selma, Alabama that came to be known, as “Bloody Sunday.”
Ramsey was appalled by the horrific images of arrests and beatings of non-violent demonstrators who attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery to demand that African Americans be allowed to register to vote. He soon found himself on a flight from San Francisco to Montgomery.
In his recollection of the march in his 2008 memoir, The Life Story of Henry Ramsey Jr., Ramsey recalled his arrest, alongside other demonstrators.
“The officer who arrested me chastised those in our group for singing so loud,” wrote Ramsey. “People immediately stopped singing and became silent as Hosea Williams began praying for the sick. Concern for all people, even the oppressors, was typical of the Selma protestors.”
As a member of the Berkeley City Council from 1973 until 1977, Ramsey was instrumental in the construction of three Berkeley senior centers.
“We lived at a time when the city did not prioritize the needs of seniors,” said Eleanor Ramsey. “It took a community of seniors to lobby the city and make [senior services] more equitable. For him this was an extension of his work and an achievement he’s truly proud of.”
During the time Ramsey spent in private practice, he represented a group of black police officers that sued the city of Richmond for discrimination.
In 1990, Ramsey became the dean of the Howard University School of Law. He served until 1996. During his tenure, he was remembered for leading a historic institution and staying true to its mission to educate and produce many of the country’s brightest students and skilled lawyers.
The location of the center in south Berkeley was once a segregated neighborhood, a product of zoning laws that prevented black families from owning homes in certain parts of the city.
The reopening of the center comes at a crucial time, with President Trump’s administration threatening to cut funding from social programs, including Meals on Wheels, a program that delivers meals to disabled and food-insecure seniors.
The potential social-service cuts place more pressure on Berkeley and other cities to address the growing needs of aging citizens.
“There is no denying the threats coming from the current administration to the wellbeing of those in need,” said Bartlett. “I worry especially about the people who rely on these resources facing massive cuts.”