Most everyone seems to know about Berkeley in the 1960s. That was the decade when thousands demonstrated against the Vietnam War, people fought to transform an empty lot into People’s Park, tear gas and National Guard troops filled the streets, and a deputy with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office shot and killed a bystander.
But what about the 1970s? The events of that decade are not as well known as those of the 60s, but many significant things happened then, too. Berkeley became the first city in the U.S. to voluntarily desegregate its schools. Students of color at UC Berkeley went on strike to demand that the university create classes that taught Black, Chicano, Asian, and American Indian history and culture. Hippies and teens hung out in large numbers on Telegraph Avenue. The arts flourished, with The Keystone, a small nightclub that focused on experimental music, bringing in musicians like Jerry Garcia, The Talking Heads and The Ramones. Eleven Black women created The Rainbow Sign, a social club/performance space/restaurant/ and community center on what was then known as Grove Street.
Now anyone with an internet connection will have the opportunity to learn more about that era. Scott Saul, a UC Berkeley professor of American Studies, and the 11 students in his spring seminar, The Bay Area in the Seventies, have created an immersive website to highlight what Berkeley was like in the 1970s. Using a Word Press platform that was tailored to showcase primary documents, photographs, and text, The Berkeley Revolution: A Digital Archive of One City’s Transformation in the late 1960s and 1970s delves deeply into numerous aspects of the city. A person could spend hours reading articles about various movements and institutions and clicking through to look at old newspaper clippings, photos, diary entries, performance programs, fliers, videos and more.
“The website reveals the smaller stories, the lost stories, that are just as important as the standard narrative one hears about Berkeley and the 60s and 70s,” according to Michael J. Kramer, a visiting assistant professor of history at Northwestern University.
As part of the seminar, the students selected little-known aspects of Berkeley in the 1970s and set out to uncover those histories by finding original source materials. They scoured the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies library, the Bay Area TV Archive at San Francisco State, and the History Room of the Berkeley Public Library. They conducted oral histories with people who participated in the events, hunted through boxes in dusty basements, and read numerous issues of the Berkeley Gazette, Oakland Post, and Berkeley Barb.
The students uncovered many gems, some never seen in public before. The website has six mini-histories: about The Rainbow Sign, The Keystone, the women and girls of Telegraph Avenue, transgender people in Berkeley, Berkeley school desegregation, and the Third World liberation movement at UC Berkeley.
In the section about the women and girls of Telegraph Avenue, there are journal entries written by Jodi Mitchell, a young woman who ran away from her home in West Virginia to join the hippie life, only to find it presented challenges she never anticipated. In the section on transgender life, there is a pamphlet titled the “Social Register of the Transgendered World.” In the Rainbow Sign section, there is a 1974 menu. Liver and Onions with a side of soup and salad cost $3, while a cold baked ham sandwich was $1.60.
“I wanted to use the digital platform to dramatize the material,” said Saul, who created a similarly document-rich site to accompany his biography of Richard Pryor, called Richard Pryor’s Peoria. “This is an incredibly powerful way to seduce people to engage with primary sources, to travel into the past and really grapple with its strangeness and familiarity.”
Max Lopez, a senior majoring in American Studies and Tessa Rissacher, a senior majoring in English and Performance Studies, found the process of creating the Berkeley Revolution website so absorbing it changed their attitudes toward historical research, they said in a recent interview. The pair were partnered on the section that explores the Rainbow Sign, the nightclub/cultural center on Grove Street. When Lopez first heard about the place, he assumed that it would have been at odds with the programs being produced at the same time by the Black Panthers. He just assumed what the Panthers were doing was revolutionary and that the Rainbow Sign was more bourgeois, thus the clash.
“I was really sure there would be an oppositional relationship between Rainbow and the Black Panthers,” said Lopez. “There could be no way these things co-existed.”
The two started to dig into whatever they could find about the Rainbow Sign and soon they felt like detectives, hunting down rare material, talking to people and finding new sources to interview through those conversations. Their Eureka moment came when they interviewed the daughter of Mary Ann Pollar, the charismatic woman who had started the Rainbow Sign. Odette Pollar said she had a bunch of boxes in her basement of her mother’s left from that time and the students were welcome to look through them. Lopez and Rissacher spent a few hours going the boxes and bringing back programs, fliers, and photographs.
At first, all those primary documents were overwhelming, but that is what Saul intended. Most of the subjects on the website were obscure and poorly documented so there was no narrative for the students to follow. They had to examine each document, analyze it, and determine what it meant and where it fit in the chronology. It is not how UC Berkeley professors usually teach history.
“I wanted to get students to engage with primary sources,” said Saul. “Looking at the documents closely which ones are historically important? What do I get from it? How do I organize it?”
Lopez said examining the programs of the Rainbow Shop changed his mind about how it was aimed at the middle class and wasn’t revolutionary. Many amazing artists, writers, and singers came through, including Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Curtis Mayfield and many others.
“Mary Ann Pollar’s black cultural center served all kinds of people,” Lopez and Rissacher wrote on the site. “It became not only the locus for Bay Area intellectuals, artists and socialites, but fast became the place to be for visiting personages of national and international acclaim. TV and film stars, African dignitaries, politicians and radical artists all came to the Rainbow Sign.
Kramer, the history professor from Northwestern, lauded the site as a new form, and an important one, but not for the reasons Silicon Valley might think, he said. Most people associate digital as a fast way to consume information, but this website requires attention and patience, which should lead to a deeper understanding of the material.
“The digital doesn’t always smooth things out into a sleek flow, it doesn’t always “put information at your fingertips,” said Kramer in an email. “It provides access, but on Scott’s website, the access means not ease of getting to the stuff, though there is that; rather it’s how the website asks its makers and its readers to spend a bit of time with the material, and with the glosses and texts that begin to explain what it all means, moving around it, processing it, looking at it through different renderings (sequentially, by theme, by tags, etc.), in a multifaceted kind of way.