El Cerrito centennial celebration honors African American legends

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by Brenda McCuistion

The city of El Cerrito celebrates 100 years (1917 – 2017) and esteems African American pioneers.  On Saturday, Aug. 26, the celebration began with Special Guest Speaker, Belva Davis.  Belva, pioneer African-American television journalist and broadcaster chose El Cerrito to buy the first family home after migrating from Louisiana.  She was the first African-American woman hired as a television news reporter in the western United States.

A Wall of Fame displayed pictures of several pioneers and their unique contributions to the El Cerrito community.  William D Martin & Ermestine Martin were real estate tycoons.  Together, they developed one of the most successful real estate development agencies in the bay area. Martin’s Realty was the first African American owned and operated real estate business established 1962 in El Cerrito.

Dr. Russell and Melva Harrison began building their home in 1959 to accommodate their five children. El Cerrito had restrictive covenants prohibiting African Americans from purchasing land in El Cerrito.  Fortunately for them, a more enlightened Jewish man attending Letterman’s Medical School/Residency with Russell acted as the “straw man.” Their home was designed and built exclusively by African American Men.  

In 1968, Jean Mitchell opened the first African-American beauty salon in El Cerrito.  Jean trained others to come into the beauty industry.  Beauty operators worked side by side with her.  In response to one of the beauty operators losing her life to cancer, the salon worked a 24-hour marathon.  All of the proceeds were donated to the Cancer Society.

Emmett McCuistion taught at Portola Jr and Kennedy Sr. high schools.  He opened his Auto Mechanics shop at the school site on Saturdays to encourage students to work on cars and keep them off of the streets.  Lois McCuistion co-authored the eighth-grade math book that was used to teach junior high school students.  Passionate about education, both left imprints on the lives of junior and high school students they served.

Dr. and Mrs. Samuel Weeks purchase two lots in the hills of El Cerrito above Arlington Blvd in 1955. In 1956, they, along with their five children, Theresa, Sam, Virgil, Hubert and Alan, moved to El Cerrito and Dr. Weeks opened his medical practice in Richmond, CA.  Their children were the first African Americans to integrate Mira Vista elementary school. Dr. Weeks was the first African American physician in Richmond and practiced medicine there for forty years.

Honorable Charles Edward Wilson and Lucy Wilson, along with the City of El Cerrito, initiated and established the city’s Human Relations Commission.  Their influence motivated the City and commission to recognize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday an official city holiday.  Although the federal holiday was passed in 1989, the first holiday was observed in the City of El Cerrito in 1993.

Keynote speaker, Regina Mason, described her journey that led her to one of her ancestors, William Grimes, a runaway slave.  The program also featured recording artist, Da Michanic and ended with soul food tasting to delight one’s taste buds that instigated delicious conversations in fellowship with others.

City of El Cerrito, NAACP, St Peter CME Church, Law office of Mister Phillips and One Hitter Entertainment sponsored the event.

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