In May of 1924, the same year an equestrian statue depicting Confederate general Robert E. Lee on a horse was dedicated in Charlottesville, Virginia, a mob of 500 angry white people massed outside the home of the only Black resident in the East Bay city of Piedmont.
What happened next is the story behind a new public memorial the city is commissioning this year. It is meant to acknowledge the city’s history of racially motivated discrimination and condemn the pain and suffering it caused to Sidney Dearing, as well as celebrate his life and family.
Dearing was a descendent of native Seminoles, a tribe that was dispersed after the frontier wars and migrated across the Gulf of Mexico. His life began in Texas, but he was ambitious and moved to California. He opened a successful jazz club, the Creole Cafe, on Oakland’s Seventh Avenue, and took a bride named Irene. They had two children, a girl and a boy. One journalist described Sidney as well-educated.
In 1924, he decided to buy a home for $10,000 at 67 Wildwood Ave. in a Piedmont neighborhood full of beautiful architecture and floral gardens, with open views of the Bay at sunset.
But on a map kept by the city, Wildwood Avenue was behind a red line that indicated an area where Black people didn’t buy homes. It was purchased instead by his mother-in-law, who was white. She then signed over the property to her Black daughter and Black Native son-in-law.
The angry crowd that appeared at their doorstep at 8 p.m. on May 6, 1924 had come to demonstrate that the whole neighborhood wanted them to relinquish their property and vacate the city. In reports of the event, there was no mention of the presence of the city’s police chief, Burton Becker, who was an open member of the Ku Klux Klan. It wasn’t the first threat, according to Dearing’s great-granddaughter Jordana Jiltonilro.
“My grandmother had told me about them throwing bricks through the window, burning crosses on the lawn, throwing bombs under the foundation, and they kept trying to scare them away,” said Jiltonilro.
It hurt to grow up here and not know this story.Meghan Bennett
According to newspaper accounts from the time, Dearing sent his wife and children away to sleep safely with an Oakland relative. He hired Black security guards with rifles. The situation was getting publicity all over the West, from Ogden, Utah to Humboldt County.
“I have not been persuaded to move,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I intend to remain right here in possession of my own property.”
Dearing eventually gave in and moved. He offered to sell the house to the city for $25,000. They paid him $10,000. Dearing passed away alone in 1953 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Martinez. The coroner noted on his death certificate, “I believe his last known residence was a long-term hotel like living situation above Scotty’s Cafe,” a business in Oakland.
The painful story of Dearing was placed in archives and rested on library shelves for generations.
In 2019, during the COVID-19 crisis, Piedmont native Meghan Bennett, now 43, spent her long lockdown hours at the Oakland Public Library and the University of California Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. She pieced together the history of the Dearings with clippings and public records.
“It hurt to grow up here and not know this story,” she said. Bennett had quietly been researching the city for 20 years looking for nuggets of Black history. “I just never understood why the demographics of Piedmont were the way they were, if something perpetuated this or some systemic injustice had happened.”
According to the U.S. Census, the Black population in Piedmont is 1.4 percent, compared to 22 percent in Oakland.
Today, Bennett is earning a master’s degree in library science, but in 2020, her research rose to a greater historic significance.
“It was during Black Lives Matter,” she said. “I was a little frustrated that a lot of people were protesting, but they didn’t know the history of the city. And my husband turned to me and said make a website!”
On June 6, 2020, Bennett published all her research online in a site she titled sidneydearing.com. It got attention with articles in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2021 and the New York Times and Piedmont Exedra in 2022.
“Meghan’s work bringing this story to light was instrumental in the city’s recognition of the need to memorialize Sidney and Irene Dearing,” said the city’s spokesperson Echa Schneider. “Until she surfaced this information, most Piedmonters did not even know that these events had taken place.”
“We must listen to those who have endured centuries of discrimination and exclusion as they share the truth of their lived experiences; and we must seek solutions to remedy racial harm.”Piedmont City’s resolution on Unequivocal Rejection of Racism
Bennett said that now Piedmont Police Chief Jeremy Bowers uses her website to train his staff on the history of the Dearings because he didn’t know there was a KKK police chief in Piedmont. In August 2020, the City Council adopted a resolution to unequivocally reject racism in all its forms.
“We must listen to those who have endured centuries of discrimination and exclusion as they share the truth of their lived experiences; and we must seek solutions to remedy racial harm,” the resolution said.
Beginning in 2022, the city started working with Dearing’s family members and other stakeholders, including Bennett as a research reference, to establish a memorial on a triangular piece of land in front of the house. To start the process, $70,000 from the city’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion budget was dedicated to launch the design process.
“Honestly, it’s been amazing,” Bennett said. “The City Council pushed for this and so did the Parks Department. I’m very impressed at how well the city has come together.”
The criterion for the work is fourfold — it must honor both Sidney and Irene Dearing; it has to be visible from the street; it must teach something about their lives outside of the tragedy as well as acknowledge it; and it must be created by a Black designer.
Hood’s artistry for lasting history
On Tuesday, the memorial’s designer was announced.
Walter Hood is a Black landscape architect who runs Hood Design, an Oakland firm that creates public art. Chair of the department of landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC Berkeley, he has exhibited worldwide and has received several awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship.
His team creates architecturally scaled sculptures with didactic elements and installs them in landscapes significant to African American history. He did an installation at the then-named Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy at Princeton University and designed the African Ancestors Memorial Garden on the site of an historic slave port in Charleston, South Carolina.
On Tuesday, Hood accepted the commission with an introductory lecture, a survey of his work in the Alan Harvey Theater at Piedmont High School, where Bennett graduated in 1998.
Bennett said she was just hoping that her letter-writing campaign might bring a historic plaque to the site.
“So, to have this amazing person design it, I was just blown away by how amazing his work is and how it integrates with history now,” she said, thinking of the stories she learned about Dearing. “I also wanted to tell the story about Dearing’s business, the Creole Cafe, and jazz in Oakland. There’s a lot that we missed out by not having Sidney appearing in our community.”