In 1973, Black Panther Party member Bobby Seale ran for mayor, and to the surprise of the white establishment, made a strong showing against incumbent John Reading. So in 1977, Lionel Wilson was seen as the “safer” candidate and was elected Oakland’s first Black mayor, serving until 1991. He ended up being more progressive than some had expected, but not progressive enough for others who wanted more change. Wilson had been a Superior Court judge, and he was also an accomplished athlete, pitching for the Oakland Larks of the West Coast Negro Baseball League in 1946.
But before Measure X was passed in 1998 changing Oakland to a “strong mayor” system, much of the power in the city rested with the city manager. Henry Gardner served as Oakland city manager from 1981 to 1993, seeing Oakland through the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and the 1991 Oakland Hills firestorm.
Turn away from the building and look at the large oak tree in the plaza, the Jack London Oak. Given some of the things Jack London wrote, you may think it odd to mention him on a Black history tour. But a lesser known fact about Jack is that his nursemaid and the woman responsible for much of his early upbringing was Jennie Prentiss, a woman who was born into slavery in Virginia. It was Prentiss who loaned Jack $300 to purchase his first boat, the Razzle Dazzle, and she introduced him to religion at her church, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. London donated $15,000 to her church, and later, remembered Prentiss in his will.