Black History: View from Below
(Burrowing Owl Update Below)
Yesterday I featured architect, author, and environmental justice leader Carl Anthony. In his position as head of a consulting firm and then chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission, Anthony viewed Chavez Park from a position of some superiority and authority. Today’s Black History contribution comes from below, literally. For more than twenty years, today’s park was the city dump. Trucks would back up to the edge of a cliff and release their contents into a pit. Down in that pit worked an African American family who made their living by sorting through the dumped material for items of value. Through luck and perseverance I managed to locate one of the survivors of that family, Marge Ellis of Oakland. In an interview at her home, she told me what that life was like. Here is a video excerpt of our talk. A transcript is below the video.
My mother actually, she was always the trainer, the negotiator not only with other races, but she also set up a work program so that my brother and all the others would know what to do, and keep the scheduling and actually to sort of maintain the property and keep the rules that had to be enforced daily.
Because she had two grown sons and they were willing to do the same kind of work because they were veterans but they were kind of like blackballed from doing the kinds of things they were equipped to do, and so this was all they had going for them, you know, their strength, for the labor. And that’s why we went to Berkeley Landfill.
That’s why I was recruited. Although I didn’t have a college education. Because of all the books that I was reading and I was self-educated. So therefore we really adhered to the contract that was given us, what we had to do. Like, we couldn’t have shelter, permanent shelter there, regardless of the storm, and it was a seven day a week program. You can imagine the weather from 1963 through 86, and there was never a permanent shelter for any employee at the dump site itself.
What we did was, we were glad to just have a foot in the door, and so we performed the services, the labor, without any funds coming from the owners or management. The way that the payments were is that after hiring all the laborers that were needed — there were a lot of laborers, oh my God, you had to have somebody to actually sweep that bank, you never knew when somebody was going to come out and inspect, so sweep that bank. About vehicles, you had to park the vehicles, you had to make sure that there was nothing there for anyone to have a flat, or an accident, or all that kind of thing. It was just really something. So I ended up hiring ex felons, hiring strangers, I hired — you know, this is what I was taught by my mother, all these kinds of things, you would learn to do this, and at the end of the day, you would pay them. You know, you would have to have their money, whether you made it or not, and so I had learned — by the time Mother turned it over to somebody, she could always pay at least four, which meant 25 dollars each, to each laborer, and pay them that when they left at the end of the day. Whether she sold anything or not, she paid them their 25 dollars a day. Out of her own pocket. My family was never reimbursed, never, for anything out of that Berkeley landfill.
We were actually sort of like, I just want to call it some kind of bartering, if you want to say that. We were just glad, as I said before, to be able to be there, to be sort of like the waitress, to be able to get the tips, the things that we could learn to recycle — the City didn’t have the word — and refurbish — didn’t have a word ….
We created all of that, and everything, because we would go out there and sort everything. I mean you know my mother taught us how to sort. You know, the copper from the brass from the iron, and where to sell it. I think it was Stinson, selling the metal, but if they went down, she would check the prices, we would go to the other one, Levels or whatever. And the thing of it is she taught my brother mechanics, and she could read the books, she would help him with it. They ended up fixing the tractors, helping the people who were mechanicking on the tractors. It was sort of like a self help tutorial program to keep us sort of like in the system, keep us with just the bare necessities.
But it did do this, it took care of my brothers’ family, both of them, it took care of my family, it took care of my sister’s family, you know …. And actually we had one daughter that went to UCLA at the time, and my mother at the end of the week would give me fifty dollars to send to her.
And the way I received the wage is that when I went there — “OK Margie you know so much, so what you salvage, you sell at the Alameda flea market.” I would be at the Alameda flea market at 6 every time, on the weekend … and at 7:45 everything would be packed and I would be in Berkeley at the landfill at 8 o’clock. I never was late. I made a salary way more than my mother and my brother made. I mean it’s the kind of thing where you just live within your means, that’s what we did at the Berkeley dump.
This was in the sixties so I was in my twenties. Mother would get all these beautiful clothes. She needed help. So I needed help too. In ‘63 I had five kids. So I went out there to kind of like make ends meet and to support my mother. So that’s how I ended up out there. Sometimes I would make 300 dollars, but I had to pay four people out of it.
And then again Mother taught us how to price everything. She taught us about the lumber, you know, the people would just come and we would some kind of way hide redwood enough for the person who bought it, and then she would tell us to get the number and we would call somebody and we’d say, “We got a load of redwood,” and they would come and get it before 5 because they knew they had to do it. The same with the big stainless steel equipment for the kitchen, we got contacts. But then Mother did all this. I could really [inaudible]. The antiques, she would say this is valuable, and she would say, you take it to the flea market. But with everything else she would help us keep the price range going because she know what people were paying for it more. She read just as much as I did. So we appreciated the work, because we did know how people were treated in other areas, Mother being from Mississippi where she got her education and I’m being from Texas where I was married.
In other words, people just would not go to the dump, they considered it just like everybody else, a low class job.
We lived through all of this. You know, the garbage trucks, because this is what I’m saying, because we at the time, the family was doing all these things, people were learning to do this themselves. People were not recycling plastics, they were not recycling aluminum, they were not saving it, and so the families out there, they seen us do this, you know, and some did wear gloves, but not that many. We were there, the Lord just took care of us because we were working hard.
We were just naive and ignorant enough to really make it. We were never ill. I can’t ever remember somebody saying “I got the flu.” Never. I mean, things happened, don’t get me wrong, but it was never any kind of medical issue like that. From being out there amongst everything known to man. I mean that. I saw every chemical — even when I couldn’t read it, I knew it shouldn’t have been out there. What’s covered out there. But they need to cover all of that. You talking about the Brown Act, they need to cover all of that. That’s one of the worst chemical sites in the world. I don’t know why I’m still sitting here, just to sit here and tell you this, I guess. But the point of it is, it’s really something, the way that Berkeley — and they didn’t even start until way late, almost the eighties, or seventies or eighties, when they were concerned about chemicals, and by that time they had dumped everything … But this is why you have to really hope and pray that whatever project they do they cover it if it’s gonna involve children and water pipes …
But I been talking all this negative stuff, let me tell you something about positive. We got a chance to see the boats. It’s the most breathtaking view. The landscape and the water, everything just beautiful. From this dumpsite, and here we working.
We could have been under the other people, but by that time we were just doing what we were supposed to be doing. And as long as we didn’t do anything wrong or leaving something up or forget something, people didn’t bother us. Because they knew that it could be worse. They knew they would have to be paying overtime and all that.
They kept having fires. We were supposed to be gone by six o’clock. The chemicals, all these toxics underground, I’m trying to tell you. Everything known to man is in there. I’m a witness, I know that. I mean I may not be a scientist, I may not be a chemist, but I saw sights that you see in a nuclear bomb going up. How things turn to smoke, it just keep doing it, I don’t know how long….
And then they needed always at least three people to load a truck. They had to load those trucks, and if they weren’t there I had to help load those trucks. That’s how I got this here. I built up the muscles to do it, I could do it at that time, I didn’t feel it then. I thank God for the exercise that I did, before all the body building, because it did good for my family and its background and everything. My mother always said that she was a real Amazon from Africa.
And I just have to tell you the story about my most precious — and how I give away stuff. At the time because we been gone for so long I knew that I was going to have problems with my children. My son had gone to Juvenile Hall, the oldest one. And I was just so concerned, even after getting off work I’d have to go down there and try to see him. I was in Berkeley and I had found all these comic books, and I said oh my God the kids will love these, and I said if they will just allow my child to read one, I will be so happy. .So I took all these comic books, and I went through them, I knew what I was doing, cause I’m from Texas, I had read them all anyway. Number one Superman, number one Hopalong Cassidy, number one this, number one that — there was about 40 of them. I took those books to Juvenile Hall. That weekend — this had to be like a Thursday or Friday — that weekend on the Johnny Carson show on TV, Superman, I think it was 150 thousand or something like that. I thought, Oh, I got that book. Oh, I took it to Juvenile Hall. I went the next day before 8 o’clock. It was not a book at that Juvenile Hall. Somebody went on with all of them. They wanted to make sure they didn’t miss any. It was not a book. I said who’s going to bring the children something to read. I got to bring some more books for them. What can I say? I did it.
That’s not the only treasure that I gave away. And then there were — the University, of California, there in Berkeley. It was such a connection between my mother and I, not my brothers, my mother and I, with the students. My mother would allow them to come and talk with me too. Because they usually flock to someone older. And so they started coming, even after my mother got sick and couldn’t come, they would come to me. I knew what was going on at that university more than I knew anything else. And this is the way they subsidized their education, those who were in those real classes where they couldn’t hold a job, they had to go back to class, they’d come out there and get something that was really antique old and I’d tell them, you go and research it, this’ll pay for this and that, and I’d let them have it. They’d … bring me something. What I’m saying to you, I can remember even the one couple that ended up becoming lawyers, they used to talk to me, and they told me how they were claiming a cat for a dependent.
And people, they prided themselves on being thankful. They couldn’t anybody say that they — . Cause you know, these people owned shops, they owned businesses, and they went business doing this. We had what we called the doll lady, she came and got her little antique dolls, and redid them … It was from dolls to lumber, and from lumber to metals, different metals. People had a thing about just antiques, they were just going crazy at that time….
Burrowing Owl Update
The Burrowing Owl in Cesar Chavez Park appears to be gone for the season. It was last seen on Sunday morning Feb. 19. By late that afternoon it was absent from its usual perches. It could not be seen Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or this morning. All who have come to love it wish it a safe and speedy trip back to its breeding territory and much luck making owl babies like the ones that the New York Times showed in its story two weeks ago. Unless the bird unexpectedly returns here, this will be the last Burrowing Owl Update for this season. A video review of the season will appear shortly. We look forward to seeing an owl or owls this fall.
6 thoughts on “Black History: View from Below”
Mother Ellis! That was a wonderful story. Thank you for sharing.
Extraordinary interview with Ms. Ellis. Thank you!
What a lovely interview. Thanks for taking the time to interview Marge Ellis, who really filled in gaps of our understanding of the beginning of our wonderful Chavez Park. Am glad she was able to sustain herself and her family in this very difficult job she took on.
Thank you for all your loyal, daily reporting on our visiting owl this winter! It was so appreciated.
An important contribution to honor Black History Month and to better understand the history of Chavez Park!
What a marvelous story and what a great person she is. Totally magnificent! A wonderful post. Will share it with many.