West Coast blues flourished in long-gone Russell City, west of Hayward

Do you know how to get to Russell City? Do you know where to find it on a map in the East Bay?

Even if you grew up in the Bay Area, chances are you may never have heard of the rural community that was located in Alameda County, on what is now the western shores of Hayward. Russell City has a musical past and fascinating history. It is where some of the greatest music legends of the 20th century performed in the East Bay - before the unincorporated town was literally wiped off the map.

Blues legends, like Big Momma Thornton, the woman who wrote the song "You Ain't Nothing But a Hound Dog," popularized by Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and Etta James stopped to play Russell City's clubs whenever they toured the West Coast.

"Russell City was a place all the artists respected," said Ronnie Stewart, executive director and founder of the West Coast Blues Society. Stewart is the organizer and founder of the Russell City Blues Festival that happens in Hayward every summer. 

"Russell City, Los Angeles, Oakland, Richmond are the major cities that created the sound that became known as 'West Coast blues,'" he said. 

In Alameda County, after World War II, Russell City was an unincorporated town of about 1,400 people.

"Large numbers of African Americans migrated from the south, they came for job opportunities in the Bay Area," said Maria Ochoa, San Jose State University professor emerita of social sciences. 

Ochoa wrote a book about Russell City. Because of segregation and title restrictions in the Bay Area at the time, Ochoa said, most of Russell City's residents were African American and Latino. Title restrictions and racial covenants specifically prohibited people of different races and ethnicities from buying homes in specific areas. The Supreme Court outlawed those covenants in 1948, but racial “steering” to specific neighborhoods continued for decades afterwards. 

"Since they weren't permitted to rent or buy housing in larger communities, they were steered to other areas, Russell city being one of them," Ochoa said.  "People [In Russell City] had no infrastructure. They had electricity if they hooked up to car batteries. They had water because there was well water."

Only three of the town's 12 square blocks were paved, and most of the homes in Russell City in the post-war period had outhouses and limited indoor plumbing.

But what the town lacked in wealth, it made up for in cultural riches and entrepreneurial spirit.

The community built its own school and there were seven different churches in town. Small nightclubs like "The Country Club" and "Miss Alves" hosted music legends.

Stewart named some of the famous musicians who performed at those modest venues:

"Bobby Forte, one of the greatest saxophone players, as well as Lowell Folsom," he said. "Ray Charles used to play here on his beat up old piano, Etta James used to come out here. They had to come here and really learn their craft."

Stewart explained that many of the performers would come to Russell City to try out new material, before going on to perform the next night in larger venues in West Oakland.

"Without our past, we have no future," said Stewart. "I tell the youth when we do blues in schools, the music they listen to, the roots of it, are right here in places like Russell City and West Oakland."

If you come to Alameda County, looking for Russell City now, you won't find it. 

In 1964, the city of Hayward incorporated the land, tore down the town, and built an industrial park.

"They changed every street name, it was basically cultural genocide," Stewart said. The town’s main thoroughfare, Russell Street was renamed to West Winton Avenue.

Ochoa agreed with Stewart's assessment: "They just totally erased all vestiges of the people who lived there," she said.

A mural in Downtown Hayward is the only visual reminder of the town's vibrant past - music and musicians are its focal point.

Sam Nava was born and raised in Russell City. The town was demolished when he was 23 years old. 

"It was a great bunch of people," Nava said, speaking of the sense of camaraderie among the town's residents and their valiant efforts, ultimately unsuccessful in the end, to keep Hayward from incorporating the land. 

"They would help each other out, they would stick together," Nava said of Russell City’s residents.

Even though the town itself is gone, Nava and other past residents have worked hard to keep the memory of Russell City alive.

Every summer, for the past forty years, they reunite for a BBQ at Kennedy Park in Hayward the week after Labor Day.

One of the heart-warming reunions was filmed as part of a Documentary project, called "Russell City" filmed in 2008 by a production company called "Past and Present Media".

Nava recalls the reunions fondly, and has a collection of hundreds of photos on poster boards, showing smiling, former residents embracing at past reunions.  

"To see the warmth and the hugs," he said. "'Cuz color didn't mean nothin'. You can't buy that," he said of the fond memories.

To the people who remember and appreciate Russell City, the town may be lost to the maps, but it is still found in their memories of the place they used to call home, and in the musical legacy the community left behind.