The Tulsa Race Massacre’s 100th anniversary was remembered in June, a shocking, sad event in U.S. history.
The massacre took place in that Oklahoma city over 18 hours from May 31 to June 1, 1921. A white mob attacked Black Tulsans living in the Greenwood neighborhood, part of which was known as the Black Wall Street for its prosperity. In the end, more than 1,200 homes were set on fire, and historians have put the death toll at 300. The spark that set off the rampage — an allegation that a young Black man had sexually assaulted a white woman in an elevator — was ultimately shown to be wrong, and he was let go without charges.
As the anniversary was marked this year, Tulsa’s mayor did something his predecessors had not: He apologized for the massacre and the failure of the city to help its Black residents.
Fresno has not seen that kind of physical violence directed at its west Fresno community. But there is no doubt that Black, Latino and Asian Fresnans living there have been hurt by city leaders’ decisions over the years.
West Fresnans have suffered from decades of segregation. They have been hindered by the race-based home-loan practices of redlining and deed restrictions; by city leaders who paid attention to improving north Fresno while ignoring the south and west sides of the city; and by the ill effects of highway construction that effectively walled off their part of town.
“I have been thinking about Fresno and the (Tulsa) massacre,” Mary Curry, a longtime west Fresno resident and Black activist, said recently when asked about the anniversary. “It’s like we have a massacre going on all the time, just at a smaller level and not as noticeable.”
What was once a healthy community has deteriorated into a place of low home ownership, high poverty and unemployment, and lack of basic services that other Fresnans take for granted.
That west Fresno is worse off than the rest of the city is indisputable. On a range of metrics — from economic well-being to physical health to the environment — west Fresnans are poorer and sicker than residents elsewhere in the city, and west Fresnans live in one of California’s most polluted neighborhoods, surrounded by industry, freeways and rail lines.
A national survey ranked west Fresno as one of the worst places in America for a Black person to live in. It is the only community in the West with such a rating.
In the 1870s Fresno grew outward from a rail station that had been established in what is today’s downtown. In a town meeting, white residents agreed to not sell or trade any land east of the railroad tracks to anyone who was Chinese. The irony was that Chinese laborers constructed those rail lines. Segregating west Fresno had begun.
In the 1930s, during the New Deal recovery from the Great Depression, the federal Home Owners Loan Corp. created color-coded maps to show the best places to lend to prospective buyers. Areas deemed to be high risk were shaded red, hence “redlining.” West Fresno, with its concentration then of Black and Latino residents, was such a place of a “lower grade population,” in the words of a field agent for the agency.
Redlining and deeds with restrictions on who could buy homes impacted a host of people — from Blacks and Latinos to Asians and Armenians.
Construction of state highways created new barriers.
In the 1950s and ‘60s Highway 99 was built through Fresno. The result was to effectively cut off the west side from downtown and the rest of the city. Businesses, churches and homes in the path of the highway were either closed down or had to be relocated. A former member of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors called Highway 99 “Fresno’s Berlin Wall.”
More dislocation occurred in the 1980s when Highway 41 was made into a freeway through Fresno. More homes and businesses were displaced.
All the while, the push was on to expand Fresno north and east, driven by developer interests.
West Fresno, with a population of 40,586 in 2019, today has just one supermarket and one pharmacy. The retail base of shops is woefully small — almost all the stores are in one shopping center, Kearney Palms, at Fresno Street and Highway 99.
But the west and south sides of Fresno are where much of the city’s industry and warehouse operations have been directed by city policies over the years. As a result of the heavy machinery, diesel trucks and freight trains, the air there is dirtier than elsewhere in Fresno and Clovis — a region that, as a whole, has some of the worst air quality in the nation.
The most recent CalEnviro Screen pollution mapping shows the census tracts in west Fresno score at the 98th percentile or higher — some of them at 100. That means they are more polluted than 98% of census tracts in California.
West Fresno does not have enough trees, according to the nonprofit conversation group American Forests. Trees would help blunt the effects of pollution and increase cooling.
Life expectancy in West Fresno is more than 20 years lower than in northeast Fresno, according to a 2012 study done by a team of researchers including the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State.
In another measure of health, Black infant mortality and preterm births are significantly higher in west Fresno than for the county overall.
When it comes to income, west Fresnans lag well behind residents elsewhere in the city.
In 2019, the median annual household income in west Fresno was $32,325. In the city overall, it was $53,161. The poverty rate for families in west Fresno in 2019 was 37.3% vs. 19.1% for all of Fresno. Unemployment in west Fresno stood at 12.2% in 2019, vs. 8.2% in the city overall.
When it comes to owning a home, only 25% of Blacks in Fresno can afford to do that, according to the city.
All together, the poor quality of life affects residents in countless ways, said Debbie Darden, chair of the Golden Westside Planning Committee. “You become the product of your environment.”
Dyer’s ‘one Fresno’
Mayor Jerry Dyer’s campaign slogan last year was “One Fresno.” The website of his One Fresno Foundation states that “everyone deserves equitable opportunities to thrive in Fresno.”
As history and current data show, it will take more than wishful thoughts for west Fresno to emerge from the dark shadow it has been in for so long. But gracious words are a start. One has to only look at Tulsa for evidence.
On May 31, 100 years to the day the Tulsa Race Massacre started, current Mayor G.T. Bynum said these words:
“As the mayor of Tulsa, I apologize for the city government’s failure to protect our community in 1921 and to do right by the victims of the race massacre in its aftermath,” he said in a video posted to his Facebook page.
Amber Crowell, sociology professor at Fresno State who specializes in housing issues, sees value in such an apology.
“To have the mayor acknowledge the very deeply settled feelings of west Fresno that they have been left out, ignored and their voices drowned out — to even acknowledge what they are going through — would be symbolically powerful.”
Mary Curry has lived in west Fresno since 1956. Now 90, she has spent countless hours of civic activism over many years trying to improve conditions in her corner of the city, especially for the Black community.
“Folks should not have to fight a lifetime to have the things others take for granted,” Curry said.
On behalf of city leadership through the decades, Dyer should issue a formal apology to the Black, Latino and Asian people of west Fresno. It is 2021, and well past time for Fresno to acknowledge the mistreatment of that part of the city.
Toward the future, he and the City Council should aggressively work to advance the neighborhood’s quality of life toward what other parts of the city enjoy.
Make one Fresno more than an ideal — make it real.