Marin City Civic Leader C.J. Williams
By Carol Acquaviva
This is the second in a series of articles about Marin City.
Marin City was first a 1940s war housing community established to handle an influx of more than 2,100 workers and their families adjacent to liberty shipbuilding operations called Marinship. The project consisted of houses and apartments overseen by the Marin Housing Authority. “The community was racially integrated and the housing rented on a first-come, first-serve basis without regard to race,” writes historian Marilyn L. Geary in Marin City Memories.
Marinship, powered by 15,000 men and women, had ceased in 1946 a few months after the war officially ended. The critical housing shortage immediately following presented a challenge for those of modest income and an impossible uphill struggle for those who were denied opportunities because of their race. By the late 1950s, temporary housing in Marin City had yet to be dismantled. Discrimination meant that families were trapped from leaving what became in a few short years, dilapidated, neglected housing and service buildings, and a languishing economy. Meanwhile, other towns and cities in the county were flourishing and well-funded.
Marin City residents asked to delay the demolishing and avoid mass evictions while they petitioned for permanent, modern housing, either private developments or public, low cost housing. A group organized and requested, among other things, that there would be “an opposition of any discrimination or segregation by the housing authority in leasing or in treatment of tenants.” The need for expanded school and recreation facilities was spelled out in detail. In the meantime, broken and boarded up windows had become a common sight. A fight for what one observer called “decent maintenance” had rallied hundreds of residents during community meetings. The Marin City Tenants Council — established in 1943, less than a year after Marin City was built — insisted on a seat at the table during meetings with agencies like the County Housing Authority and the Planning Commission. Delay after delay of proposed revitalization left Marin City isolated.
“They wouldn’t sell to Blacks anywhere in the county. We just stayed in the old war housing. When the war was over, I guess people thought we’d go back to where we came from” — Flossie Berry (as quoted in Marin City Memories)
Finally in 1962, the first 59 of 600 new houses became available. The prefab housing was located on Drake Avenue between Pacheco and Eureka Streets and designed by architects DeMars and Reay and constructed by Barrett Homes Inc. The new homes sat on posts and were made of cheap material, with small rooms and no concrete foundation. Marin City resident C.J. Williams described them as “houses on telephone poles,” and said, “I’m not going to put my life savings into a telephone post house. I wouldn’t give a man $1,000 for one of them.” Williams wasn’t speaking in hyperbole: the posts had been sold off by the telephone company following the trend of placing wires underground. Another observer described these “shotgun houses”:
“I liked tree houses when I was a kid. I’m not a kid anymore. I’m a man. Now I would like a house built from the ground, not from a tree.”
The architects publicly responded by pointing out that the design tackled the issue of “building economically on steep hillsides without unduly scarring the existing slopes. … Running the poles to the roof line has eliminated the need for ugly X bracing in the under-house area which in many cases will serve as a carport.” The “unusual aspects of these designs will be considered virtues,” they explained.
C.J. Williams fought battles on behalf of Marin City, where he lived from 1943 until his death in 1972.
Williams was born in Texas where his cattle-ranching father sought additional work in a sawmill to support the family. When the Depression hit, Williams was in seventh grade, and he and most of his brothers and sisters quit school to help make ends meet. As World War II began, Williams was denied military service due to an eye condition. Given the choice between a defense job in Washington D.C. or a job at Marinship in sunny California, he chose the shipyard.
After the war ended, Williams stayed in Marin City and established a successful business: Marin City Cleaners at 64 Drake Boulevard. In the beginning, the cleaners became a de facto city hall, where people would drop by to discuss community problems and concerns. Williams relished this opportunity. “When I want to relax, I find someone to talk about Marin City and what’s going to become of it,” he said. Beyond his business skills, Williams had natural ability to lead and inspire others, a significant trait during the multitude of attempts, good and bad, by various levels of government to redevelop Marin City. Through conferences, committee meetings and active negotiations with County government, Williams represented his neighbors, fellow business owners, families and community groups through proposed redevelopment.
In 1949, Williams became a member of the Marin City Council, a position he kept the rest of his life. He served as president of the Marin Urban Development Association, a citizen group which aimed to become the community’s official developer after the California Development Company failed in their efforts to complete redevelopment of Marin City. Williams was also the Director of the Marin City Community Services District. He sat on the Marin Tenants Council. He was treasurer of the Marin County Branch of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In November 1955, Williams represented the NAACP as a delegate from Marin City, during a protest in San Francisco following the brutal slaying of 14 year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.
He took on the federal government, the County of Marin, and the County’s Redevelopment Agency and Housing Authority, whose meetings he regularly attended for years. When the Redevelopment Agency held meetings outside of Marin City (In 1971, for example, the agency gathered for a dinner “work session” at the Windjammer restaurant in Tiburon.), Williams spoke up: “When the redevelopment of our community is discussed outside the community, the residents have no voice in what happens and don’t know what is going on.” Throughout his three decades in Marin City, he led the fight against any group or individual preventing his community from being locally-controlled.
In 1969, Williams directed a two-year, $75,000 planning study program which aimed to set a course for Marin City’s economic future. “We are not going to give this all up without a fight. [Bureaucrats] are always promising us things…but they never do anything,” he said. After an August 1969 meeting where outsiders offered ideas for the community, Williams said, “There have been nine million proposals. I want to see some action…. I’m sick of people selling us things we don’t want.” Another attendee expressed frustration. “We’re tired of experiments. We need something concrete. We have been exploited, over-exploited, and need something tangible.
In a 1972 interview shortly before he died, Williams was asked to look back at the years he spent advocating for Marin City. He said he had the feeling that “the county was trying to create a ghetto here, a convenient place to put all the Black people in Marin County” since it did not want to rent or sell to them. The racial prejudice that played a significant part in the failures to develop Marin City after Marinship left was still very much a factor. “I don’t think they want a base of Negro power here,” Williams said. “I think they are hoping the Negroes will give up the fight and become dissatisfied and move away, so this valuable land can be developed along the lines the county wants.”