The 1916-1917 Colored Directory: A Window into Oakland’s Vibrant Past

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Cover of the 1916-1917 directory
CGS is pleased to announce a new acquisition: a rare copy of the 1916-1917 Colored Directory of the Leading Cities of Northern California, which will be of special interest to genealogists researching African Americans in California.

The award-winning movie The Green Book, currently nominated for five Oscars, takes its name from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a directory of safe places for African Americans to eat and sleep when traveling in Jim Crow-era America. The Green Book was published from 1936 to 1966, and has been widely recognized for its significance in African American history. Less well known are the various “blue books” or social directories that were published in black communities throughout the country in the early 20th century to promote “race pride” and celebrate their achievements.

Charles F. Tilghman in 1916
One such publication was launched in Oakland, California, in 1915, when Charles F. Tilghman, then just 18 years old, set up a printing press in his home to produce a directory of African American residences, businesses, churches, and other organizations throughout northern California. It covered not only Oakland and its neighbors but cities as far north as Sacramento and as far south as Fresno and was liberally illustrated with photographs of notable citizens and important buildings.
Oakland resident Lorna Jones discovered this copy of the 1916-1917 Colored Directory at a yard sale years ago. “I knew it had value the moment I looked at it,” she says. She consulted her friend and fellow genealogist Electra Kimble Price. The two agreed that the book needed to be preserved and they offered the directory to CGS with the stipulation that it be made freely accessible online. “It’s not the only source for names and localities, but the historical value of it—the fact that people were collecting and putting out that information—makes it very important,” says Price. 

It is not clear if any copies survive of the first, 1915 edition. The database indicates the existence of just two other copies of the 1916-1917 directory: one at the African American Museum and Library at Oakland and one at the Allen County Public Library in Indiana. Allen County has a digitized version available on its website. CGS has made our copy downloadable as a high-quality PDF file which can be searched using OCR (optical character recognition).*

“A Block owned by our race” in Oakland
By the time Tilghman published his second Colored Directory it was considerably expanded: “from seventy-six pages it has grown to one hundred and forty,” the introduction boasts. It now represented “close to 10,000 Colored People” and had 119 illustrations of “Homes, Churches, Pastors, Women’s Clubs, Ranches, etc.” The 1916-1917 issue also reprints a letter of appreciation from Booker T. Washington, to whom Tilghman had sent a copy of the previous year’s directory. “I congratulate you most heartily upon issuing such a creditable publication,” wrote Washington, in a letter dated August 21, 1915 (less than three months before his death). “It contains a great deal of valuable information in addition to the Directory features. The section containing cuts of homes owned by colored people in that section is very creditably illustrated.”
Numerous private homes are pictured, with one page captioned, “A Block owned by our race, Oakland.” There are photographs of black churches and of the ministers who lead them. The Fresno section carries photos of several ranches, including the impressive “Country Home of Mr. C.E. Orr,” who “came to California in 1896, penniless, like most of our Southern people.”
The Pilkerton Ranch in Fresno
The directory gives insight into the concerns and interests of California’s black families: a “Lodges and Organizations” section enumerates various fraternal lodges as well as groups such as the West Indian Aid Association and the Negro Welfare League of California. There are women’s clubs dedicated to art, music, literacy, and “the uplift of humanity.” A full-page advertisement on p. 84 urges readers to “defeat the Liquor Traffic” by voting for two prohibition-related ballot measures.
Women and children of the
Mothers’ Charity Club

Perhaps most intriguing are the advertisements. (“Patronize the Firms that Boost Our Race,” the directory urges in its Advertisers Index). Some are straightforward, such as William Arthur Bigby, Sr., Cement Contractor. Some are colorful, like that of Medium Lena, Clairvoyant and Spiritualist: “I am the one that p[r]ophesied the big earthquake of April 18th, 1906.” Ads for grocers and milliners, saloons and funeral parlors, barbershops, candy stores, and financial institutions bear witness to a thriving community. Tilghman takes advantage of his role as editor by sprinkling advertisements for his printing business throughout.The Tilghman Press would continue to operate for another 60 years, becoming the most prominent black press on the West Coast.

The directory’s overall spirit of enthusiasm and optimism is expressed in the foreword:
The colored man’s prosperity in Northern California, certainly is more conspicuous to-day than ever before and clearly indicates possibilities that defy the most active human imagination to fully comprehend his final development.

In making this book available to the public we hope to illuminate a part of the vibrant history of African Americans in California.
*To download the file, go to our Databases page, scroll down to “Searchable Finding Aids Free to All,” and click on The Colored Directory of the Leading Cities of Northern California 1916-1917. Document may take a few minutes to download.

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