San Leandro begins debate on whether to honor city’s first African American councilmember

Former San Leandro Councilmember Surlene 
Grant served from 1998-2008.

SAN LEANDRO CITY COUNCIL
Near the end of former San Leandro Councilmember Ursula Reed‘s second term in office, she began exploring ways to honor her predecessor in District 2, Surlene Grant, the city’s first-ever African American councilmember.

Reed first proposed renaming Joaquin Plaza, a modest courtyard located on East 14th Street near Davis Street, after Grant, who was appointed to council in 1998 to replace incoming Mayor Shelia Young. Grant, who is still living, served 10 years on the City Council, including two successful campaigns for the seat.

But Reed’s proposed honor has kicked around the community for a year before the San Leandro City Council Rules Committee recommended Monday to name, either, a community room at City Hall after Grant or a portion of the roadway known as “the triangle” that connects Hesperian Boulevard, 150th Avenue and East 14th Street. The issue now heads to the city’s Library-Historical Commission for review before the full council can later weigh-in on the matter.

“We have a lot of people that will march, strike, petition, wear shirts, but we don’t have a lot of trailblazers and people who will stand in the front and get all of the hatred and nastiness,” Reed told the Rules Committee, in support of honoring Grant.

During Reed’s own run to succeed Grant in 2008, she recalled being spat on and called a racial slur while campaigning. “I can’t imagine what Surlene went through [10 years prior]. It had to be 20 times worse.”

In a time when racial injustice in America is a prime topic of conversation, along with San Leandro’s own past of virulent racism, particularly in the systemic redlining of housing available to African Americans that was pervasive through the 1970s, the time is right to highlight public figures like Grant, said many speakers at Monday morning’s meeting.

But critics of the proposals to honor Grant voice weariness about naming public structures after living people. In addition, some question whether Grant actually served with much distinction during her time in office.

“There’s heck of lot more people who deserve recognition before Surlene Grant,” said former San Leandro Mayor Tony Santos, who served on the council concurrently with Grant for eight years. “She pushed to have the Starbucks at Bay Fair redesigned,” said Santos, who struggled to point to Grant’s legislative accomplishments. “Maybe they can name the Starbucks after her?”

Councilmember Lee Thomas, a member of the rules committee and currently the only African American on the San Leandro City Council, said he is bothered by references to Grant being the first African American on the council. “There should be more to something than just being the first.”

He later added, being buoyed by a number of public speakers Monday who described Grant as a guiding force in fostering a sense of community in San Leandro, in addition, to her support for inclusionary housing polices and affordable housing. Thomas later offered naming a community room to “symbolizes Ms. Grant’s impact here at City Hall.”

San Leandro’s conversation also highlights the city’s lack of a specific process for honoring those who helped shape its history. Councilmember Pete Ballew said his constituents told him during a recent community town hall that many others also deserve recognition. Ballew, though, said merely naming a room after Grant won’t do her justice. “I’m not sure a community room used three days a week is sufficient.”

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