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

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

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.”

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

  1. By MW:

    Related to the post of 2:36PM.

    Back in the 1970's when Richard Nixon was president, his daughter Tricia was made a member of some Board or Commission.

    NOTE: This was over forty years ago, and I do not remember which Board or Commission it was, and except for the fact that most people felt she knew absolutely nothing about the subject that Board or Commission dealt with. And when someone then sarcastically asked what qualifications she had to deal with that subject and to be a member of that Board, the person who answered the question decided to give the ultimate in left handed compliments by stating “TRICIA THINKS KIND THOUGHTS.”


  2. This is the equivalent of the participation awards they give kids now a days for just showing up
    When I heard about I asked some former council people what was Surlene's greatest accomplishment while serving and they couldn't think of one


  3. By MW:

    If we are gong to continue the trend, and which started a few decades ago, of naming buildings, roads, and bridges, etc, etc, etc, after living people, and rather than only after those who are deceased, since some of our local politicians, and in their “wisdom,” have repeatedly taken the position that the sites of medical marijuana clinics will not become magnets for crime, AND THAT IS REGARDLESS OF HOW MANY ROBBERIES, SHOOTINGS, AND MURDERS REPEATEDLY AND CONSTANTLY OCCUR AT AND NEAR MEDICAL MARIJUANA CLINICS, therefore I suggest we start naming some of our local cemeteries in honor of some of the “wonderful” local political hacks who have chosen to infest our communities with pot dispensaries.

    And since increasing the number of pot dispensaries in Alameda County increases the number of murders in our area, I also suggest that all local cemeteries and funeral parlors be required to pay a special tax that will pay the salaries of those “wonderful” members of the AC Board of Supervisors who voted in favor of our county being infested with pot dispensaries.


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