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A Matter of Race

San Ramon Mayor H. Abram Wilson talks about life as a black man in the largely white San Ramon Valley


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The world has come a long way since the segregation that characterized Mayor H. Abram Wilson’s birthplace in the pre–Civil Rights South. But being part of a 1.3-percent minority in the San Ramon Valley means that life here still has its challenges, including getting surprised looks because he’s educated, professional, and a leader in the community. Such challenges were among the reasons Wilson, a 30-year San Ramon resident, sat down to talk to Diablo about race relations in the valley.

I’ve heard stories about police in the San Ramon Valley randomly pulling over African American drivers. Has that happened to you?
Several times. Once, we were coming from a dance at the Diablo Country Club. This was in the late ’80s. I was with my wife and one of my colleagues and his wife. After the dance, I decided to show them downtown Danville. It was 1 or 1:30 in the morning. I noticed a police car following me. ... Just before we got to the Livery, we were pulled over. He said I was speeding. I said, “No, I wasn’t speeding.” And then he said, “Where were you people coming from?” “What do you mean, ‘you people?’ ” Here I was in my tux, and he was asking me, “Do you own this car?”

Were you arrested?
There was nothing to cite me for.
I was stopped and harassed. I think [the officer] was taken aback
that I was angry. I spoke to the [city manager] and police chief there, and sensitivity training was given to the police in Danville.

Do these things still happen?
It hasn’t happened to me in the last 10 years. But I’m constantly hearing from friends in the area, who are not as visible as me, who are being pulled over.

Last spring, you objected to rallies at California High organized for black and Latino students to get them pumped up about the state achievement tests. Why?
We’re a community, and we want all children to do well, not segregate out a few groups. There should have been an assembly to get all students excited about doing well, and then the school could have said, “We’re going to contact students on an individual basis who need special attention.”

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle several years ago, you mentioned an incident at school involving your son. What was that about?
Nathan was in kindergarten at Neil Armstrong Elementary. He was very bright and would finish his work, and he would be restless. [His teacher] called us and said, “I don’t know how to deal with him. He’s the first black child I’ve ever had.” It just caught me off guard.

You have helped develop a community among African Americans here. Could you talk about that?
We felt it was important to have a cultural identity, especially out here. My wife and other mothers formed the Contra Costa chapter of Jack and Jill of America Inc. [a national organization of black parents who promote their children’s social, educational, and cultural growth]. There were about 30 or 40 other mothers, and the parents were professionals: teachers, businesspeople, surgeons, doctors, dentists. We were the Cosbys.

Wasn’t The Cosby Show criticized for not reflecting “real” black life in America?
When people would say, “That isn’t the norm,” I would say, “What is the norm? There is no ‘norm’ in white America.”

How did the Jack and Jills give rise to the Diablo Black Men’s Group?
The group started after our children got out of the local schools. There was still that bond, and the guys wanted to get together to talk about anything, from business to the newest book to sports to just understanding who you are in the community.

What does the Black Men’s Group do?
We meet once a month for a breakfast meeting, have two or three events a year, and raise money to do positive things in the community. We donated a complete set of works by Dr. Martin Luther King to the Danville library. We also raise money for scholarships for black student leaders and provide mentoring to kids throughout the Bay Area. The group will also be organizing with other groups in the area to celebrate Black History Month.

What do your members have in common?
The majority of men in our group own their own companies or work for Chevron or AT&T. One is a pediatric neurosurgeon. But they know what it’s like to step outside a hotel and have someone ask you to call them a cab, or when you’re walking through a department store and someone comes up and asks, “Will you help me?”

Have you had any experiences like that?
Two or three years ago, I was speaking at Crow Canyon Country Club, and a woman walked up to the host, with whom I was talking, and said, “Oh, I’ve heard so much about the mayor of San Ramon, and I’ve come to hear him speak.” And the host said, “Well this is H. Abram Wilson,” and she looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re black!” … A lot of our friends have moved from Blackhawk, Danville, and San Ramon to the Oakland hills, because they want to be looked upon as individuals who have achieved, who have values, without being singled out as “oh, the black family.”

What do you think the controversy regarding comedian Michael Richards says about race relations in our country?
That prejudice is deep-seated and that it’s on both sides. We need to bring things out and talk about it, so we can move on.

In terms of race relations in this area, what still needs to be done?
As [San Ramon] becomes more diverse and this area becomes more diverse, we have to look at how we interact and how we deal with that—hopefully with an open mind.

The Diablo Black Men’s Group hosts Poetry & Music: A Black History Program on February 25 at the San Ramon Community Center. Contact Robert Bogle at (415) 267-5010 or visit www.dbmg.org .

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