The BART train whirrs by, leaving MacArthur station as cars exit the freeway. Nobody notices the bit of history below.
Under the train tracks at the speedway intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and 58th Street in North Oakland is a salmon-colored building spanning the length of five blocks. It is the original site of Merritt College, where the Black Panthers met for the first time. Prominent leaders like Bobby Seale and Huey Newton met while organizing the Soul Students Advisory Council, which rallied for the university to offer black history courses.
In the 1960s, Merritt College was hidden away as an African-American institution in the Oakland hills, as gentrification changed the city landscape. But years of restorations still haven’t changed the old school building, with the word “auditorium” written on one side, an old courtyard, scaling library-like glass windows, and main entrances adorned with crests and delicate crown molding.
Presently, one part of the building is owned by Children’s Hospital Oakland as a research center for scientists studying diseases like sickle cell anemia. The other half of the building is a senior residential facility.
A security guard exits the half of the building that is a research center to smoke a cigarette. He’s not surprised to find me snapping photographs of the Spanish colonial revival-style bell tower.
“This building is from 1925,” he says, puffing on a Marlboro Red like a cowboy. “They’ve made movies about it.”
There is something very cinematic about the way the shadows from the entrance railings cast themselves onto the pavement, and the sway of the shrubs as they cling to the sides of the tower. Even through all the layers of new paint, the building seems to harness all the intellectual energy of the students who once pressed their noses to the books, and of the public displays of social unrest have which turned the tides of history.
The space is shockingly silent, although the surrounding streets roar with traffic and blaring stereos. The smell in the air is a mix of cherry blossoms from the courtyard, and spray paint from the building across the street where a graffiti artist is tagging.
“It’s a real gem isn’t it?” the security guard asks, flicking his cigarette to the ground.