Oakland's Characters

New Book Highlights the People Who Shape the City—Then and Now


Chrs Duffey

Author Jerry Thompson can’t help dropping names when talking about his upcoming book, and for good reason. Local Legends of Oakland highlights about 240 people, from the 1800s to the present, who left a mark on The Town.

“They’re the unsung heroes,” Thompson says. “They created the vibrations that allowed lives to change—vibrations we still feel today.”

Thompson, 51, is not native to Oakland, but upon settling here (from New York, via Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vallejo), he felt at home. “In Oakland, I found my creative voice,” says Thompson. “I found the home I was looking for. And that filled me up.”

After co-authoring the 2007 Arcadia Publishing book Black Artists in Oakland, Thompson spent last year sifting through old binders, scanning photographs and interviewing dozens of locals. From historical groundbreakers to contemporary neighbors, the families and individuals portrayed in the book represent everything from business to arts, and sports to politics. They are men, women, white, black, Latino, Native American and Asian.

They work alongside us, like chef Tanya Holland of Brown Sugar Kitchen or spoken word and hip-hop artist Ise Lyfe. Or they made their mark earlier: Edith Latham and her brother set up a foundation in 1918 promoting humane education; Joshua Rose, the first African-American to sit on the Oakland City Council, contributed what Thompson describes as “a litany of amazing things” to the community.

A gregarious bookseller who’s stylish enough to pull off wearing plaid on plaid, Thompson thrives here in the cultural diversity of his chosen hometown. He loves helping people connect. “I’m the match striker,” he says. “I start the flame.”

With his book, he does just that. After introducing readers to the local legends of Oakland, he steps out of the way, and lets the legends shine.

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