OAKLAND -- Henry Delton Williams was outraged when he heard that the African American Museum and Library at Oakland could be on the chopping block under one of three budget scenarios proposed by Mayor Jean Quan.

Williams designed costumes for Motown and Hollywood stars, and was one of the first in the Bay Area to sell traditional African dashikis and African clothing in the 1960s. His store, the Original Brothers on the corner of 18th Street and San Pablo Avenue, pioneered designs to fit the new black pride movement and notions of "Black is beautiful."

The AAMLO hosted an exhibition of his work in 2010 and a gown created for singer Martha Reeves is on permanent display there along with photographs of him growing up in West Oakland.

Now 70, Williams uses his life story as an example for the young people he mentors. But his life would be different without inspiration from the story of Mary Pleasant, a Gold Rush era female businesswoman of African descent called the "mother of Civil Rights in California." Her history, he said, would be less well-known without AAMLO. Closing would be devastating, he said.

"How do I explain to our children the museums can stay open in other neighborhoods but not ours?"

In fact, 14 of Oakland's 18 libraries face closure under the most extreme of the budget proposals aimed at filling a possible $58 million deficit.


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One of them would be the Asian branch of the Oakland Public Library. But the AAMLO is unique among Oakland's 18 branches because it has a dual role of archive and museum. Consequently, it has a different mission and quieter profile than the others.

It is the home of rare books, papers and memorabilia documenting black life in the Bay Area since California was still part of Mexico. It is also a research library that serves scholars, researchers, journalists from around the world, as well as local individuals trying to trace their family tree. In addition, it hosts events such as a talk Wednesday by Isabel Wilkerson, author of the novel "The Warmth of Other Sons" about the migration of African Americans from the South to cities like Oakland during World War II.

"I never thought I would have to fight for a black museum. But I am ready, willing and able," Williams said.

Outraged residents are building on a fierce outpouring at a City Council meeting May 12 by organizing a Facebook and events like the Zombie Crawl to Save Oakland libraries Saturday evening. The library's supporters held a rally outside AAMLO Saturday.

"People are angry and people are passionate about their libraries," said Carmen Martinez, director of library services for the city.

The libraries each have their own budget because they vary in size but as a whole their $23 million budget consumes only 2 percent of the overall city budget, she said.

Individually, the AAMLO draws its $600,000 operating budget from the general fund and Measure Q, which voters approved in 2004 to pay for Oakland's libraries. Part of the problem is that, under Quan's worst case scenario, the city would not contribute the $9 million required to collect Measure Q library bond funds. The contribution would drop to $4 million, or just enough to maintain four libraries.

Martinez said the AAMLO's has very few staff compared to other libraries. But it costs at least $800,000 to run because of the intensive upkeep the building requires, as well as a full-time custodian and security guard that other libraries don't need. Being a museum and an archive also means extra costs for humidity and temperature controls. Some of that money comes from federal and state grants and donations. Income from renting out the second floor for private groups and nonprofits could help cover costs, but revenue has been flat because of the economy, Martinez said.

In contrast, the Oakland Museum of California had a budget of $15 million in 2010. The city of Oakland contributed $6.5 million. Another $8.5 million came from is the Oakland Museum of California Foundation, which is likely to take over complete responsibility for the facility. Already more than half of the staff members are employed by the foundation.

AAMLO can't charge a fee for using the archives and library, or sell tickets to events such as Wilkerson's book reading.

But Martinez said it's too early to plan for worst-case scenarios.

"I am confident that the City Council will figure out how to pass the budget without closing libraries," she said.

The alternative -- cutting the public off from their history -- would be a "tragedy," she added.

Supporters will find out whether the libraries will survive this round of cuts as they have repeatedly in the past on June 21, when the budget is due for adoption. Quan has said her most extreme scenario is unlikely to happen. The other options include no cuts or shifting the cost of four library employees from the general fund to Measure Q, which is at best a temporary fix.

Library supporters are not waiting to weigh in.

Crowds are expected at the Monday evening community budget forum at Fruitvale Elementary School, as well as the Thursday special City Council meeting and the first reading of the budget on June 7.

If Option A passes, the library system and AAMLO will cease to exist as we know it," wrote AAMLO Chief Curator Rick Moss in an email. "But in scenarios B and C, almost everything we have now, including AAMLO remains the same."

Oakland LIBRARIES
  • Facing budget cuts: Asian, Brookfield, Chavez, Eastmont, Elmhurst, Golden Gate, Lakeview, Martin Luther King, Melrose, Montclair, Piedmont Avenue, Temescal, West Oakland; the Tool Lending Library; and the African-American Museum and Library at Oakland (AAMLO).
  • Spared: Main, Rockridge, Dimond and 81st Avenue
  • Other programs: Second Start Adult Literacy will close; limited funding for new books, DVDs or other materials purchased; reduction of service hours for the Oakland History Room; discontinuation of electronic services like downloadable books and database
  • How to help: Go to www.saveoaklandlibrary.org