The life of west coast activist Frances M. Albrier (1898-1987) brings into sharp focus the unsung role of Californians in the early fight for American civil, labor and human rights. The granddaughter of formerly enslaved people, Albrier moved to Berkeley, California, from Alabama in 1920, beginning nearly six decades of community activism while working as a nurse, maid and union organizer.
As early as 1939, Albrier campaigned as the first African American candidate for Berkeley’s City Council. By 1940, she had formed the Citizens Employment Council to fight for jobs and fair employment practices for the city’s black community. After being denied work at the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II, Albrier fought for and won a job as the first black woman welder in the company’s Richmond shipyards. Her victory paved the way for thousands of African American and women workers to secure better-paying jobs in the Bay Area’s booming shipyard industry.
Albrier would go on to integrate Berkeley’s League of Women Voters and the Red Cross, teaching first aid classes to local youth for many years. During the 1950s, she created the first Negro History Week displays to be shown in an Oakland department store window. A champion of voter rights, Albrier was a prominent member of the National Council of Negro Women and the Citizenship Education Project. In her later life, Albrier became a peace and disarmament activist and a pioneer in fighting for the rights of senior citizens and people with disabilities.
One of the greatest things is to inspire young people to the higher things of life ... that you be able to do something to help them and make it better for them. I think that's the inspiration and that's the goal of all of the leaders in the world.Frances Albrier 1978 Oral History
The Frances Albrier Collection
The Frances Albrier Collection, donated to NMAAHC in 2010 by Albrier’s daughter, Anita Black, contains scrapbooks, photographs, and letters documenting Albrier’s role as a human rights activist. Albrier’s work showcases and the collection humanizes, the central role women played in these struggles during the 1940s, 1950s, and beyond. Her story also acknowledges California's role as an early stage for crucial work advancing civil, labor and human rights.
Highlights of the collection include two scrapbooks. The first is from 1956-57 and features Albrier’s term as president of the San Francisco Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women and the Citizenship Education Project. The second scrapbook documents Albrier’s trip to Africa and highlights the celebrations surrounding Nigeria's independence in 1960. Also notable are photographs from 1951 of Albrier teaching first aid along with letters and photographs from a Moral Re-Armament Assembly of Nations conference on Michigan's Mackinac Island during the 1950s.
Citizenship Education Project Scrapbook
Albrier assembled the Citizenship Education Project scrapbook to document her time as the president of the San Francisco Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and her work on the Citizenship Education Project (CEP) from 1956-57.
In 1956, San Francisco was among four major U.S. cities selected to conduct a nonpartisan pilot project to promote citizenship education among African Americans as part of a grant from the National Urban League and carried out by the NCNW. Under the leadership of Albrier and project coordinator Mrs. Floyd G. Allen, the San Francisco NCNW worked tirelessly to register new voters.
Using the slogan, “A Voteless People is a Hopeless People,” the San Francisco NCNW encouraged registration through motorcades, sidewalk loudspeaker interviews, “picket-lines” of marching women with placards, and door-to-door neighborhood canvases. By the voter registration deadline in the fall of 1956, more than 1700 voters had been registered, including about 200 21-year-olds who celebrated their registration with a “birthday party” hosted by the CEP.
Registering voters was just the first phase of the Citizenship Education Project. Between the registration deadline and Election Day, the CEP hosted several and information sessions to educate African Americans in the Bay Area on issues facing voters on the November ballot. Outreach efforts included a program with Assistant Secretary of Labor J. Ernest Wilkins Sr. from the Eisenhower Administration and Rep. Charles Diggs from Michigan. The CEP even set up a voting machine in its headquarters to demonstrate the actual voting process to first-time voters.
By Election Day on Nov. 6, 1956, the Citizenship Education Project estimated it had contacted more than 15,000 people in the San Francisco area by mail or at meetings. San Francisco's The Sun-Reporter awarded the Albrier-led chapter of the National Council of Negro Women its, "Club of the Year, 1956" award for its work on the Citizenship Education Project.
The Citizenship Education Scrapbook is currently on display in the Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968 exhibition in the Museum.
Nigerian Independence Scrapbook
Albrier assembled this scrapbook herself, filling it with photographs, letters, clippings and other tokens from her trip to Africa in 1960. There she documented the independence celebrations in Nigeria as a representative of The California Voice, an African American newspaper in Oakland, California. The faces and words of the people she connected within Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana are evidence of how one woman’s commitment to change in her community can have a global impact. Albrier’s activism in Berkeley didn’t just change lives in California or the United States, it impacted the world.
Using the Frances Albrier Collection Today
In the fall of 2015, more than 20 “volunpeers” transcribed 129 pages from the Frances Albrier Collection on the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center, a crowdsourcing platform that makes collections from across the Smithsonian Institution searchable online. Making these documents more accessible has opened up new lines of research and has led to discoveries that have been shared with the NMAAHC. A number of tweets and social media posts have also highlighted the Albrier Collection, bringing it to the attention of new and diverse audiences online. One Twitter user shared his joy in linking transcribed newspaper articles to photographs in other parts of the collection, “That moment when you stumble upon a wealth of information. And, the feeling of gratitude that follows. Thank you internet & @TranscribeSI.”
The collection’s size is modest but the Frances Albrier Collection has proven to be a valuable resource for those interested in West Coast activism, the national fight for civil rights, and the international struggle for human rights.
To learn more, an oral history with Frances Albrier can be found in the University of California Bancroft Library collection along with a published biography, pictures, and materials from her 1930s “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign.
Compiled by Paul Gardullo, Emily Houf and Douglas Remley
Published Aug. 5, 2016; updated Jan. 11, 2019
Guide to the Frances Albrier Papers at the Oakland Public Library
More information about the Civil Rights Movement on the West Coast