Walking under the Cypress Freeway in West Oakland, Henry C. Williams Sr. surveys the cold, gray overpass and the barren ground beneath it. A decade ago this was a Southern Pacific rail yard, and long before that it belonged to the city. Decked out in suit jacket and pants, and a black clerical shirt adorned with a large, bejeweled cross, the Baptist minister clutches a briefcase full of documents he says can prove the city got taken for a ride when Caltrans paid hundreds of millions to buy the property from Southern Pacific in 1994. This wasn't just a crime, says Williams in his preacher's cadence, it was a sin. "All of Oakland is holy ground," he proclaims. "I'm standing on holy ground now."
Henry Williams is a man on a mission. For more than a decade, he's been waging a lonely crusade against the big railroad companies, which he claims illegally sold billions of dollars worth of public land in West Oakland, including the ground beneath his feet. If he's right -- and he's convinced he is -- the 68-year-old retired truck driver-turned-activist minister has uncovered the biggest swindle in Oakland history.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, Oakland granted Central Pacific, Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and other railroad companies the right to run tracks through West Oakland and the city port. Under the terms of these agreements, known as franchises, the companies gained access to public land but not ownership of it. According to Williams, the railroads have flouted these agreements for years, selling off thousands of acres of city land, sometimes -- as in the case of the Cypress property -- back to the government itself.
"They stole it and sold it," he declares. "For over one hundred years they have been violating the trust of the people. I have proof of that." That proof, says Williams, is contained in the reams of dog-eared and heavily highlighted photocopies of assessors' rolls, title deeds, and parcel maps he's amassed over the years. He estimates he has at least 100,000 pages stored in file boxes stacked on the balcony of the apartment where he lives with his wife. He often uses a wheeled suitcase to carry them around. "I've done my homework," he says.
His ultimate goal is to reclaim what he says rightfully belongs to the residents of West Oakland: money and land. An amateur singer, he's even recorded a CD single to spread the message. "People, take a stand/For your money and your land," he croons over a looped synthesizer track in a catchy ditty that has landed some airplay on San Francisco's KPOO-FM. "People, look at your trust land/In the railroad people's hand." He's sent his CD to Johnnie Cochran and other prominent black lawyers in the hope that one of them will heed the call and take the railroads to court.
Any damages recovered, says Williams, should be used to create jobs and provide education and affordable housing in Oakland's poor and minority communities. "This is reparations for everybody, not just black people," he says. "This money belongs to the people of Oakland."
Williams has a knack for digging up past wrongs and a litigious streak to match. In 2000, he got a lawyer and sued Catellus Development, the real-estate arm of Santa Fe Pacific Railroad, for allegedly selling off public land in San Francisco (the suit was dismissed on a technicality). The preacher is motivated, in part, by a deep belief that black Americans have long been denied the fruits of their labor. Currently he's considering taking the federal government to court for the money he says was promised to his ancestors in Alabama after they were emancipated from slavery. He sees the West Oakland railroad boondoggle as the latest chapter in a long line of injustices.
All this might sound like a lawyer's dream -- a tale of big business ripping off poor folks, combined with the promise of a huge payoff. But so far, Williams has few allies in his obsessive quest for restitution. He can't find a lawyer, and most community leaders and local politicians have given him the cold shoulder. Williams says Jerry Brown won't meet with him. (An aide to the mayor said Brown is not familiar with Williams' case.)
Asked for the names of his supporters, he takes a long moment to ponder before coming up with a few, including onetime Councilman Wilson Riles Jr. "I've looked at a lot of his records, and it seems to me there's a kernel of truth in there that should be pursued," says Riles. "So far he's the only one doing it."
Those city officials who have met with Williams remain lukewarm at best. City Attorney John Russo says he'll endorse any lawyer who takes the railroads to court, but won't touch the case himself. "I think [Williams] has a legitimate beef and an important issue," he explains. "I'm just not sure it can be remedied in court." Russo says the statutes of limitation surrounding the case may have run out, and that trial preparation alone could cost the city millions of dollars.
Williams scoffs at this. "I've already done the research and I haven't spent millions of dollars," he says. "All he needs to do is write up what I'm saying. Let the truth come out." For Williams, who has no legal background and did not graduate from high school, the standards of legal evidence are secondary to a much higher standard. "My degree comes from heaven," he says. "God speaks to me straight out of heaven." In fact, the very idea of tracking down who really owns Oakland's franchise land came to him from above, he says: "God spoke to me. He said that the railroads didn't own that property, but that I had to prove to the world what He said was true."
Williams first heard this calling shortly after a mile-long section of the I-880 Cypress Freeway collapsed during the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, killing 42 people. He saw the disaster as a divine wake-up call both for the West Oakland community where it occurred and for himself. Built in 1957, the original Cypress structure bisected the low-income, mostly African-American neighborhood, and many residents saw it as a symbol, if not the cause, of their economic woes. As Caltrans made plans to rebuild it after the quake, local activists saw a chance to reroute the old freeway and bring in much-needed local investment and jobs.
Caltrans demolished the Cypress and made plans to build the new one through the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific rail yards. After paying the railroads $400 million for the land, the state agency removed one hundred miles of track and conducted an expensive environmental cleanup. By the time the new Cypress Freeway opened in September 1998, its price tag had ballooned from $200 million to $1.25 billion, or around $4,000 an inch, making it the most expensive few miles of road ever built in California.
Williams contends that paying millions to these railroads, which have since merged, was unnecessary and illegal. Not only should the state not have paid for public land, he says, the railroads were bound by their franchise agreements to tear up the tracks and clean up their own mess. "They get this land for nothing, and when they're through using it, they don't clean it up." He hates to think how far all that money could have gone in West Oakland, and he wouldn't mind seeing a little of it himself. Since retiring in 1991 after more than forty years as a trucker, he's dreamed of starting a school to train black and minority big-rig drivers.
Union Pacific spokesman Mike Furtney disputes Williams' accusation of fraud. "It's one of those things that's impossible to respond to because we don't think it's true," he says. Caltrans spokesman Steve Williams says the railroads did take the state for a ride, but he doesn't think they broke the law. "I can't imagine a parcel of land being worth $400 million, especially in that part of the world," he says. "But to the best of everyone's knowledge it was railroad land we paid for. I have no idea how that could even be considered public land."
Just because the Alameda County Assessors' Office says a piece of land belongs to the railroad doesn't mean it really does, explains Williams. While researching public records, he's found several examples of what he believes to be falsified documents. Proving otherwise is difficult, so city and state officials rarely question them. Williams recalls one Oakland official telling him, "They own the land because they say they own the land."
None of this is new, the preacher maintains. He says the railroads have considered Oakland's public land their private property for more than a century. He traces this back to the city's early days and the shady business dealings of its first mayor, telegraph mogul Horace W. Carpentier. In 1868, the soon-to-be-completed Transcontinental Railway chose the Port of Oakland for its western terminal. Carpentier, who happened to manage the city waterfront along with the Central Pacific Railway, made a killing on the deal. "Carpentier was a gangster," says Williams. "The city is still run the way it was set up back then. I thought the city would protect me and go after this land and money owed to the people. But everyone wants to hide something because they're all caught up in the loop."
Williams guesses he spends between thirty and sixty hours a week building his case against the railroads, sometimes jumping out of bed at two or three in the morning to sift through his files. Since he started his campaign in the early 1990s, he's gone through his savings and now lives off Social Security and a Teamsters' pension. One evening newscast described him as a modern-day Don Quixote. "I had to look that one up," the preacher says with a laugh. That label doesn't bother him so long as his efforts get somebody -- anybody -- to pay attention. "I don't believe anything is impossible," he says. "I love what I'm doing and I love the challenge. I know something is going to come from this thing."
Some may see Williams' railings as a futile spin-off of the reparations movement. But call it what you will, Williams says, the bottom line is justice. With this, he offers a quote from Luke 19:10 -- "For the Son of man is come to seek and save that which was lost." The preacher may not have a lawyer willing to take his case or the ear of City Hall, but there's one thing of which he is confident: He's got friends in the highest places.