Leftists Who Called El Cerrito Home
El Cerrito is a suburb of San Francisco. It is north of Berkeley and south east of Richmond. The population of El Cerrito is under 25,000. Though smaller in size than many other Bay Area cities, El Cerrito has been home to some very notable progressives and leftists. The town has voted in favor of the Democratic presidential nominee in every election in the last 50 years.
This is an incomplete list of some of the noteworthy individuals who have lived in El Cerrito.
Milton "Milt" Wolff
Milt Wolff was a life long leftist and anti-fascist. He grew up in Brooklyn, and followed some of the older kids from his neighborhood in joining the Young Communist League. He dropped out of high school and found a factory job. When the Young Communist League began asking for volunteers to go fight against the fascists during the Spanish Civil war, Wolff volunteered.
At age 22 Wolff shipped out to Spain and joined the Lincoln-Washington Battalion, a battalion made up of international anti-fascist volunteers. While is Spain he avoided death numerous times, including being lost in enemy territory for six days. He met Ernest Hemingway, who described Wolff as "tall as Lincoln, gaunt as Lincoln, and as brave and as good a soldier as any that commanded battalions at Gettysburg."
During his time in Spain, Wolff advanced to the rank of Major. He survived the war unscathed and left Spain in 1938 when the international volunteers were asked to leave.
Upon arrival back in the United States Wolff continued to advocate for the Spanish anti-fascists, taking part in demonstrations and organizing to put pressure on world governments to support the Spanish Republic. At one point he was called up to testify at the House Un-American Activities Committee.
During WWII Wolff again hoped to be on the front lines fighting against fascism. He enlisted in the US Army, hoping to fight against the Nazis. However, due to his involvement in the Spanish Civil War, he was deemed too political for the front. He was given non-combat assignments until he finally convinced the Army to send him to Burma, where he was involved in fighting.
Towards the end of WWII Wolff was stationed in Italy. Here he attempted to use Allied resources to help Spanish anti-fascists invade Fascist Spain. His Army superiors sent him back the United States when they found this out.
After the war Wolff was under FBI surveillance. Even so, he continued to fight for democracy in Spain. He was also active in the Civil Rights Congress, a left-wing organization that defended African Americans dubiously accused of capital crimes.
Later he led demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. During the 1980s he fought against the Cuba embargo, sending money to a children's hospital and also sending ambulances to Nicaragua.
Wolff spent the later part of his life in El Cerrito and is buried at the Sunset View Cemetery and Mortuary in El Cerrito.
Henry "Hank" Rubin
"Father of the Berkeley Food Revolution", Hank Rubin is best known for his food and wine legacy. However, along with changing the East Bay food scene, Rubin spent much of his life fighting against fascism and discrimination.
Born in Portland, Oregon, Rubin was studying to be a doctor when he dropped out of UCLA to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of international volunteers fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. He headed a machine gun company and then later worked as a medic.
Like fellow Civil War veteran Wilt Wolff, Hank Rubin continued to fight against fascism by joining the US military during WWII.
After the wars, Rubin worked for the Contra Costa Public Health Department.
In 1960 he opened the Pot Luck restaurant in Berkeley. His restaurant received great reviews and soon became the leading restaurant in the East Bay. Prior to this, the foodies would have to travel to San Francisco to get a top rated meal. Each Monday night the Pot Luck featured cuisine from a different country. A big wine enthusiast, Rubin began pairing of select wines with different dishes.
During his time as a restaurant owner, his workers were unionized and his restaurants were some of the first in the Bay Area to be race and gender integrated. Boycotts and protests by local bigots did nothing to change his inclusive hiring practices.
Rubin also took part in Bay Area anti-war protests during the Vietnam War.
Later in life Rubin spent much of his time as a wine critic.
Rubin wrote about his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the book Spain's Cause was Mine: A Memoir of an American Medic in the Spanish Civil War
Catherine "Kay" Kerr
In the 1960s local governments had plans to fill huge portions of the bay with landfill. This would have reduced the bay to not much more than a river. Plans to fill and pave over much of the bay would have destroyed the natural waterfront environment.
In 1961 three local women, Kay Kerry, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick got together and started the Save San Francisco Bay Association, which was later renamed Save The Bay.
Fighting against rich developers and powerful politicians, Save The Bay was able to halt much of the planed destruction of the San Francisco Bay and estuaries. It continues to fight for the preservation of local wetlands and coasts.
Key Kerr was born in Los Angeles and attended Stanford University as a journalism student. There she met her husband, Clark Kerr.
After reading a newspaper article about local plans to fill and develop much of the bay, Kerr and two of her friends began one of the nations first local grassroots environmental organizations. Through local organizing they were able to halt the filling in of the bay waters. They were able to pressure the California Legislature to enact the McAteer-Petris Act in 1965, which created the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission. This commission was in charge of long term plans for the bay. It was the first coastal protection agency in the country.
Save The Bay was instrumental in creating the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge in Fremont, one of the largest urban refuges in the country.
In the early 1960s, there were few environmental groups or laws. The grassroots organizing done by Kerr and the other members of Save The Bay helped encourage others to create locally focused grassroots environmental groups. This activism helped create the modern grassroots environmental movement.
Kerr's husband, Clark Kerr was the chancellor of UC Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, where he was pitted against leftist students and rightwing politicians.
Lehman Brightman was a Sioux activist and history professor. Raised in Oklahoma, Brightman found his way to the Bay Area when he earned his PhD at UC Berkeley.
Troubled by the lack of American Indian history in the American educational system, in 1969 Brightman developed the first Native American Studies program in the United States at Berkeley.
He was active off of campus as much as he was on campus. In 1968 he founded United Native Americans, a nonprofit supporting the progress and welfare of Indians. In 1971 he was part of an Indian occupation of Mount Rushmore. In 1973 he helped lead the American Indian takeover of Alcatraz Island. He continued to advocate for American Indian rights and living conditions, including taking part in The Longest Walk, a march from San Francisco to Washington DC.
His activism led him to testify in front of the US Senate about American Indian living conditions and treatment.
He taught at UC San Diego, Sacramento State University, Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University, and Contra Costa College.
Louis "Lou" Gottlieb
Gottlieb was a bassist and a founding member of the Limelighters folk band, formed in 1959. The band gained enough success for Gottlieb to raise funds and buy Morning Star Ranch outside Occidental.
Gottlieb, a communist sympathizer opened the ranch up to anyone. It soon became a destination to many of San Francisco's hippies. The San Francisco Diggers soon used the land to grow food. The Diggers were an anarchist group dedicated to providing free food for the masses.
Over time the hippie commune became too popular and started to attract the wrong crowd. Over crowding, drug use, and other problems led to the eviction of the commune.
Elijah Jerry "Pumpsie" Green
Pumpsie Green was the first African American to play for the Boston Red Sox baseball team. This was the last team to integrate in the MLB.
Green grew up in Richmond and attending El Cerrito High School and Contra Costa College. He began his baseball career playing for the minor leagues of the Oakland Oaks. He hoped to make it as a major league Oaks player, but in 1959 he was sold to the Red Sox.
The Red Sox initially refused to let him move into the major league. When he did make it to the majors, he was forced to eat and sleep segregated from his white teammates.
He continued to play in the MLB until 1963. In 2018 he was introduced to the Red Sox Hall of Fame.