Russell City and the Blues

February 2, 2017

Russell City was founded in the mid-1800s by a Danish immigrant who gave sancutuary to African Americans before and after the Civil War. Named for Joel Russell, a New England teacher who came to California during the Gold Rush. Russell City over time became a destination point for migrant and immigrant groups included the Spanish, Danes, Germans, Mexicans, and African Americans. 

During the 1940s and 1950s the population of Russell City grew rapidly and the demographics began to change, no longer were the largest number of residents Danes and German but Mexican and African American. One of the main reasons for this shift was because the surrounding and nearby communities of San Leandro, Hayward and San Lorenzo had covenants that prevented the sale of homes to people who were not white. 

Russell City always had a rich musical culture. With 7 churches of various denominations, each with at least one chior, some with up to four. The blues tradition grew from African Americans whose Southern roots influenced the music. Saturday nights clubs were filled with the sounds of the Blues and Sunday mornings the churches were filled with the sounds of Gospel. Many influential musicians passed through Russell City. Ray Charles, Big Mama Thornton, and Lowell Fulson are just some of the names known to play the clubs. 

In 1963 Alameda began to relocate the Russell City residents to bulldoze the entire community to rezone the land for industrial use. In 1999 the West Coast Blues Society began the Hayward-Russell City Blues Festival, a celebration honoring the rich Blues tradition of the area. This year will be the 18th year of the annual festival, making it one of the oldest continuous Blues festivals in the West. 

This year the Hayward-Russell City Blues Festival will take place on July 8th & 9th in front of Hayward City Hall. For more event information and to purchase tickets visit their website:


For further reading:

Russell City (Images of America)
What Ever Happened to Russell City