Museum Exhibit ‘Westward to Canaan’ Tells Story of Riverside’s Black Community

Riverside resident Ernie Arellanes looks Thursday, Aug. 4, at photos in the “Westward to Canaan” exhibit on the history of African Americans in Riverside. STAN LIM, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Riverside resident Ernie Arellanes looks Thursday, Aug. 4, at photos in the “Westward to Canaan” exhibit on the history of African Americans in Riverside.
STAN LIM, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

As much of the U.S. struggled with the legacy of slavery in the decades after the Civil War, Riverside was a place of comparative freedom – if not complete racial equality.

That’s the thesis behind an exhibit now on display at Riverside City College that runs through Sunday, Aug. 21.

“Westward to Canaan: The Rise of Riverside’s African American Community 1880-1980” is one of the first public efforts sponsored by a new area civil rights organization.

With pieces of clothing, household objects and photos, the exhibit tells the story of the city’s earliest black residents and the community’s achievements over the next century.

The nonprofit Civil Rights Institute of Inland Southern California sponsored the exhibit at RCC’s Quad Art Gallery. The group formed in 2013 to complement the work of the Riverside African American Historical Society, which records and preserves the history of the area’s black community, said Rose Mayes, the institute’s vice president.

The institute’s most ambitious plan is a $38 million project to replace the Mission Inn Avenue office of the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County with a five-story building that would include affordable apartments, space for meetings and exhibits, and offices for the institute and housing council.

The institute will provide a place to discuss civil rights issues such as voting and the Black Lives Matter movement, Mayes said. The apartments will give seniors, single parents and others with limited income a chance to live downtown, where most planned housing is upscale, she said.

The RCC exhibit outlines the lives of Riverside’s early African American residents, many of whom arrived from the deep South in two waves of migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, exhibit co-curator Vince Moses said.

Some came after hearing about the freedom and opportunities in Riverside, which seemed like the Biblical promised land of Canaan, Moses said.

Riverside and other citrus belt communities were founded by middle class whites from the North, who were more likely to oppose slavery and make room in the community for African American settlers, Moses said.

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Source: The Press Enterprise | ALICIA ROBINSON