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Mildred Howard’s sculpture near the Ashby BART station pays tribute to her mother

The sculpture “Delivered, Bill of Mable” by artist Mildred Howard was installed in front of the Ashby BART station at the Martin Luther King Jr. intersection. Way and Adeline St. Source: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The city of Berkeley plans to unveil artist Mildred Howard’s latest sculpture on Sunday during the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival.

entitled Delivered, bill of exchange Mable, the sculpture pays tribute to Howard’s mother, activist Mable Howard, who in the late 1960s led an underground BART line that would divide a predominantly black neighborhood in south Berkeley.

The monument is inspired by traditional West African metalwork that was used as currency and jewelry, and is intended to highlight the contributions of Berkeley’s African-American community in the face of gentrification, racism and oppression, according to the artwork’s signage.

Mildred Howard, who grew up in South Berkeley and lived there most of her life, moved to West Oakland in 2017 after her rent doubled. Howard isn’t alone in seeing higher housing prices in Berkeley; over the last half-century, the city has lost two-thirds of its black residents.

Jennifer Lovvorn, the city’s cultural director, said in an email statement that the sculpture is the largest investment Berkeley has made in a public art project to date.

The Berkeley City Council in February 2021 approved a $210,000 contract with Howard to create a sculpture that will stand at the intersection of Adeline Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, near the Ashby BART station. In November 2022, the City Council agreed to increase the commission amount to $354,000 so that the sculpture could be 25% larger. According to Lovvorn, the installation cost an additional $35,000.

This ribbon cutting event will feature, among others: Berkeley Poet Laureate Aya de León, Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Council Member Ben Bartlett, former Vice Mayor Carole Davis Kennerly, Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson, who is the former chair of the city’s Civic Arts Commission, and Howard.

Berkeleyside spoke with Howard ahead of the official unveiling of the sculpture, her first solo, permanent, large-scale work of art in her hometown. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The sculpture, installed in the travel lane south of the Ashby BART station, is inspired by traditional West African metalwork and is intended to highlight the contributions of Berkeley’s African American community in the face of gentrification, racism and oppression. Source: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

About 5 years ago you moved from South Berkeley, where you spent most of your life, to West Oakland. What do you miss about living in South Berkeley?

It’s completely different. I actually lived and worked in the community where I grew up. Everything was really familiar. That’s not to say I’m not an explorer of new places and sights, but I liked being there because I knew so many people. I miss having access to all the familiar things that keep me going: stores. I have to drive now to get to Urban Ore and antique stores and things like that. Now I live on a shopping street – it’s completely different and very noisy.

Why the name Delivered, Mable bill?

When BART reached Berkeley, the tracks would come to the surface in South Berkeley and begin to go underground just beyond Ashby. This would go through the Black neighborhood.

This country is so racist and takes for granted that anyone can do whatever they want, when they want, and in some ways they can. My mom (Mable Howard) said, “No, that’s not going to happen. We won’t have a Berlin Wall in Berkeley.” So she launched a lawsuit against BART and gathered a group of allies, including council member Ronald Dellums, who put together a great team. BART had to stop laying tracks for nine months.

Now it’s underground. There was a whole movement trying to name the BART station Mable Howard, but their defense was, “Oh, we don’t name it after people.” But they also have a MacArthur station, and I mean a person. So I said, “Delivered, Mable bill.”

Mable Howard and her daughter Mildred Howard, 1985. Courtesy: Pam Uzzell

What does it mean to exhibit your art here?

I think it’s the perfect place for it because of its civic, political and social activity. She loved being in Berkeley. But she also knew that you still had to fight for what you wanted. She had a voice and a presence. She had the ability to think outside herself. It’s something bigger than me.

Yes, it was named after her, but that was for all the contributions African Americans have made to society, period. Byron Rumford lived in south Berkeley. Carole Kennerly, Berkeley’s first African American vice mayor, lives in South Berkeley.

Even though Berkeley’s demographics have changed, you may not see us, but we’re still around. I want people to think about this. What is this? Why is this here?

Artist Mildred Howard in a clip from Welcome to the neighborhood Documentary. Courtesy of Pam Uzzell

Why model a sculpture after currency?

You can melt down the currency and make something else out of it. Yes, it is similar to (paper) money in that it is a medium of exchange. But once it was made, it could be worn. It was widely distributed from the 15th to the 20th century. This happened when colonization was introduced into West Africa and copper, iron and all these materials were used for this. And so Europeans introduced their own form of money.

Especially the one in the sculpture comes from the Congo. When I did the DNA test, (I found out that) part of me was from the Congo. The sculpture is inspired by the shape and form and the representation of what it was used for. But then someone brings their own ideas. Once you see something, read about it, learn about it, and start to absorb what it is, someone will bring their own interpretation.

We hope that people will think about where we are and who we are in the context of the wider world in which we live.

A rendering of the proposed Mildred Howard sculpture on Adeline Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. The sculpture was originally proposed to be installed in San Pablo Park, shown above. Courtesy: City of Berkeley

Work on the sculpture took several years – it was first proposed for San Pablo Park in 2018. Can you walk me through the creative process?

I have been collecting African currency for about 20 years, so I decided to use it in my recent public art projects because I wanted to represent the African American community. It’s something bittersweet. This is what it was. This is the part that worries me. This was African-American community. I believe this is happening in many places: the Western Addition, Bayview Hunters Point, and East Oakland. The entire Bay Area is changing.

The idea came from the very beginning because I just wanted to thank the community. And that’s when I decided to look at this currency and how I could extrapolate from it the contribution I wanted to make.

Some people may think, “Oh, it’s just a big cylinder with a hole.” But why is it shaped like this? What does it mean? It’s about making people question the world we live in.

Graphic marking of Mildred Howard’s latest sculpture. Source: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The place where your sculpture is located has been designated future development of affordable housing. When this begins, it will mean moving your sculpture to a new location on the property and relocating the Berkeley Flea Market that gathers in the Ashby BART station parking lot. What do you think about these plans?

It is true that we need housing. But we also need people to make a living, and the Berkeley flea market allows people to make a living or subsidize their income. This is unfortunate. So where will this go?

We see what happened to Fourth Street. It was all working class people down there. People from all over the world come to shop on Fourth Street, and you can count the number of Black people you see walking down the street on one hand. This is what happened to South Berkeley and I can’t afford to live there. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to afford an apartment in Berkeley. I’d like to, but given the space I need for my work, I’m not sure it will happen.

The city ribbon cutting for the sculpture will take place during the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival. Sunday, June 16, 11:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. Adeline Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, south of the Ashby BART station. FREE

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