Black History Month Special: Golden Gate Key & Lock – A 3rd Generation Black-Owned Family Business returns to Emeryville
Golden Gate Key & Lock holds an impressive legacy that may have been overlooked by residents of Emeryville. The African-American owned business goes back 72 years and three generations. They have witnessed massive changes in the community yet they have survived when many surrounding businesses have not. Now the historic locksmiths are back in the Lower Triangle District after moving to Oakland 17 years ago.
You can feel the amazing history of the business when you walk into their storefront which is a block south of their original Emeryville location. Today, Ralph Edwin Scott runs the shop with two of his children, John Edwin and April. “Our family has always been entrepreneurs,” explained Ralph Edwin, now the elder of the Scott family. “Ever since the time my great, great, great-grandfather walked out of slavery.”
Edwin Scott, Ralph’s Father, started the business in 1946 in the epicenter of the African-American community in West Oakland. At the time, the community in West Oakland along 7th Street was going through a post-war boom. This thriving neighborhood was dubbed The Harlem of the West for its output of cultural strength. As soon as their thriving community gained voting and legislative strength in the city of Oakland, the neighborhood of black-owned shops and home owning families were systematically displaced and dispersed. This happened by continual racist redevelopment plans from the city and the federal government. In 1959, when the West Oakland Post Office building was built on top of the black business district in Oakland, the Scott Family business was forced to move.
Neighboring Emeryville was widely known as a business-friendly town and one where both large and small operations benefited. The large operations like the Sherwin-Williams paint factory and Westinghouse Corporation were as successful as the smaller, family-run operations that dominated Emeryville at the time.
Ralph Edwin stated,”We had to go somewhere … and [Emeryville] was a business town, it invited you in.” A family friend who was a realtor found a building on MacArthur and 37th that was owned by a Chinese gentleman. The owner was willing to lease the building to a black-owned business and in May of 1959, The Scott Family moved their business to Emeryville.
The Scott Family became familiar with Emeryville’s locally infamous beat police officer known as ‘Frenchie’ who patrolled San Pablo Avenue on a 3-wheeled motorcycle. During that time, Emeryville had a reputation within the black community for being unfriendly to African-Americans, but ‘Frenchie’ didn’t reinforce that reputation. “Frenchie was the friendliest guy you would ever want to meet,” Ralph explained. “Especially to the folks at the Doggie Dinner on San Pablo and MacArthur,” Ralph chuckled.
After about a year of being open, the city installed parking meters along the strip of San Pablo that included his father’s business. “In those days parking meters were a kiss of death for businesses,” Ralph recalled. As city workers were busy installing the meters, Ralph’s father was having a typical afternoon conversation with Frenchie. He expressed how the meters were affecting his business’ bottom line. Within a day, public works were back on the scene to remove the meters. Ralph recalled this level of intimacy with officials and businesses was the way the City of Emeryville functioned at that time.
Remembering Frenchie’s response to The Scott Family Business, Ralph explains the relationship with city officials including the notorious Police Chief, John LaCoste. “I know there were other issues… but what could be called corruption could also be easily called ‘efficiency’ in those days. He got things handled in the neighborhood,” explaining how Emeryville’s small size and preference for commerce was preferred by business over a larger, more bureaucratic Oakland. “Doing business here, whether you liked them or not, you knew city officials personally. Emeryville was basically run by two families. The City ran like a family business,” and Police Chief John LaCoste and his family were part of that ‘family business’.
The Scott family not only had to navigate local politics, they had to negotiate the politics of racism that was prevalent in that era. Black-owned business servicing white communities were rare in those days and threatening to a lot of white folks. Invoices were looked at as illegitimate coming from a black man and some refused to pay. The workaround for the Scott family was including the ‘white’ sounding name ‘John L. Reedsburg’ on the invoice to encourage prompt payment. The real John Reedsburg was, in fact, Ralph’s Jewish-German immigrant grandfather on his mother’s side. “Racism is not what people think it is, it is not that I don’t like you for the color of your skin. It is capitalism at work, racism is the face of an economic system steeped in a zero-sum game… it is a lack of moral fiber,” Ralph explained.
Their business offers a connection to the community that cannot be monetized. They have worked with generations of customers and many people take pride in doing business with a black-owned company. “You can get a key made anywhere. So why do people come back after being gone for 17 years? It is based on the friendliness we offer, the service we offer, and the fact is that we will be here when they need us.” Those kinds of long-term commitments and outlooks come out of the multigenerational business model.
Golden Gate Key & Lock has a successful history over the years opening a locksmith school and having multiple locations in the Bay Area. “When people hear that you are a locksmith, they think of cutting keys or having a kiosk, they do not realize how far-reaching it is,” Ralph Edwin explained. “Even for us, as a company, we have been flown to Guam, Hawaii, Japan, Philippines, Hong Kong, all cutting keys and changing locks.” As Ralph remembered all those trips around the world, he explained that the Scott Family had security clearances with all branches of the government. As much as Ralph enjoyed those trips, he now looks forward to retirement and continuing painting, a passion he went to school for at CCA before working at the Family business.
The strip of San Pablo that their business is on has been marked for redevelopment by the City to build a Shelter/Supportive Housing Project. Golden Gate notes they have not been approached by the city and not sure what this will mean for their business longterm. “I have never understood why no one from the city has walked by that door, besides getting a personal key made, to say hey, what do you guys think about the area? Maybe they do not know that we exist, which I find difficult to believe.”
All the generations of Scotts have been entrepreneurs and they are very proud of that legacy. Ralph Edwin explained to me, “This country was not built for the worker, it was built for the entrepreneur.” The family outlook is that becoming an entrepreneur makes you your own person and gives the family a structure of independence. “You get to decide how you work, when you work, where you work, as long as you work for Google or any other company, you are at the mercy of someone else.”
Despite an uncertain future of their block, The Scott Family Entrepreneurship shines brightly. Their history and legacies give rare perspectives of surviving change. John, Ralph Edwin’s son who runs the business with his father, told us, “As my father is so fond of saying we are in business to be a business. It is about being able to feed my family. With Locks and Keys, as long as people do not trust each other, you will always have a job.”
Without any sentimentality, John explains how his family has had a larger game in focus. “If they clear-cut this whole area, there still be locks and keys. There will be work to be done. When times were good, people were buying houses, boats, cars, and they wanted us to protect those house cars and boats. When Times are bad, when the banks are trying to repossess those things, again, they called us to lock them up. So either way, we were working.”
There is a lot of history on this uprooted end of Emeryville and they deserve their due representation. In this time of vast change, we have already lost people, buildings, and landscape in the southern end of Emeryville that have not been honored for their historic value to the community. But there is time to learn, honor, and save what is still here. “In the Black Community, it has a lot of value. It has landmarks … They don’t give this area the same amount of concern as they give the rest of Emeryville.”
Feature Image: Ralph Edwin Scott, now the elder of the Scott family, poses with a photo of his great, great, grandfather. The painting in the back is of his son, John Scott, when he graduated from High School.