Life & Culture

Remembering The Rainbow Sign: The Short But Powerful Reign of Berkeley’s 1970s Black Cultural Center

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Today, it’s an unassuming beige building on a busy street in Berkeley. But in the 1970s, it housed a leading center of black culture, politics, and art – a place that deeply shaped the life of young Vice President Kamala Harris.

The rainbow sign has hosted dozens of prominent black people, including James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and who, in another precedent, ran for president in 1972.

Author James Baldwin greets visitors to Berkeley’s Rainbow Tower in the 1970s. (Courtesy of Odette Poulard)
Writer James Baldwin smokes a cigarette with a woman.
Baldwin and founder of The Rainbow Sign, Mary Ann Pollard, take a smoke break. (Courtesy of Odette Poulard)

Located on the corner of the Grove (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Way) and the streets of Berkeley’s Derby, The Rainbow Sign was a black-centric venue open to all—as a performance venue, a political organizing link and a legendary coffee shop. Her founder, Mary Ann Poulard, saw her as part of a movement to liberate all people through art, education, and community building.

Flyer written on it
Invitation to attend the opening ceremony of the Rainbow Tower in 1971. (Courtesy of Odette Poulard)

The rainbow sign opened its doors in 1971, but was forced to close just six years later, in 1977, after its founders were unable to raise enough money to purchase the building.

Although short in existence, the venue left an indelible mark on the many young people in the community who attended the events in the intimate wood-panelled hall and had a unique opportunity to interact with the legendary performers and guests.

Kamala Harris as a little girl.
Kamala Harris, age seven, in Berkeley. In her memoirs, Harris recalls her attendance as a young girl at The Rainbow Sign, including Nina Simone’s party. (Courtesy of Kamala Harris/Penguin Random House)
Bulletin for the performance of Nina Simone.
A flyer for a series of Nina Simone shows in The Rainbow Sign, one of which Kamala Harris attended when she was seven years old. (Courtesy of Odette Poulard)

As a young girl in Berkeley in the 1970s, Harris was among those visitors who were impressed. In her 2019 autobiography, “The Truths We Hold: An American Journey,” she describes her experience attending concerts and events, including a specific memory when she was seven when she watched Nina Simone perform.

“My favorite night of the week was Thursdays. On Thursdays you could always find us in a humble beige building on the corner of what was then Grove Street and Derby. Once upon a time the building I knew was full of life, a pioneering black cultural center, a rainbow sign …was where I learned that artistic expression, ambition, and intelligence were remarkable. Where I realized there was no better way to feed someone’s brain than by combining food, poetry, politics, music, dance, and art.”

This week, The California Report Magazine takes you inside the rainbow flag to hear from some of the artists, audience members, cultural leaders, and politicians whose lives have been shaped by this fascinating California cultural landmark.

Women in dance class.
A dance class in a rainbow banner in the ’70s. (Courtesy of Odette Poulard)
The facade of a building with columns.
The building on Martin Luther King, Jr. Street and Derby Street in Berkeley, where the rainbow sign was once located. (Marissa Lagos/KQED)

Special thanks to Tessa Rissacher and Max Lopez, who worked as undergraduates at UC Berkeley to compile a comprehensive online archive of documents, photos, and memorabilia from The Rainbow Sign.

Audio excerpt from “The Truths We Carry: An American Journey” by Kamala Harris, read by the author. Copyright 2019 by Kamala D. Harris. Copyright 2019 Productions, Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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