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‘She Was Still So Full of Life’

Bea Lett's Place in Oakland's History

New America Media, News feature, Leslie Casimir Posted: Jun 07, 2009

Editor’s Note: Ivarene Beatrice Lett, the 97-year-old Oakland resident brutally murdered in her home on May 11, now has the dubious distinction of being the city’s oldest homicide victim. But her family and friends want her to be remembered for how she lived, not how she died. A successful businesswoman, elder advocate and avid line dancer, Lett led a full and vibrant life to the end, reports NAM’s Leslie Casimir.

Ivarene Beatrice Lett left tiny Nowata, Okla., in the 1940s after World War II. Like many African Americans who embarked on the great migration north, Lett was in search of a better life, one filled with hard work, good friends, blues music, and her favorite champagne, Cook’s, spiked with a splash of whiskey, to her friend’s bewilderment.

"Bea Lett in earlier years

She found all of this and more in Oakland, becoming the owner of the long-running Bea’s Hotel, located near the now-vacant Southern Pacific Railroad Station in the West Oakland neighborhood known as the Lower Bottoms.

An advocate for the elderly and the poor, Lett was once a fixture at City Hall, lobbying politicians to improve the quality of life for residents. She also helped raise money to open an affordable housing complex for low-income seniors.

“She was very active in working to improve the conditions in West Oakland,” said Washington Burns, executive director of the Prescott Joseph Center, a community group. “People who come up on their own and have to survive in this world tend to be feisty, and she didn’t like to be pushed around.”

On May 11, this community stalwart was silenced. Discovered in a pool of blood in her condominium, Lett’s throat had been slashed, according to a close family friend familiar with the police investigation. Her purse and jewelry box had been rifled through, the friend said. Lett’s killer remains on the loose.

Her great niece, Selice Davenport, who discovered Lett’s body, declined to comment.

“It’s just too emotional,” she said. “I’m not eating, I’m not sleeping.”

Citing the ongoing investigation, Oakland Police Department Spokesman Jeff Thomason would not confirm or deny the details of how Lett was murdered, only adding that the cause of death was a result of blunt force trauma. Police officials said Lett is probably the oldest homicide victim in Oakland’s history. The city and Crime Stoppers are offering about $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrator.

“This murder is high on our priority list,” Thomason said.

Reeling from this senseless murder, many who knew Lett say they don’t want this elder woman to be simply depicted as a crime statistic. They want people to recall how Lett, an entrepreneur and an activist, loved to live.

“As odd as it sounds, at 97 her life was cut short to me,” said Malaika Porter Hopkinson, 37, whose father, Frank Porter, is a great nephew of Lett’s mother. “She was still so full of life.”

Lett opened Bea’s Hotel on the corner of 16th and Wood streets shortly after she arrived in Oakland. Friends say she was one of the first black women to own a hotel in the city.

The hotel catered to the legendary black Pullman Company sleeping car porters who would get off from work at the nearby station and head over to Lett’s domain: nearly a block-long empire. In addition to operating the two-story hotel that still bears her name (that was part of the agreement when she sold the business), she operated a café, a barbershop and a pool hall.

“She loved this building,” said Vishav Bhushan, who has operated New Bea’s Hotel since 1984, but would often still see Lett because she visited often. “She would drive by here all the time to just come and look at the building.”

Before and after she retired, Lett also was active in local politics, lobbying City Hall to address quality of life issues in the Lower Bottoms. Passionate about elder issues, she and others helped raise money for the construction of St. Patrick’s Manor, an affordable housing complex for seniors that still stands.

“She was a woman who loved life and loved people – she didn’t even have any ailments,” said Lottie Jackson, 78, who had known Lett since 1956. “Bea had no regrets.”

Lett loved music, the blues and jazz, mostly, and was an avid line dancer. She practiced weekly at the West Berkeley Senior Center, driving herself in an old-model Chevrolet.

Frank Porter recalls how proud she was of her condo on Lee Street. It was purchased after an inheritance.

“She always felt very secure in that building since she lived alone,” said Jackson, who said visitors need a key to enter the building and to call and operate the elevators. Lett lived on the sixth floor.

Visitors were treated to her large collection of black and white photos lining the hallway walls. There are pictures of her dad, James Benjamin Lett, a Cherokee, and her mother, Minerva Weber Lett, who was of German and African-American ancestry.

“Visually she was light enough and if she had chosen -- like a couple of her cousins did -- she could have passed [for white],” said Hopkinson. “I’ve got admiration for the fact that she chose to fight for [black] rights rather than go the other way.”

Leslie Casimir can be reached at lcasimir@newamericamedia.org

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