A trip to an African-American greeting card and calendar design and distribution business in an out-of-the way North Oakland warehouse—tucked back in that little sliver between the Berkeley and Emeryville borders—demonstrated to me once more how small and close-knit the East Bay’s African-American extended family community once was.
In the middle of an interview, I found out that the woman I was talking to was the great-granddaughter of the midwife who delivered my mother, and that her mother and mine once lived across the street from each other while growing up in Berkeley.
Berkeley native Margot Dashiell, the president, co-founder and driving force behind Frederick Douglass Designs, wasn’t surprised at the connections. Discovering and nurturing connections within the African-American community is one of the major purposes of her business.
Along with traditional holiday cards, books, and figurines—all with positive, Afrocentric images, the 20-year-old company may be one of the larger distributors of Kwanzaa cards in the country.
“It’s very important for people to have ways of expressing sentiment through our culture,” Dashiell says. “Not just our color. We need to affirm our achievements.”
Leafing through the company’s extensive catalogue or poking into boxes lining the many metal shelf rows lining the cavernous warehouse, both the color and the positive achievement reach out to you in the greeting, holiday, and event cards, the wall calendars featuring African masks, black history photos and events, or jazz artists, the music boxes and figurines, the Southern soul food cookbooks.
The colorful cards feature original designs by internationally famous Brenda Joysmith (a UC Berkeley and California College of Arts and Crafts alumnus), Oakland artist and activist Tarika Lewis (my own cousin), or fine artist and Los Angeles native Synthia Saint James (best-known for illustrating the covers of Terri McMillan’s novels).
Only a few days before Christmas—as well as the start of the Kwanzaa season—business is still booming.
Dashiell estimates that the company has sold 20,000 boxes of holiday cards this season alone, and our interview gets started a half-hour late as walk-in customers come into the company’s showroom office in a steady stream.
It’s all the more amazing because Frederick Douglass Designs sits in the middle of an out-of-the-way industrial neighborhood with no identifying sign on the front.
“We actually need a storefront, to handle those kind of customers,” Dashiell admits, adding that most of the walk-in traffic comes from word-of-mouth, as well as local people who apparently pick up the company’s address from mailed catalogues.
Most of the business, however, is done through mail distribution around the country: to bookstores, individuals who resell, churches and other fund-raising organizations.
Dashiell, a Berkeley High graduate, says her inspiration for the business came from her political activism “and the sort of social consciousness that I developed” while she was a UC Berkeley undergraduate in the early 1960’s. There she was a member (along with my older brother—oh my goodness, another connection!) of the African-American Association, the black nationalist group that was the political training ground of both Bobby Seale (who later went on to co-found the Black Panther Party) and Ron Karenga (who later became the creator of the Kwanzaa holiday). Two decades later, she decided to put that social consciousness to practical use.
“I always liked sending out holiday cards with positive, African-American themes,” she explained. “I thought other people would like that, too. So I asked my brother, Joseph, to come in with me in the business.”
Joseph Dashiell, an Oberlin College graduate, had a background in an area that his sister admits she lacked: sales. It was 1983. Working out of the basement of her Berkeley home on a $13,000 investment, the sister-and-brother company worked with an initial line of cards illustrated by Brenda Joysmith. They lost $1,000 the first year. “But we knew, intuitively, that there was a market,” Dashiell says. “And after that, the volume began to double each year.”
The company located African-American artists around the country who illustrated the cards that the Dashiells designed. “We do the art direction and most of the writing,” she says. “We shape the work.”
Four years after its founding, the company outgrew Dashiell’s basement and moved to its first independent home on Folger Street in Berkeley. The company moved to its North Oakland warehouse headquarters five years ago.
In addition to Margot and Joseph Dashiell, the company employs one full-time worker to operate both the warehouse and the company website (www.fddesigns.com), along with 12 workers specifically hired during the holiday rush.
Dashiell also put her political training into other areas, running as an unsuccessful candidate for Berkeley City Council in the 1970s.
The company, Dashiell feels, is fulfilling her original goal of highlighting African-American achievements. “Many people don’t know what African-Americans have accomplished,” she says. “Many people take it for granted. Even for people who work here at the company, you can see the inspiration on their faces when they look through some of the books, or at some of our ‘knowledge cards.’” She described these as series cards which contain brief, biographical descriptions of African-American achievers. “People look at these things and say, ‘Aha!’ You can see the joy of knowing.”