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History

The Struggle for Equality in “America’s Finest City”: A History of the San Diego NAACP

THE EARLY YEARS

In 1917, realizing the hunger for social justice among the one thousand African-American residents of San Diego, W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the towering intellectuals of the past century, traveled from Los Angeles to San Diego as part of his western states tour on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Having previously surveyed the city in 1913, and as editor of The Crisis and a national board member, he undoubtedly was aware of the burning desire of certain individuals to form a branch of the NAACP.

Image: 1917 Organizing Committee of the NAACP San Diego Branch (Du Bois standing third from left)

They included community leaders like reputed ex-slave and Bethel A.M.E. Church co-founder Solomon Johnson and businessman Edward W. Anderson, the first black in Southern California to file a racial discrimination lawsuit. Six years later Du Bois waxed poetic on his two mentally relaxing and organizationally fruitful visits to the city. He wrote:

“What wonderful and varied audiences they were (in California). . . . the thoughtful half thousand (listeners) down in San Diego. . . . (with) kindly and thrifty (black citizens), with pushing leaders. . . . Then come scenes— scenes so beautiful as to be indescribable: the lilies and geraniums of San Diego. . . . San Diego: hedges of gerania, fields of callas—star-eyed palms —dark fingers of land pointing seaward and the clustered, smoking city.”

Du Bois’ positive impression of San Diego’s black community was well-founded. Following a meeting with some of these “thoughtful,” “kindly and thrifty” souls he posed for a photo with members of the Organizing Committee of the San Diego NAACP. In December 1918, the national headquarters received an application for charter status which was approved in early 1919, five years after the Los Angeles branch was established. The confidence and fighting spirit Du Bois saw in the character of black San Diegans and the 54 founding members of the branch was fully justified as these men and 3 women and their successors were responsible for a string of civil rights accomplishments stretching over nine decades, victories for which they could point to with pride.

Though significant progress had been made, in February 1924, then branch president Elijah J. Gentry, a “shoe shiner” and Sunday school supervisor at Calvary Baptist Church, forwarded a frank assessment of the racial climate in San Diego to NAACP field secretary James Weldon Johnson, the celebrated writer and poet who in 1919 had visited the city and recruited two judges, the city treasurer, and the chief of police to assist the new branch. “Colored people [in San Diego] are not allowed in restaurants, nor to drink soda water in drugstores, nor can they rent bathing suits at any bathing house or beach in this city,” Gentry revealed. He affirmed that despite the small number of blacks in the area and the perception of racial tolerance, this place was nonetheless “a very prejudice[d] city.” There was only limited Ku Klux Klan activity in the region in the first half of the last century, most of which was directed at Mexican immigrants. But famed actor Gregory Peck recalled that as a child living in La Jolla he witnessed a cross burning there on the lawn of a house rented by a black family. The closest thing to a lynching occurred in Ocean Beach in May 1923 when blacks, already warned at gunpoint to leave the neighborhood, had their home burned to the ground as they fled for their lives. They were saved by a policeman. A month prior, an elderly black woman in the same neighborhood who had been warned to leave had her house destroyed by fire. Not only was there just reason to complain about the situation within city limits, but as reported in 1926 in The Western Appeal, when branch officials looked across the border they protested against signs in Tijuana shops warning “colored not wanted.” However, they refused to sink into despair. In fact, just three years after Gentry’s grim communication to Johnson the branch scored another civil rights victory. On September 7, 1927 it gleefully fired off a telegram to officials in New York City that read: “The San Diego Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was victorious in the fight for admittance of colored girls as nurses in the San Diego County Hospital. . . .”

Edward W. Anderson (1871-1953), one of the most successful black businessmen of the past century, served multiple terms as branch president. His importance cannot be overstated. In 1897, when he and his wife were denied premium seating they had paid for at the Fisher Opera House, a chain of events were set in motion that resulted in a lawsuit that tested California’s newly enacted civil right law which established the right of citizens to enjoy “full and equal accommodation” to facilities offered to the public and levied a fine of $50 for cases where racial discrimination was proven. Anderson won his 4 case but lost on appeal. Fast forward to 1923: with Anderson present to help guide it and emboldened with its two influential white board members— Superior Court judges Spencer M. March and Alfred Haines who was also a former branch president—the branch successfully lobbied for an amendment to the law which added places which sold soft drinks and ice cream to the list of establishments prohibited from “unreasonable” discrimination based on race and increased the fine to $100. The branch’s big victory was celebrated in the pages of The Crisis and, back home, Anderson’s name became legend. The law, amended and broadened once more in 1959 and today popularly known as the Unruh Civil Rights Act, has been used numerous times to challenge various instances of discrimination throughout the state.

Recognizing the growing significance of blacks’ westward migration, the national organization held the first Western Convention of the NAACP in Los Angeles in 1928. In 1932, John E. Craft became the local NAACP president. He and his wife were from Kentucky and had arrived in San Diego in 1910. John started work here as a janitor, later owned Crafty Cleaning Company, then ventured into real estate. His wife, Rebecca, a graduate of Kentucky State College and a former school teacher, also served as president of the branch and was considerably more successful in advocating for fair housing and employment. On her watch scholarship money was raised and at least one promising black co-ed at San Diego State College was awarded $50.00. Founder of the Logan Heights Women’s Civic League and active in Democratic Party politics, today she is best remembered for her efforts to pressure the city’s bigoted police chief to hire a black policeman, Jasper Davis in 1931, and for leading the charge to have the school board hire its first black teacher, Lorraine Van Lowe in 1942. Ironically, Rebecca fought to have a black teacher employed though she herself had long been denied such a position. During World War II she worked as a packer for the much publicized black-owned Pacific Parachute Company, and she counseled and planned activities for black soldiers through the USO. At age 58, Rebecca died of cancer on December 6, 1945.

In the pre-war years members of the San Diego NAACP had the opportunity to meet with visiting dignitaries and officials from the national headquarters, among them organizer James Weldon Johnson in 1919; NAACP co-founders Mary Burnett Talbert in 1921 and Mary White Ovington in 1922; the lone black Congressman Oscar DePriest in 1929; NAACP field secretary William Pickens in 1930; and the NAACP’s brilliant legal counsel Charles H. Houston and Pittsburgh Courier columnist George Schuyler in 1936. 5 Consistently acknowledged by headquarters for its exceptional fundraising, fiscal health, and for signing up new members, in 1934 regional director Daisy Lampkin referred to the San Diego NAACP as “one of the most faithful of the NAACP branches,” and recognized that it had fought “for a number of years against racial discrimination in this naval port, and has won the respect of the community in this effort.”

THE POSTWAR ERA

Testifying in Los Angeles in 1952 at a “Communist conspiracy trial,” a government-paid informant recounted how his San Diego branch of the Communist Party conducted anti-racial discrimination pickets at a chain grocery store and movie theaters in 1945 and 1946. He said that then San Diego NAACP board member George Lohr, a German-American Communist organizer in the county, had encouraged the branch’s participation in the picketing but that the party had failed to attract any black recruits. He further stated that the branch’s president terminated participation in picketing so as not to be associated with alleged subversives.

The undeserved reputation of a branch infiltrated by radicals like Lohr and socialist professor Harry C. Steinmetz did not deter its most historically significant leader to date: Jack Johnson Kimbrough, a gentlemanly, refined dentist from Lexington, Mississippi who arrived here from UC-Berkeley in 1935 and elected president in 1947. Humiliated and angered at having been refused a snack at a downtown “greasy spoon,” Kimbrough and Gordon H. Stafford, a white integrationist and branch board member, methodically devised plans for redress that made them pioneers in anti-discrimination tactics at the dawn of the civil rights revolution. Taking full advantage of that amended state law the branch was responsible for in 1923, Kimbrough recruited a group of black and white students at San Diego State College, carefully rehearsed them to act as customers and witnesses targeting white-owned restaurants where they fully expected the black students would be denied service. The already seated white students would observe what transpired for testimony in court that was sure to follow. Using this innovative scheme they filed and won 31 of its 32 lawsuits against the restaurants, usually with court awards to plaintiffs of $300 per case that was split between the students and their attorney. Kimbrough followed up this triumph with the desegregation of the Grant Grill at the prestigious U.S. Grant Hotel in 1948—another story filled with tension and drama that screams for media attention. Similarly, as reported in the August 1948 issue of 6 Ebony magazine, Stafford, who personally participated in and arranged nondiscriminatory compliance tests with his racially mixed crew of daring individuals, educated restaurant owners about California’s anti-bias law and successfully sued those who refused to abide by it.

Kimbrough’s genius as a civil rights tactician aside, he could not reverse the NAACP’s precipitous slide from prominence in the community that began several years before he took the helm. In a recent article in California History by Texas A&M history professor Albert Broussard, half a page is devoted to explaining why in the 1940s and the early 1950s the local NAACP became “inactive,” “weak and ineffectual,” that the membership “plummeted” (from 1,803 members in 1946 to 240 in 1951); and there remained the perception that the organization may have been contaminated by subversive elements. Rev. John J. Lewis, pastor of St. Paul’s Methodist Church, wrote to NAACP executive secretary Walter White: “I have been elected President of the San Diego Branch of the NAACP for 1948. Our Branch here is in a very bad condition, but I will do all in my power to make it one of the best in the nation.”

One of the few bright moments in this period happened in March 1949 when board member Gordon H. Stafford sent a letter to Time magazine chastising it for featuring a watermelon-chomping black caricature in a windshield wiper advertisement, compelling this leading news magazine’s advertising editor to send a written apology to NAACP headquarters in New York City. But Rev. Lewis was not able to achieve his ambition of reviving the branch during his tenure and the organization continued to drift. The branch’s failings must have been painfully felt by Kimbrough who by 1953 had moved on and co-founded the San Diego Urban League. Prof. Broussard convincingly argued that it was in the postwar period that the San Diego Urban League eclipsed the San Diego NAACP as the most important group agitating for civil rights, antidiscrimination, and economic uplift efforts on behalf of blacks in the region.