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by Robert Johnson & Charlene Riggins, from A Different Shade of Orange

“Black people in Orange County? There aren’t any black people in Orange County.” That was true, after sundown in the Orange County towns of Orange and Brea in the first half of the twentieth century and those words are still being heard. During that early time there were only handfuls of black people in areas surrounding the county seat, the city of Santa Ana. But change took place in the second half of the century. The tiny black community grew in both population and influence in the life of Orange County. Roughly 2 percent of this county of three million people, around 60,000 people in the 2000 federal census, considered themselves black or mixed-race including black. As of the publication date of the present book, this change is also exemplified by the presence of African Americans in all aspects of community life including the county’s two major universities, led by President Milton Gordon of California State University, Fullerton, and Chancellor Michael Drake of the University of California, Irvine. (1)


Professor Lawrence de Graaf in the Afterword of this volume compares the unusual history of Orange County’s black community to those of other African American communities in large metropolitan areas of California and the US. The fact that descriptions of Orange County in this book only go back to about 1930 does not present a problem. As mentioned, there was hardly a black community before that time. The Great Migration, where Negroes in the South were drawn to jobs in the northern states following our entrance into World War I, had little effect toward increasing the black population of Orange County during the war and the decade after. Therefore, the history, which our interviewees describe in this volume, starts in the 1930s as black families trickled into Santa Ana and to a lesser extent Fullerton and other cities surrounding Santa Ana, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the trickle turned into a small stream.


In spite of the jump in the number of black personnel at the Tustin and El Toro Marine bases, data shows that as late as 1960, the percentage of black people in Orange County was less than one-half percent, the same as recorded in the U.S. Census of 1950. This changed in the decade of the 1960s. Industrial job growth, civil rights organizations, and laws covering employment and housing allowed increasing numbers of blacks to move into Santa Ana and the suburbs. By the mid 1970s, integration of the suburbs was fueled by black families moving from outside of the county and from the Santa Ana “ghetto.” By 1980 the black population of Santa Ana had leveled off and the black population of the rest of the county was fast moving toward the present plateau of 2 percent of the total population. Knowing the population demographics provides a context in which the reader can understand the lives of these black Orange County pioneers and their children who moved into this almost all-white county. (2)


In this book, each chapter is comprised of oral histories, the story of each individual’s family. We could have chosen to design the book chapters around subject areas such as church, school, housing, and the workplace, but instead we chose to keep the book in the narrative form of the interviews, which we think is generally more interesting to readers. Keeping the family stories together also allowed us to use names and photos without creating confusion in the reader’s mind. We have kept a few stories that occurred outside of Orange County because they are great stories involving the interviewee. In our editing process we have tried to do this without unduly sacrificing the book’s historical value.


All of the persons interviewed are African Americans with the exception of the Kennedys from Fullerton. The individual sagas have been chronologically ordered by their arrival in Orange County in each of the book’s two parts. The first part includes only those persons whose first Orange County home was in Santa Ana. The second part includes only those who first lived outside of Santa Ana, which we call the suburbs. Because some of the people interviewed moved in to and out of Santa Ana, their story may include both Santa Ana and suburban experiences. Some, like Gladys Smith and her family, first came to Santa Ana and then, as quickly as possible, moved to the suburbs. Others, like Earl Dearing, came to the El Toro Marine Corps base in what is now Irvine and subsequently moved to Santa Ana and stayed there. Some people, like Jessie Allen, moved out of Orange County and eventually moved back to the county. Connie Duffy Farlice never came back to Orange County.


Our choice to include oral histories of people who lived in the suburbs, as well as Santa Ana, was to provide balance to the Orange County story. The total number of black people in the suburbs was roughly equal to the black population of Santa Ana until a spike in the Santa Ana black population in the late 1960s to mid 1970s. We chose to interview both, not only because of the equal numbers but because often their views and experiences were quite different, even when both were imbedded in neighborhoods that were predominantly Mexican American.


Blacks living in the suburbs, with the exception of those dwelling in a single neighborhood within each of the two north Orange County cities of Fullerton and Placentia, were surrounded by white neighbors and their children went to almost all-white schools. Often the black child was the only African American in class or even in the school. Although this situation created some difficulties, the children learned to navigate in relative comfort, and even to excel in a white world. For parents like Ken and Jo Caines, this was what they wanted for their children. Some children, as they grew into adulthood, remained close to the white world, even marrying into it; others moved in and out or chose to live in both; and some chose to leave Orange County or associate primarily with black friends.


Children growing up in the suburbs, and even in Santa Ana, faced a very different world from their parents. Interviewee Zeph Jones was senior class president of Santa Ana High School in 1950, in spite of the fact that there were few black students in the entire school. Chris Caines, whom we interviewed, and Robert Clemons, the son of interviewee Bob Clemons, were student body presidents of their almost-all-white high schools around 1980. Interestingly enough, these latter two high schools were in the city of Orange, formerly a sundown town. Because the children’s histories so often contrasted with those of their parents, we have placed some emphasis on their lives even though their stories are mostly told through their parents’ voices and extended into and beyond the 1980s. But, before black families could bring their offspring to the suburbs, they first had to deal with the discrimination they faced in finding a job and in moving into a white neighborhood.


Most, but not all, of the people interviewed encountered discrimination at one time or another in obtaining the housing of their choice. For those who had no trouble when coming into the county, discrimination often occurred later when they wanted a more desirable location, either in Santa Ana or the suburbs. When the Mulkeys chose an apartment to rent outside of the “Negro area” of Santa Ana, they were turned down by the owner. In 1963 they sued and that case, Reitman v. Mulkey, went to the US Supreme Court in an important and successful effort to invalidate a state anti-fair housing initiative, Proposition 14. But even after a successful effort to move into an apartment or home in a non-black area, some people experienced problems with neighbors, as in the case of Josh White, who was shot at, but these problems most often subsided when the white residents got to know their new black neighbors.


Up until the 1960s, a problem more critical than housing was the lack of good jobs for black people. Orange County’s employment was primarily based on agriculture and blacks simply were not hired for these jobs, because of the availability of better qualified and/or less expensive Mexican, white, and Asian labor. Two exceptions were 100 black strike breakers brought in from Los Angles in 1917 to harvest sugar beet fields and 1,500 Jamaicans hired near the end of World War II to work in La Habra and Irvine. World War II provided some jobs in construction, but most of the jobs in the county until the 1960s were menial and service-oriented (e.g., shoe shining, janitorial, and in the case of women, working as domestics). There were some black businesses that served mostly blacks such as barber shops and restaurants as well as those that served the entire community in areas of building maintenance and cooking.


This narrow range of options changed with industrialization in the 1960s, led by aerospace and electronics companies like Autonetics, Hughes, Aeronutronic-Ford, and Collins Radio. Workers were needed and government contracts depended on these companies providing equal job opportunities for black people. This meant professional-level job openings in business, engineering, and teaching and resulted in the formation of the effective Equal Opportunity Employers Association. Everett Winters tells about how, under black leadership, the organization was formed and its role in breaking down racial barriers and encouraging blacks to work in Orange County. Without work there was no reason to move to the county. Johnny Williams, one of the early black school teachers hired in Santa Ana, said, “In my family, wherever you find a job, that's where you stay.” That is, as Williams might have added, if you are not denied housing where you chose to live.


Bob Clemons’ motivation to continue working as an engineer in Orange County was that it was less expensive to purchase a home in the city of Orange than to change jobs and live in a black suburb of Los Angeles. So, job openings, good wages, and lower housing prices resulted in more people having the motivation and financial means to live in Orange County suburbs. Also, motivators included the good schools and a crime-free environment that could be found in the county. On the other hand, Orange County’s deserved reputation of being ultra-conservative and libertarian with strong ties to the John Birch Society was an inhibitor to blacks moving into the county. These political realities were reinforced by racial discrimination, making it difficult to rent or purchase housing in the Orange County suburbs. Many who worked in Orange County would drive every day from their home in Los Angeles County.


But some black families did move. As more black people came to live in the county, their numbers ignited the fears and prejudices of the majority of white citizens resulting in an increased number of cases of racial discrimination. In the early 1960s the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), organizations led by people like Everett Winters and Richard Petherbridge, provided legal help based on newly instituted fair housing laws for families seeking housing outside of the “ghetto.” The Orange County Fair Housing Council was formed in 1965 in response to the passing of the aforementioned Proposition 14 that invalidated California’s fair housing laws. The work of the council is described by early members Gladys Smith, Ralph and Natalie Kennedy, and Jo Caines.


When black persons began moving into suburbia, there were increased incidents of racial profiling and police harassment. This was particularly true regarding blacks being pulled over in traffic. The number of these incidents depended on the city, the looks, dress, age of the driver, and the car being driven. When Wacira Gethaiga was a student at Chapman College, in the city of Orange, he was stopped numerous times, whereas Marine Corpsman Earl Dearing could not recall ever being stopped due to profiling or harassment. Everett Winters tells about county sheriffs following or stopping him and other blacks in spite of the fact that the officers knew who they were. He also tells about the FBI tracking him in the 1960s. Because of issues like racial profiling, the Orange County Human Relations Council was formed. This predecessor to the present county-sponsored Human Relations Commission is described by one of the people on its formation committee, Joshua White. Less ambiguous was the access to some government facilities and public accommodations in the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s.


Although not mentioned in Mary Owens’ oral history, her uncle, Neff Cox (4), worked in the city of Brea but was not allowed to stay there overnight. Ernestine Ransom tells a similar story about helping her mother clean houses in the late 1930s and having to leave the city of Orange before dark. There is no record of any law, ordinance, or resolution to this effect in either city, but it was “common knowledge” that it was not legal for blacks to stay after dark and the penalty for doing this has not been documented.


In the case of swimming in the Orange City Plunge, a public swimming pool located in Hart Park, non-whites had one day in which they could swim. Discrimination was also present in the case of public accommodations such as restaurants, movie theaters, and clothing stores. Most, but not all, restaurants in the 1930s and 1940s in Santa Ana would not serve blacks. Also, most clothing stores would not allow blacks to try on clothes. When Connie Duffy was told she could not try on a hat, her mother made her leave and refused to ever again shop at that store. Regarding the movies, one of the three (later, two of the four) theaters in Santa Ana and the theater in Orange made blacks and “Mexicans” sit in the balcony. But, these examples of blatant discrimination are not the whole story.
Generally speaking, in the 1930s and 1940s most Orange County towns were not sundown towns in the literal sense. Of course, racial profiling and housing discrimination were present in all Orange County cities, as in most cities of America. But, unlike cities like Los Angeles and Chicago, there was free access to beaches and parks as well. Connie Duffy Farlice’s brothers even had jobs as life guards in Newport Beach. The major county park, Irvine Park, was a favorite place for all races to celebrate occasions or simply have picnics and was mentioned often in the interviews. Blacks were buried in the same cemeteries as whites.


Most black families in the early days simply did not have the money to eat out and the teenagers, white, Mexican, and black, when going to the beach would bring their own lunches. Black boys and girls were free to play with Mexican and white friends. Although Zeph Jones maybe had a few more fights because of racial slurs, he being a football player, didn’t find that much of a problem. Ernestine Ransom, who came to Orange County as a teenager, liked it in Santa Ana because she didn’t have to participate in fights like she did in the all-black areas in which she previously lived. Connie Duffy Farlice can only remember one racial slur. (5)

 

Generally speaking, before the 1960s, because there were so few black children in neighborhoods and schools, black children had few black children to relate to and therefore blended into the white and Mexican communities. Each was not perceived as a threat or an outsider but simply another player in games, student in school, or friend in the neighborhood.


Sports teams were integrated and no restrictions were placed on where they could play. In the late ‘30s and early ‘40s the Duffy boys played sports at Santa Ana High, Bill going on to play for UCLA. Brig Owens, the famous Washington Redskin football player, as with six of his brothers, was an outstanding athlete. This was in the 1950s and 1960s at the mostly white Fullerton High School. Another exceptional athlete from Fullerton was Thomas Berkley, who came with his parents to live in this city in 1931 while he was in high school. His sister, Ruby Berkley Goodwin, was in her late twenties at that time and through studies at Fullerton Junior College she began her writing career. (6)  Thomas Berkley became a famous attorney and publisher of the Oakland Post and Ruby became well known as an author. Ruby’s son Robert went from elementary school through Fullerton Junior College and became one of the first black script writers for Hollywood movies and television.

Although all of the Berkley family members who settled in Fullerton were deceased before the final group of oral histories were taken, it is important to note that they were forerunners to a number of those interviewed who were also involved in writing, television, and theater production. This included interviewees Jo Caines at TV station KOCE and Adeleane Hunter, who made theater production her lifetime profession


Parents, particularly in Santa Ana, mostly socialized with other black families and sometimes were members of fraternal orders like the Masons, as were Warren Bussey and John Smith. Although the church was the major institution in the black community, only one pastor was interviewed. But, almost all who were interviewed were asked about their relationship with the church. In contrast to their parents, the second generation had broad social outlets with friends of all races and did not depend as much on the black church. Although there was always interracial dating because the black community was small, interracial marriage only became common in the 1970s and beyond. As often as not, the children of those who were interviewed married someone of another race.


In determining which interviews to include in this book, there was an attempt to choose a wide spectrum of interviewees, including almost an equal number of women and men doing a wide variety of work. If in the selection of the interviewees there is an unbalance, it is tipped toward the notable or exceptional. Notable, for example, are Ed Caruthers, the Olympic silver medal winner in the high jump during the 1968 Olympics, and as already mentioned, Dottie Mulkey, famous for her involvement in the landmark case, Reitman v. Mulkey. Many selected for inclusion in this book are also notable, in a local sense, because of the outstanding work they have done in the county. But, possibly the tilt toward these exceptional people is justified in that the Orange County black community, considering its small size, has itself been exceptional in many areas of life in the community at large. But, this should be expected of people who had the grit and courage to move to Orange County and deal with being black in a white milieu and also have the intelligence and education to compete as equals in school and the workforce in this highly competitive Orange County society.

 

Footnotes:

 

(1) Most often the editors of this book will use the term “black” in their own writing to describe a person who identifies with being a colored, Negro, black, African American, or mixed-race person. Use of the term “black” more closely parallels the language used by those being interviewed even when discussing their early lives at a time when the terms colored and Negro were most frequently used.

 

(2) Population details, from the years 1920 to 2000, concerning the nineteen largest cities in Orange County, are found in Appendix II. The 2000 U.S. Census shows that of the fifty major metropolitan areas in the United States, Orange County has the most dispersed (spread out) population.

 

(3) The term “ghetto” as used in this book is limited to describing three areas in Orange County: in Santa Ana, Placentia, and Fullerton. In Santa Ana, the ghetto of the 1920s was northwest of First Street and Bristol Avenue and, in time, expanded south. In Placentia the ghetto was formed in the late 1950s and early 1960s and was primarily composed of two streets, Missouri and Kansas Avenues, located immediately west of what is now the 57 Freeway. The black community in Fullerton in the mid-1920s grew from the 100 and 200 blocks of East Truslow Avenue to the south and east. The ghetto in Santa Ana, near the peak of black migration to the city, had only one census tract out of 104 that was close to 50 percent black (48.2 percent of a tract population of 2,626 in 1970). The ghetto in Placentia, in the 1960s, was predominantly black, but in Fullerton the ghetto maintained a mixed-race population. So, when the term “ghetto” is used in this book, its primary meaning is an area where the largest percentage of African Americans have congregated, and where housing is obtainable without having to deal with discrimination.

(4) See Oral Histories OH 1726 (Thompson) and OH 1720 (Jaster). Neff Cox was a boot black in Brea during the day, was very well liked, earned enough money to bring his relatives to Orange County, but had to go back to Fullerton before dark each night. Cities like Brea and Orange are called “sundown towns.”

 

(5) The term “Mexican” was commonly used to differentiate Anglo Americans from Latin Americans, because Latinos/Hispanics considered themselves white. But, since most of the Latinos in Orange County in the early days were from Mexico or their parents or grandparents were from Mexico, the term “Mexican” was used as an identifier. For example, Connie Duffy Farlice speaks of her best friend as a Mexican girl and not at all in a derogatory way.

 

(6) Ruby Berkley Goodwin wrote the popular autobiography “It’s good to be black” (1953), the story of her experiences as a child in the small town of Du Quoin, Illinois.

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