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West of Jim CrowThe Fight against California's Color Line$

Lynn M. Hudson

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780252043345

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: May 2021

DOI: 10.5622/illinois/9780252043345.001.0001

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(p.1) Introduction
West of Jim Crow

Lynn M. Hudson

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

The introduction uses Ruby McKnight Williams’s story after her arrival in California in the 1930s to present the themes and arguments of the book. Williams’s shock at the extent of segregation in her new home aligned with the experience of other black migrants and the introduction places her history in the context of black migration to the state in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. An overview of Jim Crow’s genesis during the era of statehood and the Gold Rush is followed by a discussion of African American resistance and the ways black bodies refused to follow the dictates of segregation. Organized resistance to black codes and antiblack practices put black Californians at the center of the state’s—and sometimes the nation’s—contestations over Jim Crow. An overview of the chapters is included.

Keywords:   Ruby McKnight Williams, Jim Crow, California, statehood, gold rush, black migration, black bodies, black codes

In the early years of the Great Depression, Ruby McKnight Williams left Kansas for California planning to become a schoolteacher. Having earned her credential from the Kansas State Teachers College, she wanted to make a difference in the lives of young Californians. But her dreams were derailed in a few short months when she found that her new home, Pasadena, did not hire black teachers. Only ten miles from downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena had been declared the wealthiest city in the nation in the 1920s. Williams found that black people were unwelcome at most public facilities, including the public pool. Tuesday, the day known as Negro Day, was the only day of the week she was allowed to swim. On Tuesday evenings the city drained the pool and refilled it with fresh water for white swimmers to enjoy on Wednesdays. The rigid color line in Pasadena took Williams by surprise. Segregation was common in Kansas in the years before World War II, but Williams and other African American migrants had moved to California to evade them. This was not the West that Williams had imagined. As she later recalled, “I didn’t see any difference in Pasadena and Mississippi except they were spelled differently.”1 West of Jim Crow tells the story of Californians like Williams who, disarmed by economic and social discrimination in the promised land, mobilized against western segregation.

Fantasies of western freedom drove thousands of African Americans from their homes during the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries in successive waves of migration to California. Since the 1849 gold rush, the state had drawn black migrants from every region of the country. They left behind sharecropper shacks in Piedmont North (p.2) Carolina, dust bowl towns of Oklahoma, and the swampy backwaters of Louisiana. Whether families of nineteenth-century southern farmers or twentieth-century teachers from Topeka like Ruby McKnight Williams, these migrants shared the same dream of finding in California a haven from Jim Crow. African Americans sought to escape the discrimination they encountered back home. Driven by stories in the black press, letters from friends in Los Angeles, or a burgeoning film industry that pictured sunny orange groves and picket fences, black men and women understood the West to be a place of possibility, and therefore a place they belonged. For many, California was where they planned to reinvent themselves outside of the harsh—and dangerous—racial climate of segregated America.

According to historian Douglas Flamming, “such optimism was neither inappropriate nor misleading.”2 The stories of home ownership, high-paying jobs, and a vibrant social and cultural scene were well-founded. An astounding 36 percent of African Americans in Los Angeles owned homes in 1910, a rate far higher than other western cities and most eastern ones as well.3 African Americans, by the early twentieth century, had already created impressive enclaves in Northern and Southern California, causing easterners to wax poetic about their accomplishments. In W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1913 profile of Pasadena and Los Angeles in the Crisis, he famously proclaimed that “nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high.”4 Black Californians built homes, enjoyed picnics at the beach, raised families, published newspapers, played music in nightclubs, voted, and ran for public office. The markers of social mobility abounded. The bustling businesses on Central Avenue, Los Angeles’s black main street, included Charlotta Bass’s the California Eagle, which began publication in 1879 and continued for over seven decades. Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company, the first black-owned insurance company in the state, opened its office on Central Avenue in 1925. (Ruby McKnight Williams would take the Pacific Electric Red Cars from Pasadena to work there in the 1930s.) Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday played the jazz clubs on Central Avenue, and the area’s boisterous night life would later become the stuff of novels by Walter Mosley.5 Black musicians like Dexter Gordon received a stellar education at South Central’s Jefferson High School and brought the West Coast sound of bebop to the world.6 African Americans around the country saw these achievements as indicators of progress and equality in the Golden (p.3) State. Black migrants hoped and expected California would provide equal treatment in jobs, employment, and housing. Perhaps no one embraced the West’s “culture of expectation” as eagerly as black Californians.7

For Ruby McKnight Williams, stories about Central Avenue fueled her desire to leave Kansas; she imagined a place where she could live free of Jim Crow and thrive. Her dreams of a good life in the Golden State did not begin with Central Avenue, however: California was already part of her family history. In 1849 Williams’s great-grandfather left Kansas as a cook on a wagon train bound for the gold rush. “When he came back, he told the children about the oranges growing on trees,” she remembered. “And, of course, they couldn’t imagine that. But grandmother kept it in mind that she was going to California to see these oranges grow on trees.”8 In 1906, Williams’s grandmother, Eliza Overr, did just that. Taking her youngest son, Oscar, to California, they settled in Pasadena, in the neighborhood where most African Americans, including baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s family, would live. Ruby, her mother, and her three siblings would follow in 1930 and live in a house on Vernon Avenue, near her grandmother and uncle. But their dreams of orange groves and equal opportunities quickly dissipated.

In Pasadena, Williams found that jobs were scarce and segregation common. California had been separating white from nonwhite bodies for nearly a century and was adept at limiting black mobility in a state otherwise rife with opportunities. Williams’s experiences negotiating Jim Crow in Kansas provided a road map, but she and other black Californians found themselves off the map. Their new state would require new methods of navigation and new ways of contesting and acquiring power.

West of Jim Crow traces California’s history of segregation from statehood to the beginning of the long civil rights movement in order to better understand the ways African Americans operated in this terrain. This particular temporal frame both highlights Jim Crow’s long history and its roots in slavery and state formation and also foregrounds the unusual methods African Americans used to combat inequality, methods that fall outside those traditionally associated with the black freedom struggle. This book considers what came before the better-known struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. The Golden State became home to the first nineteenth-century civil rights movement in the West and organized resistance to black codes and antiblack practices that put black Californians at the center of the state’s—and sometimes the nation’s—contestations over Jim Crow. No other western (p.4) state had such an active black press from the nineteenth century forward. Further, as Mark Brilliant, Douglas Flamming, Scott Kurashige, Josh Sides, and others have shown, California became a “civil rights frontier” again in the twentieth century, providing the staging ground for innumerable challenges to segregation in schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods.

Focusing on the long span from Reconstruction to the Great Migration reveals the surprising places black Californians inhabited as they carved out freedom in the far West. Post-emancipation societies, as Thomas Holt argues, were “dependent on keeping blacks and other racialized groups in their place.”9 This book follows the black bodies that refused to stay in their place. They crossed color lines in terrain familiar to the historical narrative: in schools, on streetcars, on buses. But they also crossed lines in places that are not central to our understanding of Jim Crow: in pools on white-only days, on public fairgrounds amid displays on eugenics, and in Arts and Crafts homes in wealthy suburbs. A focus on these spaces where African Americans collided with Jim Crow helps expand our understanding of the reach of white supremacy and the ways African Americans forced post-emancipation society to grapple with their presence.

West of Jim Crow presents stories that highlight the diverse forms of racial restrictions, containment, and antiblack violence in the Golden State. The aim here is to follow the shape of segregation—and the pushback against it—as it changes over time. The forces of white supremacy manifest themselves in myriad disguises across the state; color lines were drawn differently in wealthy cities and in rural farming communities. Responses to California’s segregation were never static. From letter-writing campaigns to the governor, to the establishment of a vibrant free press, to creating an all-black town, black women and men in the West were agile and astute adversaries in the fight against Jim Crow. Many of their inventive, creative strategies arose as a response to the unique conditions in places like Los Angeles or Riverside.

California proved to be an innovator of methods to control, contain, and restrict people of color. From theaters in San Francisco to pools in Pasadena, the impetus to contain and control black bodies remained a constant from the late nineteenth to the mid–twentieth century. Armed with the wealth of a rapidly expanding economy and the ideological weapons of scientific racism, California invested millions of dollars to bolster the infrastructure of segregation: city attorneys were hired, separate schools and playgrounds were built, and research labs were funded. From the political upheavals of Reconstruction to the massive influx of African Americans during the Great (p.5) Migration, California seemed determined to track the place and status of its black citizens. But why was blackness seen as such a threat? Compared to southern states, California’s black population during the era of Jim Crow seemed miniscule. In 1870, during Reconstruction, only 4,272 black men and women lived in the state, whereas Mississippi was home to 444,201 African Americans, a hundred times more people in less than a third of the total area.10 By 1920, the numbers were less stark but significant nonetheless: 935,184 African Americans lived in Mississippi and 38,763 in California.11 Indeed, from the Civil War to the 1880s, the Chinese population in California was roughly ten times that of the African American population. Despite their relatively low numbers, black Californians were subjected to the material and ideological imperatives of Jim Crow. Segregationists were haunted by a blackness they felt but could not always see.12 Just as Ruby Williams imagined California as a place free from Jim Crow, defenders of white supremacy imagined a place free of African Americans. Indeed, for these protectors of whiteness, the presence of African Americans rendered California untenable. The size of the African American population was beside the point; what worried white supremacists was what black bodies represented and where they went.

The physical and social boundaries that separated the races loomed large for the state’s gatekeepers of white supremacy. These boundaries were meant to ensure that white men—not Chinese, African American, Native American, Mexican, or other nonwhite men—were omnipotent authority figures and that white women stayed within the dictates of their roles in a binary gender system. Women and men of color were meant to serve, disappear, or perform symbolic functions that fed the social or emotional needs of the elite. As black men and women acquired a modicum of social, economic, or political power, however, the state began to police those boundaries ever more vigilantly. Black power increased as African Americans became taxpayers, voters, homeowners, reformers, and consumers. When black men voted during Reconstruction, black Californians found themselves increasingly hemmed in by Jim Crow laws and mocked nightly on the minstrel stage. When men and women bought houses in middle-class neighborhoods, the full force of white supremacy bore down on them. At the same time, black activists hammered away at the material and ideological foundations of Jim Crow: as early as 1868, Jeremiah Sanderson delivered a scathing indictment of the tenets of scientific racism at an emancipation celebration in San Francisco.

(p.6) When African American women claimed their rights as citizens they undermined foundational beliefs of Jim Crow. As Sarah Haley shows, ideas about black women were central to the creation and maintenance of Jim Crow modernity.13 In the Golden State, beginning in the antebellum era, black women challenged slavery and black codes, insisting on making space for African Americans where they were least welcome. African American women fought against segregated streetcars and took their fight to court as soon as it was legally possible for them to do so. Women had long worked on California’s Underground Railroad hiding slaves and helping to secure their freedom. By the end of the century, clubwomen were campaigning for gender justice: marching in parades, organizing boycotts, petitioning segregated institutions, and establishing clinics, schools, and hospitals to serve black Californians. All of these acts threatened white supremacy.

Most of the women whose lives are chronicled in this book—Delilah Beasley, Josephine Allensworth, Charlotta Bass, Ruby Williams, and Edna Griffin—were pioneers for racial and gender justice, but they were also professional journalists, doctors, and teachers. Despite their similar middle-class backgrounds, their methods were far from monolithic. They pushed against the racial and gender restrictions in ways that defy the conventional stories often told about race women and freedom fighters.14 Bass, for example, challenged racism and white supremacy from her vantage point as a journalist, editor, and socialist; she waged war against the Ku Klux Klan when they arrived in the state in the 1920s. Beasley, an indefatigable defender of racial uplift, embraced a patriotic fervor unmatched by her male or female cohorts as she championed the Panama Pacific International Exposition and led the state’s protests against lynching and the screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. This book shows that women’s efforts were central to the movements, practices, and ideologies that challenged Jim Crow. Contemporary assumptions about the insignificance of black women’s presence made their interventions unexpected and often successful.

The project of maintaining the privileges of whiteness seemed especially precarious in a state that was carved out of Mexico and balanced on the edge of the Pacific Rim. The color lines in California were ever-changing, targeting different populations and communities at different times. African Americans, Asians, Latina/os, and Native Americans were subject to laws and customs meant to restrict, exclude, and contain them. Ideologies of racial purity and fears of race mixing undergirded such restrictions. Historians of the state have documented the ways color lines were drawn to keep (p.7) nonwhites from owning property, attending school, and marrying whites.15 As they have shown, we must study the ways different groups of Americans are racialized and how that process shapes their possibilities for freedom and citizenship if we are to understand segregation.16 Blackness in the Golden State was never constructed in a vacuum, and the meanings attached to it were never fixed. Scholars Stacey Smith, Natalia Molina, Najia Aarim-Heriot, and others have reminded us that what it meant to be black in California was constantly in flux, interwoven with ideas and imagery about other racialized groups including Native Americans, Mexicans, and Asians. This book highlights the experience of black Californians and their own process to define and protect their status as citizens in the midst of rapidly changing racial configurations. From the height of the anti-Chinese movement to the Zoot Suit Riots, West of Jim Crow considers how black people created movements for racial justice in a place where Jim Crow was never solely directed at African Americans. Multiracial color lines did not always result in the formation of multiracial coalitions.

As African Americans voted in previously all-white elections, marched in patriotic parades, bought houses in restricted neighborhoods, established black towns and institutions, and swam in forbidden pools, they became the focus of the enforcers of segregation. Their physical and mental capacities were consistently found lacking, and what this meant for black Californians is the centerpiece of this book. The stories contained herein demonstrate that ideas about black citizens were significant in both the creation and destruction of Jim Crow practices. Well aware of the arsenal of white supremacist beliefs at work in the United States, African Americans placed body and mind in the service of racial equality. We have much to learn from women like Ruby McKnight Williams, who studied the California color line and devised ways to resist it, only to see it materialize somewhere else in another form.

To understand the entrenched segregation that Ruby Williams encountered, we must look to the history of California’s commitment to Jim Crow, a history that begins during the state’s earliest years. Chapter 1 delineates the origins of California’s Jim Crow laws and practices, rooting them in the complex process of establishing white supremacy on land that moved from the domain of Native Americans to Mexicans to Anglos. By the time the first California Constitutional Convention met to hammer out the details of a (p.8) new state government in 1849, the gold rush had already pulled thousands of hopeful seekers from all over the world to the towns, valleys, streams, and mountains of the Golden State. The population included a diverse mix of South and Central Americans, Europeans, Australians, Pacific Islanders, Chinese, South Asians, Native Americans, African American slaves, and about a thousand free African Americans, among many others.17 Despite African Americans accounting for roughly one percent of the state’s population throughout most of the nineteenth century, they loomed large in the minds of California’s earliest legislators and politicians. So-called black codes became a prominent feature of the state’s legal system.

Restricting black testimony in the court of law became a priority for many early lawmakers. First passed in 1850, when California entered the Union as a “free” state, the anti-testimony laws disallowed Africans Americans, mulattos, and Native Americans from testifying against a white person, making it necessary to determine the boundaries of whiteness. Toward that end, the law specified that a person with one-eighth or more “Negro blood” would be considered mulatto and anyone with “one half Indian blood” would be considered an Indian.18 Members of the state’s legal apparatus applied tests in order to determine the racial makeup and therefore viability of a witness. California’s history of applying the “science” of biological difference—or scientific racism—developed in tandem with black codes. Scientific racism would become a central and embedded feature in the state’s arsenal of discriminatory laws and practices. Black bodies as a site of difference became a staple of the public discourse of citizenship.

As soon as the anti-testimony law was revised to allow African American witnesses in 1863, black San Franciscans filed charges against streetcar drivers who refused to pick up riders or harassed them on the cars. Public transportation represented a grave concern for segregationists, as black and white bodies could easily mingle on trains and streetcars. African American women led the effort to desegregate horse-drawn cars and were some of the first women in the country to challenge segregated public transportation.19 Their insistence on equal treatment and respect countered the claims of racial pseudoscience that argued that African Americans did not deserve such treatment due to their natural and biological inferiority.

African Americans pushed the state to make good on the promises of freedom, equality, and citizenship during and after the Civil War. Black Californians dominated discussions about inequality in the state legislature as they fought for four decades to amend the legal mandate for educational (p.9) segregation. After the Civil Rights Act of 1875 guaranteed the right of African Americans to enjoy public amusements, including theaters, black Californians embraced the opportunity to enter the best venues in the state. The resulting lawsuits would, once again, force the state and the nation to take notice of the workings, and failures, of racial justice and democracy.

Black Californians were not of one mind when it came to devising strategies to defeat Jim Crow. During Reconstruction, discord erupted among African American men in the state as they formulated new definitions of citizenship and masculinity in an era of tenuous freedoms, shrinking civil rights, and rampant antiblack stereotypes. In this volatile environment, elite black men policed the behavior of black workers, finding them uncomfortably close to the caricatures of black manhood offered up nightly on San Francisco’s many minstrel stages. While African Americans agreed that they were fully prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship, its boundaries were always under negotiation, especially as black freedom became threatened. Men and women would manipulate the definitions of respectable behavior in ways that pushed and pulled at racial and gender constructions.

In 1915, California produced two events that showcased white anxieties about black freedom. Chapter 2 chronicles the release of The Birth of a Nation, which coincided with the opening of the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco. The PPIE celebrated both San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake and fire and the building of the Panama Canal. For African Americans, this fair, like the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, provided the opportunity to demonstrate their contributions to the nation. The fairs also presented possibilities for black citizens to critique discrimination within and outside the fairgrounds. Delilah Beasley, a black journalist for the Oakland Tribune and the Oakland Enquirer, knew that the exposition offered a rare chance to garner a wide audience for her writing about black Californians and black history. At the same time, she knew that The Birth of a Nation, made in southern California and previewed in Riverside, reached millions of viewers with the message that African Americans were unfit for citizenship and that violence against them was justified if not necessary. In spite of an organized protest to ban the showing of the film in the state, it played in California theaters and across the country during the entire run of the fair, from February to December 1915. Beasley and other race women understood the world’s fair as a perfect opportunity to counter the film’s message and claim their rights to equal treatment as U.S. citizens. Harnessing the language and symbols of (p.10) domesticity, respectability, and patriotism, black women took to the streets during the exposition to subvert ideologies that propped up Jim Crow and white supremacy.

The protest of African American women was, in some ways, a response to the fair’s promotion of scientific racism. Confirming the state’s reputation as a center for eugenics, leaders in the field gave lectures, contributed to educational displays, and organized Race Betterment Week at the PPIE. A wide range of scholars and enthusiasts claimed to show the superiority of European stock and warned of the dangers of miscegenation and the reproduction of the “unfit.” The state’s belief in the new science of eugenics led to the passage of a eugenic sterilization law in 1909 to assure that only those deemed “fit” would reproduce; it was the third state in the nation to pass such legislation. California would excel in the use of eugenic sterilization, performing the procedure on more women than any other state in the country.20 Race women insisted on shifting the focus at the PPIE to black accomplishment and citizenship, overturning the fair’s message that black bodies were unfit.

By the time Ruby Williams had settled into her new home in California, one of the nation’s leading eugenics organizations, the Human Betterment Foundation (HBF), had opened its headquarters in Pasadena. Williams remained in Pasadena despite HBF’s commitment to segregation and the science that upheld it. Other members of her family, however, had already found the restrictions in California intolerable. Her uncle, Oscar Overr, arrived in Pasadena nearly three decades before his niece, in 1906, and made a very different choice. Laboring at one of the only jobs available to black men in Pasadena, working as a gardener for the wealthy whites who had settled in and around Orange Grove Avenue, his frustration mounted. After just a few years, Overr joined several hundred other black Californians and retreated to an all-black town in the San Joaquin Valley, where he hoped to escape the stifling restrictions of segregated jobs, housing, and politics.

Chapter 3 examines the community of Allensworth and its promise to provide black people what Pasadena and other California towns could not: open access to schools, no housing restrictions, no color lines. Allensworth had its own polling places, library, post office, churches, barbershop, and justice of the peace. As the westernmost all-black town in the United States, modeled after similar settlements in Oklahoma and Kansas, Allensworth offered a second chance for black Californians to realize their dreams of living west of Jim Crow. Within a decade of the town’s founding in 1908, Overr, (p.11) now a full-fledged farmer and speculator, owned nearly 700 acres in and around Allensworth. “Too much cannot be said concerning his devotion and earnest work for the advancement of Allensworth,” Delilah Beasley wrote. Overr had high hopes for the colony, and claimed that it represented “the best proposition ever offered to Negroes in the state.”21 Opting out of Jim Crow by creating a self-sustaining community was a project that appealed to African Americans across the state. Men, and especially women, would, for a time, experience a liberty to create and thrive outside of antiblack sentiment and proscriptions. They would reinvent what it meant to be black Californians.

In spite of Overr’s hopes and the industry of the colonists, Allensworth struggled to survive when the railroad service to the colony ended and water sources dried up in the 1920s. Dairy and vegetable farming, the colony’s economic foundations, became unsustainable. Many settlers came to believe that they had been cheated by the white developers who sold the original plots to the colonists. By the Great Depression, the colony had become a ghost town and the few families that stayed found it nearly impossible to earn a living. For some, the demise of Allensworth underscored the impossibility of escaping the state’s color line and finding—or even building—a place that offered the freedoms they sought.

As Allensworth began its slow decline, California was riveted by a tale from its heartland. Chapter 4 focuses on the 1933 lynching of kidnappers Thomas H. Thurmond and John M. Holmes in San Jose, a crime that sent shock waves across the country. In fact, this hanging received more attention from the press than any other lynching in U.S. history.22 After a ferocious mob dragged the two white men from jail, they hanged them from oak trees in the city park. Governor James Rolph Jr. made history by praising the lynchers and promising to free any prisoners in San Quentin who had been arrested for the crime of lynching. The murders in California, and the governor’s support for lynchers, became a centerpiece of national discussions of mob violence, the power of the state, and the antilynching movement. “It took the governor of California to put the stamp of approval on lynching,” reported the California Eagle.23 The events in San Jose inspired a media spectacle, a Hollywood film, and a Pulitzer prize–winning cartoon; few of these depictions of the lynching mentioned African Americans. However, antilynching activists around the country, and black Californians in particular, understood that although the victims in San Jose were white, support for lynching would mean the loss of black lives. Their insistence (p.12) that this was a crime about black bodies pushed the antilynching movement forward and drew attention to the state. Thomas Fleming and other black journalists refused to let this story languish. As black journalists, activists, and intellectuals argued, the San Jose lynching provided irrefutable evidence that California was not a bystander to the nation’s tradition of lynching; it helped to sustain and defend the practice.

Lynching was one of the most common ways of terrorizing African Americans in the age of Jim Crow. But violence in the service of segregation often took other forms in California. For proponents of segregation in twentieth-century California, policing contact between whites and people of color became an urgent affair with the acceleration of the Great Migration. In the two decades after Ruby Williams made her journey, the state underwent a massive demographic transformation that coincided with the onset of World War II. The numbers were staggering: in 1930, 81,048 African Americans made California their home and by 1950 there were 462,172.24 To be effective, Jim Crow could not be limited to parks, pools, or streetcars—it had to reach streets and neighborhoods. Black Californians, especially property owners, became the target of white supremacists including the Ku Klux Klan.

Chapter 5 examines the Klan’s influence and its focus on black migrants. Organized in the 1920s, as part of the second Klan, California’s Invisible Empire sought to purge what members saw as un-American elements: immigrants, people of color, feminists, and secular educators, among others. Klan chapters flourished, especially in southern California towns such as Riverside, Inglewood, and Anaheim. By the 1940s, the state’s Klan had a more explicit focus on black homeowners; cross-burnings and arson became commonplace and a coalition of activists pushed local and state authority for protection that rarely materialized. The 1945 murder of the family of O’Day Short, a refrigeration engineer employed at Kaiser Steel mill in Fontana, marked the beginning of a terrifying wave of violence specifically aimed at families like the Shorts who had dared to cross the color line.

Chapter 6 centers on the work of Ruby McKnight Williams and other southern Californians who fought racial restrictions. Williams and her allies in the NAACP touched a nerve in the wealthy enclave of Pasadena when they joined forces to integrate the public pool. The backlash against their efforts was swift and lengthy; this civil rights struggle continued for over fifty years. Why were swimming pools and beaches so important to the state’s segregationists? Perhaps these amenities had come to represent the good life in California; leisure activities associated with middle-class living that (p.13) some believed should be reserved for whites. Swimming at the beach or in a pool symbolized the fun-in-the-sun lifestyle that boosters of the state long promoted. Not only did African Americans dare to swim in the public pool, but many had begun to settle in previously white neighborhoods in western Pasadena. By 1909, some of the city’s black homes and churches were targets of arson. Some white Californians were outraged that African Americans had moved to Pasadena, to “their” neighborhoods, and had dared to stake a claim to the symbols of middle-class comforts that were on offer. Public swimming facilities, in particular, raised thorny issues that cut to the core of segregationists’ fears, including the dangers of interracial physical contact. In the South, anxieties about interracial intimacy dominated the rhetoric about the necessity of separate facilities for black and white, and the West would be no different. While segregating bodies in water was not solely a western project, California had more pools than any other state by the 1920s and pioneered systems of restricting these spaces. Semi-clad bodies mingling across the color line raised questions about hygiene, nudity, and interracial sex. Pools became a focal point for the battle over Jim Crow in the state, just as streetcars had in the previous century. Racial mixing was deemed more likely and more dangerous in these settings by enforcers of Jim Crow.

When Pasadena’s municipal pool opened in 1914, on the eve of World War I, the city fathers immediately restricted African Americans patronage to one day a week, creating their Negro Day policy. African Americans working in Pasadena as gardeners and maids, preachers, and small business owners instantly formed the Negro Voters and Taxpayers Association—a name that emphasized their claim to citizenship—to fight the restriction. The city fought off repeated legal challenges launched by the association to maintain Negro Day. By the 1930s, another generation of freedom fighters, including Williams and Dr. Edna Griffin, joined the protest. Again the battle took place inside and outside the courtroom, but this time it was closely monitored by Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston. Indeed, the fight against the city of Pasadena proved to be a valuable lesson as Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund honed their skills for Brown v. Board of Education. The resistance to integration in this western city foretold the trouble that lay ahead in the wake of the Brown decision.

Despite a rich scholarship that proves otherwise, the most popular versions about Jim Crow’s history still tend to describe segregation as something that was practiced and perfected in the South or the Midwest.25 This tendency in the national imagination slights the efforts of western freedom fighters (p.14) and undercuts the expansiveness of the movement. Further, it allows the West to slip out of the narrative of U.S. racism. We have much to gain by restoring Williams and her contemporaries to the story. By foregrounding the West, we begin to appreciate the breadth and depth of segregation’s reach. Segregation and its partial undoing came at a tremendous cost to Americans from every region of the country, and they deserve to have their voices heard. The work of Williams and her allies teach us that we have not paid enough attention to the western strands of the long civil rights movement.

Williams’s story, and the others told in this book, show that California practiced de jure and de facto segregation with commitment and persistence. The color line surfaced in large cities and small towns in the Golden State. Neighborhoods, schools, restaurants, parks, beaches, and pools were vigorously policed by segregationists. African Americans employed innovative measures to dismantle segregation; some tactics they borrowed from race rebels in the South, and others they improvised.26 West of Jim Crow highlights the western roots of segregation and the equally bold and varied response of black Californians in the years between the Civil War and Brown v. Board of Education. In some cases, this book argues, the Golden State set precedent, devising new laws and methods to segregate, using means we might term “modern.”27 Celebrated for its forward-thinking culture, politics, and science, California pioneered new ways to keep citizenship white. The qualities associated with modernism such as scientific discovery, urban development, the consolidation of capital, and the effort to master the environment, all shaped the systems of Jim Crow that Californians created and resisted.

Listening to African American voices has been critical to this project. Whenever possible I relied on interviews with black Californians to tell the story of segregation and resistance; these include two collections of oral histories with the settlers of Allensworth that shed light on conflicts over water rights, gender relations, and the politics of an all-black town.28 In addition, the Pasadena Museum and Archives has preserved interviews with local residents that provide valuable perspectives on segregation in southern California. These sources allow me to foreground stories that have been marginalized in the telling of western history and the history of Jim Crow. I have also mined the recollections published in the state’s rich and diverse black press. Peter Anderson, Thomas Fleming, Charlotta Bass, (p.15) Delilah Beasley, and other black journalists appear in the chapters that follow, as do journalists working for the national black press. To attend to the differences of class, gender, and generation, I have included the stories of a diverse set of Californians.

This project examines the ways Jim Crow is remembered or forgotten in histories, folklore, monuments, public spaces, and private lives.29 The record of American Jim Crow is littered with gaps and erasures. Like other states, California exhibits a convenient amnesia—especially in official spaces—in relation to this part of its past. This amnesia occurs alongside a narrative about the state as a bastion of equality. Californians wasted no time claiming the mantle of freedom and proclaiming themselves to be its protectors. In 1856, for example, white abolitionist Eliza Farnham declared that “California is the world’s nursery of freedom,” even for the sons of “benighted Africa.”30 The histories of black Californians reveal a quite different narrative. Yet this belief did shape African Americans’ experience in the Golden State, and their belief that the state could be a “nursery of freedom” drew migrants hoping to turn the belief into reality. The juxtaposition of those expectations and the realities of life in the Golden State under Jim Crow reveals the uncertainty of democracy in a state where it was thought to flourish.

West of Jim Crow seeks to compare memories and histories, official and unofficial, in the hopes of changing the stories we tell about U.S. segregation and white supremacy. The memories of Allensworth and Los Angeles and San Francisco reveal contradictory recollections of freedom and inequality. As Ruby McKnight Williams knew, these California cities could be simultaneously both the best and the worst places to live. (p.16)


(1.) Ruby McKnight Williams, interview, no date, video, PMH Black History Collection.

(4.) Crisis, July 1913.

(5.) Mosley’s series of detective fiction featuring Easy Rawlins unravels the complicated and segregated geography of Los Angeles. See, for example, Mosley, Black Betty.

(7.) Among the scholars touting what Earl Lewis (“Expectations, Economic Opportunities, and Life”) refers to as the West’s “culture of expectations” is Albert Broussard (Expectations of Equality). Shirley Ann Wilson Moore provides a telling example of the ways black Californians exemplify this cultural phenomenon. See Moore, To Place Our Deeds.

(8.) Ruby McKnight Williams, interview by Sharon E. Girdner, April 9, 1999, transcript, PMH.

(10.) Ninth Census, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872), 5, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1870/population/1870a-04.pdf.

(11.) Abstract of the Fourteenth Census of the United States (Washington, D.C.), 98, https://www2.census.gov/library/publications/decennial/1920/abstract/abstract-1920-part2.pdf.

(14.) I see my work in conversation with feminist scholarship that challenges simple understandings of black women’s work, race women, and respectability politics. See Cooper, Beyond Respectability.

(17.) On the diversity of the state population after the gold rush see, for example, Johnson, Roaring Camp; Rohrbough, Days of Gold; Holliday, World Rushed In.

(18.) The Statutes of California Passed at the First Session of the Legislature, ch. 99, An Act Concerning Crimes and Punishments, passed April 16, 1850, 3rd division, Who May Be a Witness in Criminal Cases, section 14, states: “No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be permitted to give evidence in favor of, or against, any white person. Every person who shall have one eighth part or more of Negro blood shall be deemed a mulatto, and every person who shall have one half or Indian blood shall be deemed an Indian” (San Jose: J. Winchester, 1850, 229–30).

(23.) California Eagle, December 1, 1933, https://archive.org/details/la_caleagle_reel14/page/n309.

(27.) I use the word modern here with caution. While I acknowledge it is often a sloppy, ahistorical term, here I reference a host of beliefs that are associated, sometimes wrongly, with California. I also acknowledge the false dichotomy of a backward South and a modern West. For studies that address California and modernism, see, for example, McGirr, Suburban Warriors.

(28.) The California Park Department in the 1970s conducted some forty interviews in preparation for the creation of the Colonel Allensworth State Park; these are archived in the CPDA. The second set of interviews is part of the Donated Oral Histories Collection, Special Collections, University of California, Los Angeles.

(p.259) (29.) I am indebted to the pathbreaking work produced by the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies and its collection of interviews. See Chafe et al., Remembering Jim Crow.