La Jolla’s Black Pioneers, Part 2: A tight-knit community in the Great Depression era
Editor’s Note: Each issue in February will contain a story from this four-part series on the life and times of those African-Americans who made La Jolla their home in the Village’s early days. We hope you find it as interesting and informative as we did bringing it to you.
Charles Wood arrived in La Jolla in 1919 with his wife, Adeline, who was the niece of the wealthiest African-American woman in town: Henrietta VanHorn-DeBose. One of 27 siblings, he only completed his education up to the fourth grade and went on to become a successful landlord and a figurehead in the community.
Woods’ niece, Catherine Hayek, researched his beginnings and the history of early black families in La Jolla 1935-1940 for the book “La Jolla, California Black Pioneers and Pioneer Descendants 1880-1974.”
VanHorn-DeBose, Hayek explained, was in need of help with her hand laundry business, so she sent for the Woods family to move to La Jolla. “Henrietta taught Adeline everything in the hand laundry business: costumer relations, management and how to handle the employees, and Adeline became so efficient at running it that (the business) grew out of control!” she added.
VanHorn-DeBose, who had inherited a great deal of land from her late husband, passed away in 1936, leaving everything to her only heirs, the Woods. “Adeline held on to some of the property and sold some,” Hayek continued, adding the she also sold the land on which her aunt lived on Girard Avenue. “When Adeline sold the property, the house was moved to Orange Avenue, which is now called Draper Avenue.”
Adeline passed away in 1940, and Charles inherited the remaining VanHorn-DeBose property. “Living quarters for the blacks in La Jolla were always needed as the black population grew, there were never sufficient rentals. He remodeled the home on Draper Avenue, and turned it into a rooming house,” Hayek reported.
In that way he became a landlord for low-income African-American workers. “Everybody knew Charlie Wood. His house was called ‘The Ranch’ because it was on a big area, and he had a big porch so people would come by and just sit on the porch, and talk to him. All the kids in the neighborhood would come over, too,” Hayek said.
The community of service workers in La Jolla in the 1920s and 1930s included black, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and white immigrant workers, according to “Traces of Black San Diego” by Cristin McVey. “Although the more affluent households in La Jolla could provide for ‘live in’ service staff, many of the residents only needed or could afford a person to clean or attend the garden once per week or during certain seasons of the year. Whereas the Japanese, Chinese and Filipino workers lived spread out through different sections of La Jolla, the black community resided in close proximity to one another just north of Pearl Street on Draper Avenue,” she wrote.
The population of African-Americans listed in the La Jolla community was 219 people by 1940, states the “La Jolla, California Black Pioneers” book. McVey reported, “Almost half of the black families in 1920 and 1930 census owned their homes, typically valued on average $4,000 and the other half rented, most of them renting from black landlords.”
The then-known as “Black Quarters” soon extended to sections of Eads Avenue, Silver Street and Cuvier Street north of Pearl. The land there, McVey says, was cheap compared to other areas of La Jolla. “The land had been originally set aside as a depot for trash collections trucks and the land itself was soggy and bog-like in some areas. … In 1927, the average lot on Draper Avenue was valued at $400 compared to an average of $5,000 on Girard (Avenue) just a few blocks north.”
The Great Depression
While the rest of the country struggled in the days after the Great Depression, La Jolla seemed oblivious to this crisis, wrote Barbara Waters in her research “A Unique Black Community: La Jolla, California 1920-1940.”
“From interviews with black people that were in La Jolla at this time, it seems that they were not included among the needy. I suspect that the needy in La Jolla at the time were poor white (people),” she wrote.
This low-income class lived, according to McVey, “isolated” from the African-Americans in their own neighborhood on Fay Avenue north of Pearl. “However, the rate of home ownership by whites in this section was considerably less than blacks. When difficult times hit during the Depression and the years leading up to the war, poor whites often rented from blacks who often owned more than one property in the neighborhood or several properties on a single lot,” she wrote.
“Black people in La Jolla during the Depression,” continued Waters, “were never unemployed and their children didn’t go to Welfare Cottage for handouts. They felt their lives were pretty good. A close community, everyone looked out for one another.”
“Because the public schools in La Jolla were not segregated, any child who lived in La Jolla was allowed to attend La Jolla Elementary and La Jolla High,” McVey’s research shows.
Lorenza Pace, another author of the “La Jolla, California Black Pioneers” book who was born in La Jolla in 1934, confirmed this notion. Her mother, she said, was the first black female to attend La Jolla Elementary, although not the first one to graduate from the school.
“Yearbook photographs make it possible to track these students through their schooling years, and these photographs assist in developing the broader picture of the black community during these early years,” McVey reported.
Pace, who went to school in La Jolla, remembers being one of two black female students in her class, but she said she didn’t experience prejudice. “Life was very easy to navigate at that time in La Jolla. I don’t remember discrimination, except one incident that I had with one teacher in La Jolla High,” she said.
In 1926 the first African-American church opened, the La Jolla Union Mission Church, sponsored by the nearby white Presbyterian Church. “Within a few years, the denomination of the church on Cuvier Street changed to Methodist, but the church continued to receive funds from First Presbyterian to assist them during this early period,” McVey stated.
The budding church community was responsible for the Church mortgage and in 1936, when it was paid of, a celebration was and banquet dinner was held at La Jolla Rec Center.
Waters and McVey found evidence that a second, smaller religious congregation also formed among African-Americans in La Jolla. “Priding themselves as the founders of the first Black church in La Jolla, the older settlers took it upon themselves to set the standards as to who ‘belonged’ and who didn’t,” Waters wrote.
McVey agreed, “In 1935, the pool hall became a place of worship on Sundays for new arrivals who lacked ties to wealthy white families or earlier black settlers.”
By 1944, this group erected the New Holiness Church, called Saint John Church of God in Christ. “Without the help of white benefactors, they managed to build themselves a church,” Waters wrote. This second religious group was reportedly frowned upon by the first congregation as people with habits such as drinking or gambling.
Hayek, who was born in Virginia and came to La Jolla in 1950 at age 2 with her mother, recalled that at her uncle Charles’ Ranch, “Men rented apartments, and they had a gambling-type casino and my uncle would let people gamble back there.” However, she remembered been a proud part of the Cuvier Street first African-American congregation. “Church was a big deal,” she said.
Charles would not only rent rooms but also lend money to workers when they were in trouble, Hayek explained. “Uncle did a lot for the blacks in the community, he was very well respected.” He lived in his home on Draper Avenue until he died at age 81. Hayek said the house was found to be “historic” and was moved to Arenas Street and La Jolla Boulevard, where it still stands.
“La Jolla, California Black Pioneers and Pioneer Descendants,” by Bettye Brown, Charley Buchanan, Donnie Epps, Catherine Hayek and Lorenza Taylor-Pace, is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Next Week: A look at the black community in the 1941-1949.
Catherine Hayek shares her memories of La Jolla
- “They called me ‘Bootsy’ because I was very small and uncle had a big pair of boots and I was trying to walk in them.”
- “In the summer we went to the Children’s Pool we stayed out there all day, and nobody would bother us, we would run around all up and down all those beaches down there.”
- “My uncle, Charles Wood, didn’t have any children, so I was like his daughter and he spoiled me.”
- “I went to school at La Jolla Elementary, and that was the first time that I experienced a little prejudice. A lot of little boys didn’t want touch me. It hurt a little bit, but I was OK because I had a lot of friends in school.”
- “Betty Brown and I were in the Brownies, and we were the only African-Americans there. We blended right in, we didn’t think anything about prejudice, because all we knew was white people.”
La Jolla Light’s 4-part story series, La Jolla’s Black Pioneers, can be read at:
• La Jolla’s Black Pioneers, Part 1: The brief rise of the town’s African-American community
• La Jolla’s Black Pioneers, Part 2: A tight-knit community in the Great Depression era
• La Jolla’s Black Pioneers, Part 3: An African-American community shaken by World War II
• La Jolla’s Black Pioneers, Part 4: Decline and dissolution of an African-American community
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