La Jolla’s Black Pioneers, Part 3: An African-American community shaken by World War II
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.
In 1937, the two mules that worked Thad Epps’ mill died, and with them went his small molasses business in Newport, Arkansas. With six children and a wife in deteriorating health, Epps’ only alternative was to join his brother-in-law Ed Coleman in La Jolla.
“My dad was in a destitute situation and Coleman told him, ‘California is very nice and you can get work here.’ So my dad arrived in La Jolla on April 13, 1937,” said Donald Epps, who wrote the chapter “Ebony in La Jolla: The Fabulous Forties” in the book, “La Jolla, California Black Pioneers and Pioneer Descendants 1880-1974.”
Thad Epps started his life in the community working for his brother-in-law, and finally earned enough to buy property on Eads Avenue, north of Pearl Street, circa 1943. By this time, La Jolla’s small African-American community was made up of domestic workers and a few entrepreneurs who rented rooms to other black people and ran hauling or gardening businesses.
Donald Epps explained, “My dad started his own business, too, he patterned his after Coleman’s. Coleman was really kind of a pioneer for this area, setting up entrepreneurial opportunities, and my father followed that with a hauling business, and he started making money.”
However, to add to the family’s income, the older siblings contributed to the mortgage payments. Joe Epps, who was one of them, was interviewed by members of the La Jolla Historical Society in 2011. La Jolla Light got access to a transcription of that conversation, where he stated, “My two oldest brothers, when they were early teens, started delivering the Los Angeles Times, which was the most popular newspaper here in La Jolla.”
The Epps family had nine children. Donald was the youngest. The two eldest and most popular at school were Luke and Randell Epps. “Luke and Randell graduated from La Jolla High in 1948. Randell was football star. He made All-San Diego City team, he was student body president 1948, which was a tremendous (accomplishment), because this is way before desegregation,” said Donald Epps.
Schools in La Jolla were never segregated, neither were the beaches or movie theaters. However, whether or not there was discrimination, is a different topic.
In his 2011 interview, Joe Epps described the “Black Quarters” as follows: “It was a ghetto. Because I looked up the word ghetto. And it was a ghetto. I mean, I don’t know what else you would call it. … When my father bought the place on Eads Avenue, the drainage coming down from the hills was all covered and enclosed until it got through that block from Draper to Eads Avenue. And there it was open sewage. And that went on for years.”
Though he said he didn’t feel discriminated against or suffer any negative treatment, Joe Epps said, “There were some things. Like in the summertime when we would go to the beach, we always went to the Casa Bach (aka Children’s Pool). Now nobody ever said it, but we kind of understood that we weren’t welcome at The Cove. That was the white beach. But I never heard anybody say that.”
Cristin McVey, author of “Traces of Black San Diego” reported discrimination in access to the housing market in La Jolla from the 1920s to 1950s, mainly when African-Americans tried to buy property outside of the “Black Quarters.”
“It was against this backdrop that blacks in La Jolla found themselves struggling to secure a foothold in a town they help to found. To circumvent deed restrictions, restrictive covenants, and discriminatory real estate practices, black La Jollans were forced to create alternative routes for home buying, and felt the heat when such purchases ‘offended’ neighbors. In one case, a white employer of a black cook stepped in and purchased a home for a black worker when the employee was told that the home could not be sold to blacks,” she wrote.
Mildred Lee Bell, a then-resident of La Jolla, was interviewed by Jamie Ginsberg on behalf of the La Jolla Historical Society. She also reports very little or no discrimination in her early life in the coastal community. “The blacks, per se, were such a small segment of the school population, and I personally felt pretty well accepted. The white majority, they were always willing to accept one or two (African-Americans), but don’t come in droves (laughs).”
As McVey has theorized in her research about African-Americans in La Jolla, the group felt the quality of life in La Jolla to be “unsurpassed,” but “black residents in La Jolla were undoubtedly recipients of racial prejudice,” she wrote.
World War II
The involvement of the United Stated in the Second World War (1939-1945) had an effect on the then-sleepy community of La Jolla. Joe Epps said it was a “really, really fearful time.” He remembered rumors of fighting on the West Coast against the Japanese, which turned out not to be true. “And then they used to have the blackouts and the sirens. They’d start the sirens and everybody had to turn the lights out,” he explained.
But the fear wasn’t the only consequence for African-Americans in La Jolla. Many black workers, Barbara Waters wrote in “A Unique Black Community: La Jolla, California, 1920-1940,” found jobs outside La Jolla in the defense and aerospace industries. “A few managed to get jobs on the assembly line, but the majority were hired to perform janitorial work. The money was good, more than what they had made previously. Carpools were formed to take people into San Diego to work,” she reported.
This created extra income for the community, Waters explained, which continued to work as domestics for Caucasian families in the evenings and on weekends. “When the defense industry laid off workers after the war, black (people) returned to La Jolla seeking their old jobs,” she added. Some of them succeeded and others didn’t; due to the increase in population in the Black Quarters, many of the old jobs were already taken.
“This slight increase in population caused the Black Quarters to spread one block on the south side of Pearl Street, and small houses and apartments were built in the backyards of some original houses,” Waters stated.
The proximity of Camp Callan (3.5 miles north of La Jolla) made the community closely involved with war efforts, Waters theorized. “Black soldiers, too, found welcome in the community,” she wrote.
After World War II, things got worse for African-Americans in La Jolla, McVey reported: “Black families, who came to La Jolla after the Second World War, found it more difficult to buy homes, especially homes not previously owned by another black family. The town’s vision for La Jolla was changing from a self-supporting community to an exclusive suburb for white elites.”
Waters pointed out that the lack of housing in La Jolla was the beginning of the end of the African-American community that once lived in La Jolla. “They felt they could rent a better house or apartment in another part of San Diego for less money. Landlords found that more Mexican-Americans were willing to crowd into the premises that black tenants vacated.”
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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