La Jolla’s Black Pioneers, Part 1: The brief rise of the town’s African-American community
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.
There was a time when an African-American community worked, lived, owned property and managed businesses in La Jolla. They represented, at one point in the 1950s, 10 percent of the Village population.
That community, comprised chiefly of domestic workers, eventually disbanded, but the generation born and raised in La Jolla who called this land “home,” didn’t want to forget their experiences. And that’s how the book “La Jolla, California Black Pioneers and Pioneer Descendants 1880-1974” was created.
Lorenza Pace, one of the authors, was born in 1934 at the house on Draper Street where she lived for the first quarter of her life. She said the book’s inspiration came when a group of former black residents were playing with the idea of organizing an African-American-La Jollans reunion.
“The reunion never happened,” she said, “but if we were going to have a reunion, we had to give people something. I said, ‘We should have a booklet about where we lived,’ and they thought it was a good idea. And this thing grew on its own, like a baby!”
The first edition of “La Jolla, California Black Pioneers” was published in 2010. Now in its fifth edition, the authors are working on a sixth. “And then we are through,” Pace said.
Each of the five contributors chose a significant period in the history of African-Americans in La Jolla to write about. Pace told the story of the town’s early black settlers up until 1930. African-Americans were first drawn to La Jolla as domestic employees in the last years of the 18th century, she writes.
An excerpt from a document researched by Barbara Waters in 1981 titled “A Unique Black Community: La Jolla, California 1920-1940” supports the claim: “As in other California cities, blacks were attracted to La Jolla because of its abundance of jobs in the domestic services. Though blacks do not show up in the 1900 Census in the La Jolla community, there is mention of an ‘aged colored porter at the Manitou Hotel’ in a letter by Miss Ellen Browning Scripps, in 1899.”
Cristin McVey, author of “Traces of Black San Diego,” theorizes that La Jolla founders, who imagined the future of the community as “an exclusive enclave for prosperous beachcombers,” welcomed lower-class workers to ensure its economic independence. “The town founders were wise enough to understand that the success of this charming beach community depended upon the availability of a steady supply of service workers who could cater to the needs of the town’s affluent residents and tourists,” she wrote.
Pace agreed with the idea that the first African-American settlers were drawn to La Jolla to work for wealthy families.
The book begins with the story of Thomas Debose, an African-American born during the time of slavery who was the first black person to buy land in La Jolla, according to all accounts. It was 1904 when DeBose purchased two lots on the corner of what was then Thompson Avenue and Draper Avenue.
“There was a City stable right close to where the La Jolla Riford Library is right now. The horses pooped all over the street, and it was noisy. Frank Botsford, who first developed La Jolla Park subdivision, put a sign up where he said that he had lots available. Since white people didn’t want to live there, he offered them to whomever would buy them, and that’s how the blacks got property on Draper Avenue, Eads Avenue, Silver Street and Cuvier Street.”
In Waters’ research, the same four streets are mentioned as the place where black people settled. “I have found no reference to restrictive covenants that would limit the occupancy of blacks (…) on the north side of Pearl Street,” she writes. “In repeated interviews, I’ve been told, ‘You could buy anywhere in the 1920s and ’30s … later things got tight.’ Mrs. Ethel Cool remembered, ‘Everybody else was living there, so we just settled there, too.’ ”
For Pace, the restrictions on African-Americans choosing where to live were economical. “These people were working for 50 cents an hour. They couldn’t have bought anything, anywhere,” she said.
The first African-American female to settle in La Jolla was Henrietta VanHorn, who came from New York to serve a wealthy family. “She was really something!” Pace said.
VanHorn married DeBose upon the death of his first wife, becoming VanHorn-DeBose, and bought and sold property, ending up owning a large portion of Draper Avenue and a hand-laundry business. “Henrietta made (DeBose’s five children) sign a document that they had nothing to do with the property, so she ended up with all his property,” Pace explained.
In Wendy Standard’s essay for San Diego State University, “Ebony on the Seashore: Blacks in La Jolla, 1925-1950”, she collected various obituaries of the time, including VanHorn-DeBose’s. It reads: “Henrietta DeBose was a well-respected woman who owned a great deal of property in La Jolla, many years a local resident, she had many friends here. She was a woman of fine character and excellent influence on the lives with which she came in contact.”
The Tanner Family
According to McVey’s research, the only other African-American family besides VanHorn-DeBose to live on Girard Avenue were Isaac and Julia Tanner. “The same year that Thomas DeBose bought his home La Jolla, Isaac Tanner, a barber at J. E. Johnson on Fifth Avenue in downtown San Diego, and his wife Julia Tanner, also a hairdresser, set up shop in the seaside town,” she stated.
Pace added, “The two of them had good business because they did black and white hair.”
Pace had a goal during her years spent digging up old documents and interviewing other black pioneers: “When we started talking about what happened in La Jolla, I knew I had to write about my grandfather, Ed Coleman, because he was big in La Jolla, and he did so much.”
The house on Draper Avenue where Ed Coleman lived most of his life was designated “historical” by the San Diego Historical Resources Board in September 2016. He first moved to La Jolla in 1917, his granddaughter calculates, and lived there the rest of his life, working as a gardener, a janitor and a realtor.
Among other enterprises, Pace explained, Coleman made a business of moving cottages from where they weren’t needed anymore into the “Black Quarters,” as they were known, for other African-Americans to buy or rent. “Wherever somebody was trying to build in the early 1920s, like the La Valencia Hotel, he moved those cottages from up there onto the Draper empty lots. A lot of the cottages on Draper Avenue were really ugly, and people did what they could to fix them up,” she explained.
Coleman helped lead other African-Americans to La Jolla in the early ’20s, Pace reported: “My grandfather told his friends and relatives, ‘There’s a lot of work here,’ and work was hard to come by for black people in those days.”
Standard’s research supports the claim. “Betty (Warren, a black pioneer) says that almost everyone who she knew came to La Jolla because they had heard about it from a family member or a friend.” And according to Waters, “The black people who came to La Jolla in the 1920s and ’30s came with family they had worked for for many years.”
Pace states that by 1930, there were 207 African-Americans listed in the La Jolla community registers.
The first black church
“Before opening their own church in 1926, those of the black community that attended church, attended the large white Presbyterian Church on Draper Avenue,” Waters’ research shows. “Wanting a church of their own, the blacks received the sponsorship of the white church to start one.” And in 1926, the La Jolla Union Mission Church, the first African-American religious congregation, opened on Cuvier Street, on the same lot where Prince Chapel by the Sea African Methodist Church stands today.
Pace confided, “When the first Presbyterian Church put a payment down for that property and gave it to black people, they did that because they didn’t want the blacks to come to their church.” She added that at first there were two cottages on the property, one was turned into the church and the other was given to the pastor to live in.
“It became the La Jolla Union Mission, but all the phone books at the time listed it as Black Church or Negro Church,” Pace continued.
Lorenza Pace shares her memories of La Jolla
“My brothers were all stars. The boys had a much better time in La Jolla. They could either play better tennis than anybody, or be the best football players, baseball players, swimmers … the boys did really well.”
“I remember wanting to be a majorette when I was in the 10th grade, and I was really good, but they never took me. They didn’t have any black majorettes, and they didn’t want to start.”
“My best friend was white and very wealthy. She gave me a dog and she and I raised that dog from fourth grade until sixth grade. At the end of the sixth grade, her family sent her away to private school and I never laid eyes on her anymore. When I look at that now, I think that’s because they tried to keep her from coming to my house.”
“We had a good life. I don’t think we knew we were poor, we just knew that we had to go to work and make money to do this thing or the other.”
“La Jolla, California Black Pioneers and Pioneer Descendants,” by Bettye Brown, Charley Buchanan, Donnie Epps, Catherine Hayek and Lorenza Taylor-Pace, is available by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Next Week in La Jolla Light: A look at La Jolla’s black families, 1935-1945.
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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