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.
Mabel Bell came to La Jolla on vacation from Brian, Texas in 1942, and never left. She lived in the community until her death at age 94 in 2007, and one year after that, the alley between Silver Street and Fern Glen where she lived, was named after her.
Her nephew, Charley Buchanan, who is one of the authors of the book, “La Jolla, California Black Pioneers and Pioneer Descendants 1880-1974,” told La Jolla Light that Bell was a respected and sought-after member of the community because of her skills as a people connector. “I was over at her house when Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) called my aunt, and said, ‘I need a person to do a dinner party for me,’ and she replied, ‘I’m on it.’ ”
A community organizer, Bell was regarded fondly by her neighbors. But she didn’t always have it easy, her nephew recalls. In 1950, she bought a property on the 7400 block of Draper Avenue, outside the so-called “Black Quarters,” which extended mainly down the 7500 block of the same street.
“(At first) they didn’t want to sell to her, and she ended up buying it independently from the owner,” Buchanan said. “She would tell me that (at the beginning) there were crosses burned in her backyard, which was very scary for her. The whites didn’t want them there, but she stayed, and in time, she became very popular.”
Cristin McVey, author of “Traces of Black San Diego” wrote that after World War II African-Americans found it increasingly hard to buy property in La Jolla. “Those who stayed in La Jolla after the war were mostly older residents and black property owners. Although the population of La Jolla tripled from 1950 to 1960, the number of blacks fell sharply,” she reported.
La Jolla was in the process of re-inventing itself from an independent beachfront tourist and retirement community to a wealthy professional mecca. McVey wrote about the rising housing prices and property taxes. “Those who did not own their home or could not afford the property taxes just left,” she added.
Buchanan recalled his aunt’s tax struggles. “Prior to 1978, taxes would skyrocket every year. I remember my aunt would cringe around tax season,” he said.
Another African-American family, the Epps, owned property on Eads Avenue. Donald Epps explained that in 1962 or 1963, the City re-zoned the area from residential to commercial, and property taxes tripled. “It was hard for many (African-American) families to afford the new taxes. At the same time, there were land speculators, and a lot of these people who bought these lots for $2,000, were offered $25,000 in the mid-60s, a tenfold increase. For that time, that was a tremendous amount of money,” he said.
Many black residents moved from La Jolla to cheaper areas of San Diego, chiefly the southeast, McVey reported, where homes were readily available and affordable for minorities. However, a small population of African-Americans remained in La Jolla and their children grew up in the community. “Living in La Jolla had distinct advantages over the black neighborhoods in Southeast San Diego: better schools, better libraries, better parks and beaches,” McVey wrote.
Growing up in La Jolla
In 1954, when he was in the second-grade, Buchanan moved to La Jolla with his mother and his half-brother, Clarence. His father, who was in the Navy, joined them later.
The family lived in a house on the 7500 block of Draper Street that, Buchanan calculates, is now the Science Building at The Bishop’s School. “We lived an ear distance to the Rec Center, and my brother and I heard these balls going back and forth, and we were wondering, ‘What is that?’ So we walked up one day and we saw all these people playing tennis, we were mesmerized.”
That was the beginning of an intense and successful career in sports for Buchanan. He played tennis, football, baseball and basketball during his elementary and high school years, leading the teams to victory, in many cases. Among his other accomplishments, he was San Diego CIF Basketball Player of the Year, as a senior.
But sports wasn’t everything there was to do in La Jolla, and Buchanan said he felt very much part of the African-American community. Some of his friends at that time were the younger generation that grew up in the town, such as Donald Epps, Catherine Hayek and Bettye Brown.
Brown lived in La Jolla Shores, where she remembers they were the only black family. Her parents, who hailed from Florida, settled in La Jolla after WW II and received an offer to move to a property on The Shores as “caregivers.”
“We used to go exploring. My brother and I would ride (our bikes) up to Scripps and go to the beach every day. It was a wonderful experience growing up La Jolla Shores, we could not have been more free,” Brown said, adding that she and Hayek were the only African-Americans in the Girl Scout Brownies at the time. “I don’t remember any discrimination, being treated any way other than what was appropriate,” she continued.
A 1969 housing survey in La Jolla found that units for low-income workers were being lost at an “alarming rate,” McVey reported. The same year, a non-profit was created by the leadership of the Prince Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, with the participation of other community leaders, such as the pastor of La Jolla Presbyterian Church and members of the La Jolla Town Council.
Strongly Oriented for Action (SOFA) was an interracial organization created to help the remaining members of the La Jolla working class combat poverty. “The loss of low-cost housing for service workers, both currently employed and retired, spurred SOFA to confront the problem directly by purchasing several homes that could be rented to low-income families,” McVey wrote.
Buchanan, who researched history of the group, said, “The non-profit worked to empower minorities. It provided tutoring, job skills information, child care ... they had a pre-school. It was for low-income families in La Jolla. Not only blacks, there were Mexican, Filipinos, whites, but it was within the La Jolla area.”
SOFA organized fundraisers and marches to shed light on the problems of the working class in La Jolla and raised funds through many programs. A key player was Prince Chapel’s Rev. Lonnie Wormsley. “He had an incredible outreach ability,” Buchanan said, “He had a major support system from the community of La Jolla. We had a big membership within the church, there were quite a few black people still living in town.”
But AME churches rotate their ministers every few years and that, in Buchanan’s opinion, was detrimental for the program. In 1979, SOFA secured a $1-per-year lease for City-owned property on Cuvier and Marine streets to build an eight-unit low-income housing project, which they operated until the year 2000. With the exodus of the African-American population from La Jolla and the ministerial changes, SOFA slowly faded away.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 1.2 percent of the La Jolla population identify as black or African-American “only.” That’s 557 people of the total 46,781 that were found in the 92037 ZIP code.
Buchanan remembered that, before his aunt Mabel Bell died, he frequented La Jolla. “My mom and I would come to visit my aunt every week, and we went from knowing everybody on the street, to thinking everybody was a stranger,” he said.
On the 7500 block of Draper Avenue, the “Black Quarters” once housed a population of more than 500 people, which in the 1950s was 10 percent of La Jolla’s total population. The only landmarks that point to those days are the Ed Coleman cottage at 7510 Draper Ave. (designated “historical” by the Historical Resources Board in 2016), and the Racket Stringing Workshop at 7548 Draper Ave. (which used to be the Little Pig B-B-Q, an African-American-owned restaurant).
Previous articles from 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