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Black History Month: The Duncan Family

Feb 16, 2016

Crop_Duncan Family_partial-photo_1947 August Mabel Stella Tranita SalPasadena Pacesetters: The Duncan Family

“Despite this area’s long tradition of diversity, much local recorded history has been heavily focused on ‘elite’ elements of local life, with emphasis on topics such as Arroyo culture, Craftsman art and architecture, the Indiana Colony and their citrus groves, and the mansions of the very rich. While important, the emphasis on these particular stories leaves out the experiences of many of the City’s residents.”

This statement by Ardis Willwerth, former Director of Exhibitions and Programming at Pasadena Museum of History, served to introduce the Museum’s groundbreaking 2009 exhibition “Family Stories: Sharing a Community’s Legacy.”

Family Stories shared the personal, multi-generational stories of six families, each representing one of the major ethnic groups with deep historical roots in Pasadena. Photographs, documents, artifacts, and recordings from the Duncan, Gertmenian, Kawai, Lowe, Mejia, and Stevenson families helped the Museum shed light on the experiences of our African-American, Armenian-American, Japanese-American, Chinese-American, Latino, and Euro-American communities.

In honor of Black History Month, we went through some of the Duncan family photos. Duncan family members have been Pasadena residents since 1923 and continue to play a leading role in Pasadena and neighboring communities with each new generation.

Patriarch James Alfred Ernest Duncan was born in Nassau, Bahamas, in 1891. As a British sailor, he met his Riverside-born future wife, Corabell LaMar, while on leave in San Pedro, California. He traded seafaring for family life, settling in Pasadena. They were the first African-American family active in St. Andrew’s Catholic Church (the City’s first Roman Catholic parish), where all 13 of their children were baptized.

 

Three Duncan sisters and a sister-in-law. Left to right: Mable Duncan, Mary Stella Duncan (wife of James Jr.), Tranita Duncan Adviento, Sal Duncan Gordon, 1947. Collection of Dolores Adbiento

Three Duncan sisters and a sister-in-law. Left to right: Mable Duncan, Mary Stella Duncan (wife of James Jr.), Tranita Duncan Adviento, Sal Duncan Gordon, 1947. Collection of Dolores Adbiento

 

The second generation went on to become bankers, businessmen, career military men, educators, a pioneering firefighter, and a dancer who broke the television color line. All eight of the sons served in the U.S. military; in World War II, James and Patrick were in the Army, Wilfred was in the Navy, and Arthur served in Special Services entertaining the troops. Mike, Timothy, and John David served in the Korean War. Mike’s time in Korea was spent in the last segregated unit of the U.S. Army, the 24th Infantry Regiment. Tony was in the Air Force. Timothy was the only Duncan to become a career military man; he lost his life while serving in Vietnam.

Mabel Duncan’s lifelong dedication to education and community is well-known to many locals. Her career path took her from clerical work with Los Angeles County’s medical psychiatric unit to a degree in speech pathology, followed by service in the Pasadena and Los Angeles Unified School Districts. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in urban planning from USC, becoming an academic leader at Pasadena City College for thirty-five years. Now a resident of Altadena, where she has served on the Town Council, Mabel continues to play a leading role in local life.

 

Duncan Family - Bill_firefighter

Wilfred “Bill” Duncan’s official Pasadena Fire Department portrait, 1952

 

Wilfred “Bill” Duncan applied to the city to become a firefighter after returning from his WWII service in the Navy. He placed fifth out of 300 applicants in the 1949 entrance exam, but wasn’t hired. The next year, he again was in the top 5 percent, but was not hired. It took a third try to become the man to break the racial barrier and become Pasadena’s first African-American firefighter. Bill rose in the ranks despite the difficult atmosphere to become an engineer and captain. Some of his fellow firefighters refused to speak or socialize with him. He served twenty-two years in the department.

 

Duncan Family - 1978 October, Arthur Duncan

 

Arthur Duncan discovered he loved dancing when he competed in a talent show at McKinley Junior High School in Pasadena. His dancing talent helped him sell newspapers—he would often perform as dancing and singing newsboy at the corner of Fair Oaks Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. After studying dance in Los Angeles with teacher/mentor Nick Castle, Arthur was assigned to the Special Services Unit entertaining troops in Europe during WWII. Early television appearances on The Betty White Show gave a small glimpse of the success he would attain. He performed on the Lawrence Welk Show for over 18 years (1964-1982), earning Welk’s praise as “the King of Tap.” His film credits include Tap with Sammy Davis, Jr and Gregory Hines, Prescription Murder with Dick Van Dyke, and a starring role in Tap Heat.

 

Duncan Family_Arthur performing

 

John David Duncan returned home to Pasadena after a tour of duty in the 1950s with the Army. John David pursued his business aspirations with perseverance and determination, from liquor store clerk to insurance collector, bank collections, assistant teller, assistant vice president, then vice president of the first commercial bank owned by African-Americans in Los Angeles. He decided to make a major jump into the entrepreneurial arena when he had the opportunity to buy the Panama Glove Company. With that company, he launched a successful bid to become an official Olympic licensee for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. His current passion is to bring back vocational education to the Pasadena schools.

 

John David Duncan leading Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley through Panama Glove Company. John David led a successful effort for this company to land one of the highly competitive minority business licenses for making official Los Angeles Olympic products - nylon bags with the Olympic mascot and logo, 1981. Collection of Thelma Duncan

John David Duncan leading Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley through Panama Glove Company. John David led a successful effort for this company to land one of the highly competitive minority business licenses for making official Los Angeles Olympic products – nylon bags with the Olympic mascot and logo, 1981. Collection of Thelma Duncan

 

To learn more about members of the Duncan family and other African-American residents who helped found and build Pasadena, visit the Archives at Pasadena Museum of History (open Thursdays through Sundays, 1:00 – 4:00 pm, free of charge) and view the Pasadena Digital History Collaboration’s online Flickr exhibit, Glimpses of Early Black History in Pasadena, 1850-1950, at http://bit.ly/1oapWK0.

 

Duncan family, 2009

Duncan family, 2009 reception; photo by Terry Miller

 

Editor’s note: We found this marvelous footage of Arthur Duncan at Tap Fest 2010, hoofin’ it with Jason Samuels Smith…

 

 

And here’s some footage of Mr. Duncan on the Lawrence Welk Show, 1965…

 

 

 




1 Response for “Black History Month: The Duncan Family”

  1. Living Legend Arthur Duncan will be LIVE in his one man show April 1, 2, and 3, 2016 at the historic El Portal Theater North Hollywood, CA.
    http://www.elportaltheatre.com/arthurduncan.html

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