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When South Pasadena Was For Whites Only

Sep 15, 2014
South Pas 1950s

South Pasadena in the mid-1950s. (Courtesy of the South Pasadena Public Library.)

“In South Pasadena, restrictive racial covenants, denying persons not of the Caucasian race the right to live within its municipal boundaries, are a matter of official policy. […] Of course, persons not of Caucasian ancestry will not be completely barred from residence in South Pasadena. The restrictive covenants specify that non-Caucasians may reside in the city as servants, caretakers, and in similar menial work. Non-Caucasians may work in the city in other capacities, but they must be outside its limits by nightfall.” – “Tale of Two Cities,” The Pacific Citizen – January 4, 1947

In late December 1940, the Arroyo Seco Parkway (Pasadena Freeway) was finally extended from downtown L.A. through the city of South Pasadena. It was a landmark moment in transportation history—the first freeway completed in the Western United States—and the result of over two years of painstaking planning and construction.

The event was celebrated with an enormous fanfare: California Governor Culbert Olson, California Highway Patrol Chief E. Raymond Cato, and units of the Naval Reserve, 160th Infantry California National Guard, and Third Coast Artillery, were all on hand to mark the occasion. As Sally Stanton, the 1941 Rose Queen, untied a symbolic red ribbon that lay across the highway’s terminus, thousands of spectators cheered.

In a move that would prove bitterly ironic, 200 Native Americans—representatives of 5 local tribes that once inhabited the area—were also present to “dedicate” the freeway. As the L.A. Times reported, “Cato, representing the Governor, will accept the Indians’ ‘gift’ of the region to the white man in a ceremonial at Sycamore Grove.”

Frank Clough

City manager and demographic architect Frank Clough, in an undated photo. (Courtesy of South Pasadena Public Library.)

The paper’s description of handing over the land to “the white man” proved surprisingly prescient—for while anyone was allowed to travel the freeway’s twisting path, by 1942, living in South Pasadena was a privilege reserved exclusively for Caucasians. In 1941, in secret, and at the behest of the citizenry, South Pasadena City Manager Frank H. Clough—one of the engineers who had helped construct the freeway—began writing restrictive racial covenants into property deeds in the city with the help of the city attorney Braeme Gigas, city council members, and a shadowy group of private citizens known simply as the “South Pasadenans.”

Clough had been city engineer for South Pasadena and had been praised for his work on the Arroyo Seco Parkway. But now he was to take on a new roll: demographic engineer. His goal—to ensure that not one non-Caucasian resided within the city limits of South Pasadena.

Not that there were many people of color in South Pasadena to begin with. From its very founding, South Pasadena had all but barred African-Americans, and allowed only small numbers of other minorities.

In October 1911, a home for black orphans was established at 305 Monterey Road, at the outskirts of South Pasadena. Within days, the city had drafted an ordinance stating that “no such institution can be established within 100 feet of a residence, nor can it be outside of a district bounded by El Centro, Orange Grove Avenue, Mission and Meridians streets,” as the L.A. Times reported. Less than a week later, the South Pasadena Board of Trustees approved the measure. In response, the property’s owner, Mrs. Gunston, threatened to sue the Board of Trustees, claiming that such a law could not be ratified and enforced retroactively. Nevertheless, the measure passed and the orphans’ home was shut down.

 

LATimes oct 6 1911

 

The move set a precedent for racial exclusion in South Pasadena: discrimination through quasi-legal city ordinances.

Before World War II, South Pasadena was home to a thriving Japanese-American community, and for a time, the Meridian Iron Works building was even a Japanese-American cultural center. But during and after World War II, anti-Japanese sentiment grew high. On May 14, 1942, South Pasadena’s Japanese-American citizens were ordered to meet at the corner of Mission Street and Fair Oaks, where they were then transported to internment camps, as part of Executive Order 9066–the authorized evacuation of “all persons deemed a threat to national security.”

It provided a perfect opportunity for town racists to finally legalize the making of South Pasadena into an all-white community.

In the most comprehensive history of the city, South Pasadena: 1888-1988, historian Jane Apostol cheerfully claims that after Japanese-Americans were released from internment in January 1945, they were welcomed with open arms by the citizenry. But several anecdotes contradict this narrative.

In July 1945, Charles Kikuchi, head of the University of California’s Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study—a survey conducted by a team of Japanese and white social scientists, returned to his hometown of South Pasadena, where he had grown up and attended public school. In his diary, Kikuchi noted: “In South Pasadena, there was a funny sort of reaction to me. Every time I went downtown shopping in the car, the people passing by would point or stare at me and wonder if I were a Japanese. In the stores some of them would whisper rudely. I got the impression in time that I was not so welcome.”

Six months later, in a lengthy paper on Japanese-American evacuation and resettlement, H.L. Walker relates an incident that took place in South Pasadena at Kermode’s Diamond Grocery, 1019 Mission Street, in June 1945. Two Japanese-American customers entered the store, looking to purchase groceries. According to the account, the store’s owner, Pete Kermode—himself an immigrant from the Isle of Man—believed that “they have the same right to buy groceries as anybody else.” Three of his employees disagreed and quit on the spot in protest.

 

Afro-American 9:21:46

 

 

A few days later, vandals defaced Kermode’s store with crudely-painted Japanese flags and the words “Jap trade wanted” scrawled in white paint across the door. Several days after that, his phone rang and an anonymous caller told him: “I’m going to shoot you on sight. If I ever come across you driving a car I’m going to run you into the ditch and finish you off.”

Walker explains that Japanese-American property was effectively taken away during internment, which perhaps accounts for why, by 1946, there were no Japanese—or any non-white minorities living in South Pasadena.

“Houses were burned in Southern California,” says Walker. “Property pillaged and stolen and ransacked and pilfered and ‘appropriated’ – all without compensation. A house here today, another there tomorrow – they did not make headlines to be sure.”

Because of this, it’s safe to assume few of South Pasadena’s Japanese felt comfortable returning to the city, and all of them may have been actively barred from returning.

By 1946, city manager Frank Clough proudly admitted: “We do not have any Negroes, nor do we have any other non-Caucasian people in South Pasadena. To insure the continuance of this policy, several years ago the city council instructed the city attorney to draw up a restrictive clause and insert it into all properties coming into the possession of the city.” (Source: The California Eagle, September 12, 1946)

Clough said he had “decided to bow to public demand for keeping the city an exclusive white community,” revealing how deeply entrenched racist sentiment was within the community as a whole.

In this sense, South Pasadena became what historian James Loewen calls a “sundown town”–a community that was all-white by design, and one in which non-white visitors had to be out of town by sunset.

According to Loewen, sundown towns existed all across American from the 1890s until about 1968—and in some cases, later. Many had signs at the city limits instructing non-white residents to get out by sundown, and a few even had a whistle or siren that sounded at dusk, signaling non-white visitors to leave. South Pasadena may have even had something similar: in 1942, the city installed an air-raid warning system that very easily could have been appropriated for this purpose.

 

California Eagle 1946

 

South Pasadena, San Marino, Arcadia, Glendale, and La Cañada, were all reputed to have been sundown towns at one time. Pasadena itself had racially restrictive housing covenants until the 1950s, restricting non-white residents to certain neighborhoods. In San Marino, according to local lore, Jews who attempted to buy property in the city were forced to divulge their mothers’ maiden names in an effort to exclude them. As late as 1968, when Asians started to move into predominantly-white Monterey Park, one received an anonymous phone call instructing him to “move out or your house will burn down.”

Nevertheless, these exclusionary policies and acts of suburban terrorism were kept studiously under wraps. Revelations of their existence could bring the shame of unwanted publicity, even if they rarely came with attendant legal consequences. These were things whispered about and politely brushed under the rug.

As soon as South Pasadena was “outed” in 1946, black newspapers, including the Afro-American, the Los Angeles Sentinel, and the California Eagle—as well as Asian-American newspaper The Pacific Citizen—seized upon the story. Incensed, the Eagle called it “a typical fascist set-up […] in which anti-democratic practices are actively enforced by the city government.”

City attorney Braeme Gigas sheepishly tried to defend the practice by pointing out that other communities, including Bell, South Gate, and Compton, also included racial restrictions in tax deed sales—a defense the Sentinel called “silly” and “a pretty lame excuse for law-breaking.”

The publicity led to a 1947 lawsuit, filed by South Pasadena resident Ernest R. Chamberlain, with the help of ACLU attorney A.L. Wirin, NAACP attorney Loren Miller, and the American Jewish Congress. The suit, along with many others challenging similar racial housing policies across the Southland eventually led California Supreme Court Justice Stanley Mosk to declare racial covenants in California “illegal,” “un-American,” and reminiscent of policies employed by Nazi Germany.

In response to Chamberlain’s suit, South Pasadena formed a city-wide group called the “Protective League,” which helped raise funds to combat the lawsuit. The organization was headed by Dr. Robert Gawley, with Louis J. Filley and C.K. LeFiell serving as joint treasurers, and “pledged itself to raise a fund with which to fight the present suit and any future ones of a similar nature,” according to the L.A. Times.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 10.43.42 PM

Black construction workers building South Pasadena’s city jail, 1956. At the time, not a single African-American lived in South Pasadena—nor were they allowed to. (Courtesy of South Pasadena Public Library.)

The outcome of Chamberlain’s lawsuit wasn’t recorded in the local press, but it made little difference: in 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelley V. Kraemer that “racially-based restrictive covenants” were not enforceable in court, though it stopped short of calling them unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, the practice continued in South Pasadena and elsewhere. Furthermore, South Pasadena tightened its exclusion of non-white visitors through other means, and this time the courts backed them up. In August 1955, John H. Abbott, a Highland Park father, took his two daughters as well as a nine-year-old African-American neighbor named Susan McClain, to the South Pasadena municipal swimming pool. Upon entry, the ticket-taker noticed McClain and told Abbott that the pool was only for residents. The subtext was clear: the pool was only for white residents.

In response, McClain’s mother, Mildred McClain Johnson, filed a claim for $1000 in damages against the City Council of South Pasadena, again with the help of the ACLU and attorney A.L. Wirin. Frank Clough, still city manager at that point, was named as a defendant, along with City Attorney Braeme Gigas.

Shockingly, the court ruled that South Pasadena’s exclusionary policy was constitutional and bore “a real and substantial relation to the health, safety, morals, and general welfare of the residents of South Pasadena.” It also noted, tellingly, that “on August 2, 1955, South Pasadena was a city of the fifth class located in the county of Los Angeles with a population of about 19,000. At that time there apparently were no Negroes residing within the city.”

In January 1960, the United States Commission on Civil Rights still found that: “the communities of Alhambra, South Pasadena, Glendale, and the northeast section of Los Angeles City (Eagle Rock, Highland Park) […] are lily white in housing and schools.”

James Loewen claims that only in 1964 did South Pasadena’s color barrier finally fall, and only because of a mistake in visual judgment. That year, a USC professor of Native American/Mexican descent purchased a home in South Pasadena and though the house had a restrictive covenant that forbid sale to Mexicans, the realtor mistook the professor for either white or Native American, and the sale was completed.

It’s worth noting that South Pasadena is now incredibly diverse, home to white, black, Latino, Asian, and other residents. The vicious legacies of the 1940s and ’50s have mercifully been left in the past.

Curiously, however, this sordid chapter in South Pasadena’s history makes no appearance in any official account of the city, as if it’s something too embarrassing to acknowledge. This may be because, as Loewen notes in his 2005 book, Sundown Towns: a Hidden Dimension of American Racism, “the powers that be don’t want us to learn about their policy of exclusion and have sometimes tried to suppress the knowledge.” But, he concludes, “how can we deal with something if we cannot even face it?”

Perhaps it’s time for the sun to come up on South Pasadena’s sundown past.




9 Responses for “When South Pasadena Was For Whites Only”

  1. Wonderful article, Matt. I learned from Michele Zak’s history of Altadena about similar discriminatory practices in Pasadena and Altadena, and was surprised to see that my own street was in a restricted (white) area. To look at it now makes me proud of our diversity.

  2. Susie Ling says:

    THANK YOU for this interesting bit of history. The communities that had significant (but small) African American communities were Pasadena, Monrovia, and Duarte. But there was segregation there too.

  3. Lisa says:

    Interesting and informative article. Diversity is really bringing our Los Angeles neighborhoods up. Less crime, cleaner, safer for our children- oh wait, not really. In Pasadena anyhow it is very diverse but neighborhoods here remain very segregated by choice- and you couldn’t pay me to live near lincoln or north raymond etc. where shots are fired on the regular. There is no denying predominantly white neighborhoods are safer which is why decent hard working black families want to move here. But there’s no reason we should accept the rest, and the demise of our healthy society in the name of diversity.

  4. Catherine M. S. Cowles says:

    Such obvious discrimination could not happen today, but acts of unkindness based on all matter of features persist. I wonder how current actions will be viewed in 50 years.

  5. pete says:

    Interesting! I grew up in South Pasadena during the 70s, and did not know this. It was never mentioned in school. Even at that time in the early 70s there were probably less than 10 non whites in the High School.

  6. anonymous says:

    May appear liberal, currently, but once you live here as a person of color the racism is still very much alive and present in south pas. So sad that it’s 2017

  7. Eric says:

    Thanks for this article. The research is long past due, and it should be public knowledge for all of southern California. I went to school in San Marino in the 60’s and 70’s, and there was no mention anywhere of this ugliness, nor is there now as far as I know. The sentiment is still there, too, as indicated by Lisa’s comment above — apparently she thinks everyone wants to live in white neighborhoods because, you know, they’re safer. For some.

  8. WeAreAllAnonymous says:

    Yikes, I knew it was too good to be true. 2017 New resident to So Pas and there have been a few incidents that made me research So Pas/San Marino history i.e. this web search. I hope the offspring were poor students to the lessons of the parents. May they stop staring at the shadows on the wall of their caves and find their own way out and mingle. We the people of the world come in all “packages”, mostly good, very few born “bad” and very many misguided. All families have that kin they keep at distance from gatherings and they look just like you. Misunderstanding; a word with infinite definitions. Curiosity inspires me to get to know & understand the self we all share in a race of humans being. Peace South Pasadena. Peace be with you.

  9. WeAreAllAnonymous says:

    Life is what you make it

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