A Brief History of the San Diego NAACP, 1917-2007

W.E. B. DuBois with Organizing Committee of San Diego NAACP, 1917
Public domain image

In 1917, realizing the hunger for social justice among the one thousand African American residents of San Diego, W. E. B. DuBois traveled from Los Angeles to San Diego as part of his western states tour on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Having previously surveyed the city in 1913, and as editor of The Crisis, he undoubtedly was aware of the desire of individuals to form a branch of the NAACP in the city.  They included community leaders like Bethel A.M.E. Church co-founder Solomon Johnson and businessman Edward W. Anderson, the first African American in Southern California to file a racial discrimination lawsuit.  DuBois waxed poetic on the “hedges of gerania, fields of callas and star-eyed palms,” he saw as he encountered the flora of San Diego.  He then described the city’s small African American community as “kindly and thrifty [black citizens] with pushing leaders. . . .”

Following a meeting with some of these “kindly and thrifty” souls, DuBois posed for a photo with members of the Organizing Committee of the San Diego NAACP.  That photo symbolized DuBois’s recognition of the need for a branch in the rapidly growing city in the far southwestern corner of the United States.  In December 1918, the national headquarters in New York received an application for charter status which was approved in early 1919.  The confidence and fighting spirit DuBois saw in the black San Diegans he visited and in the 54 founding members of the branch would carry forward and generate a string of civil rights accomplishments stretching over nine decades.

In February 1924, San Diego NAACP president Elijah J. Gentry, a “shoe shiner” by trade and leader of the five year old branch sent a frank assessment of the racial climate in San Diego to NAACP field secretary James Weldon Johnson in New York.  “Colored people [in San Diego] are not allowed in restaurants, nor to drink soda water in drugstores, nor can they rent bathing suits at any bathing house or beach in this city,” Gentry revealed.  Despite the small number of blacks in the area and the perception of racial tolerance, San Diego was nonetheless “a very prejudice[d] city.” Moreover American-style racism had crept south of the border.  In 1926 when branch officials looked across the border in Tijuana, Mexico they saw signs in shops that proclaimed “colored not wanted.”

Three years after Gentry’s grim communication to Johnson the branch scored its first major civil rights victory.  On September 7, 1927 it won the admittance of black women as nurses in the San Diego County Hospital.

In 1932, John E. Craft, a former Kentuckian, became the local NAACP president.  He and his wife, Rebecca, a graduate of Kentucky State College and a former school teacher, arrived in San Diego in 1910.  John started work in San Diego as a janitor but later owned Crafty Cleaning Company. Eventually he ventured into real estate speculation.

Rebecca Craft succeeded John as branch president.  On her watch the first scholarship money was raised and awarded to a promising black co-ed at San Diego State College.

Founder of the Logan Heights Women’s Civic League and active in Democratic Party politics, Rebecca Craft is best remember for her successful efforts to pressure the city’s police chief to hire a black policeman, Jasper Davis in 1931, and for leading the campaign to have the school board hire its first black teacher, Lorraine Van Lowe in 1942.  Rebecca Craft fought to have black teachers employed though she herself had long been denied such a position despite her experience.  During World War II Craft worked as a packer for Pacific Parachute Company, a black-owned firm.  She also counseled and planned activities for black soldiers through the USO.  Rebecca Craft died of cancer on December 6, 1945 at the age of 58.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s San Diego NAACP members had the opportunity to meet with visiting dignitaries and officials from the national headquarters, among them NAACP co-founders Mary Burnett Talbert in 1921 and Mary White Ovington in 1922.  The lone black Congressman, Oscar DePriest, came to San Diego in 1929 and NAACP field secretary William Pickens arrived the following year.  In 1936 the NAACP’s legal counsel Charles H. Houston visited as did Pittsburgh Courier columnist George Schuyler. Consistently acknowledged by the national office in New York for its exceptional fundraising, fiscal health, and ability to recruit new members, in 1934 regional director Daisy Lampkin referred to the San Diego NAACP as “one of the most faithful of the NAACP branches.” The branch had fought “for a number of years against racial discrimination in this naval port, and has won the respect of the community in this effort.”

The rapid growth of black San Diego during the World War II years from 4,143 to 14,904 between 1940 and 1950, paved the way at least briefly for a greatly expanded NAACP branch.  That branch would be led by Jack Johnson Kimbrough, a gentlemanly, refined dentist from Lexington, Mississippi who arrived in San Diego from UC-Berkeley in 1935 and who held the branch presidency in 1947-1948.

Humiliated and angered at having been refused a snack at a downtown “greasy spoon,” Kimbrough methodically devised a plan for redress that made him a pioneer in anti-discrimination protest tactics at the dawn of the civil rights revolution.  He recruited a group of black and white students at San Diego State College, carefully rehearsed them to act as customers and witnesses and then targeted white-owned restaurants that discriminated.  As the black students were denied service, the already seated white students would observe what transpired and be prepared to testify in court as to what they had witnessed.

Using Kimbrough’s innovative scheme, the NAACP filed and won 31 of its 32 lawsuits against San Diego restaurants in little over a year, usually with court awards to plaintiffs of $300 per case which was split between the students and their attorney.  Kimbrough followed up this triumph with the desegregation of the Grant Grill at the prestigious U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego in 1948.

Kimbrough’s genius as a civil rights tactician aside, he and other branch leaders could not reverse the NAACP precipitous membership slide in the late 1940s.  In 1946 the San Diego branch membership stood at 1,803, mostly as a result of wartime growth.  By 1951, however, only 240 people remained members of the local NAACP, prompting the national office to describe it as “weak and ineffectual.”  Part of the decline came as a result of a Red Scare-era purge of membership.

Testifying in Los Angeles in 1952 at a “Communist conspiracy trial,” a government-paid informant recounted how the San Diego chapter of the Communist Party organized anti-racial discrimination picketing at chain grocery stores and movie theaters in 1945 and 1946.  He said that then NAACP board member George Lohr, a German-American Communist organizer in the county, had encouraged the NAACP’s participation in the picketing.  He further stated that the NAACP’s president terminated participation in picketing so as not to be associated with alleged subversives.  Radicals like Lohr and socialist professor Harry C. Steinmetz joined the San Diego NAACP prior to 1945.  They and their followers left the local branch by the late 1940s as a consequence of both internal and external pressure.

In 1944, Rev. John J. Lewis, pastor of St. Paul’s Methodist Church, wrote to NAACP executive secretary Walter White: “I have been elected President of the San Diego Branch of the NAACP for 1948.  Our Branch here is in a very bad condition, but I will do all in my power to make it one of the best in the nation.”  One of the few bright moments in this period happened in March 1949 when board member Gordon H. Stafford sent a letter to Time magazine chastising it for featuring a watermelon-chomping black caricature in an advertisement.  Stafford’s letter compelled the nation’s leading national news magazine’s advertising editor to send a written apology to NAACP headquarters in New York City.

Rev. Lewis was not able, however, to achieve his ambition of reviving the branch during his tenure and the organization continued to drift.  The branch’s failings must have been particularly painfully to Jack J. Kimbrough who by 1953 had moved on and co-founded the San Diego Urban League.  Under dynamic leadership of its executive director, Percy H. Steele Jr., the San Diego Urban League in the 1950s eclipsed the San Diego NAACP as the most important group agitating for civil rights, anti-discrimination, and economic uplift efforts on behalf of blacks in the region.

Sometime in the early 1950s, the San Diego NAACP was placed on the bureaucratic equivalent of life support; the national office declared it “inactive.”  It was resuscitated with the help of two local black attorneys, Sherman Smith and his law partner, Alpha “Al” Montgomery, Sr.  Branch membership soon rose to 600 including 35 members of the youth division.  Montgomery was particularly influential.  As one of the city’s first black trial lawyers he used his expertise to open formerly all-white neighborhoods to hundreds of African American home buyers.  One of his early successes was the integration of Valencia Park in the early 1950s.  Later he provided the legal impetus that forced the San Diego, U.S. Grant and El Cortez hotels to rent public rooms to African Americans for meetings and social functions.

In 1955 the San Diego NAACP successfully petitioned the County Board of Supervisors to officially honor the memory of beloved black pioneer Nathan Harrison by changing the name of the road on Palomar Mountain called “Nigger Nate Grade” to “Nathan Harrison Grade Road.”  The branch also began a tradition of holding solidarity meetings in response to civil rights outrages (e.g., jury acquittal of Emmett Till’s murderers, the assassinations of Wharlest Jackson and Medgar Evers in Mississippi, Boston school busing violence, et al.).  Taking advantage of its access to major downtown hotels for public functions, the local NAACP organized its first Fashion Show at the El Cortez Hotel in 1958.

The San Diego NAACP increased its activities in the early 1960s, partly as a continuation and intensification of the long local struggle for civil rights that began with its founding in 1917 and partly because of the national surge of activity ushered in by the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960.  The branch led picketing and other “sympathy” demonstrations against companies in the city whose operations in the segregated South mistreated blacks. They also sought out those who discriminated locally.

In March 1960, local NAACP leader Ted Patrick (who would later be known nationally as the controversial “father of cult deprogramming”) led the branch in picketing downtown S. H. Kress and F.W. Woolworth stores.  This was the first of dozens of direct action protests locally.

Local NAACP activists were encouraged by national notables who spoke to NAACP audiences.  These notables included Rear Admiral Samuel Gravely, the first black admiral in the history of the U.S. Navy, legendary football star turned actor Jim Brown, NAACP national president Kivie Kaplan, and California State Superintendent of Education Wilson Riles, the first African American to hold statewide office.

On March 29, 1964, San Diego NAACP president Hartwell W. Ragsdale ordered a limousine to Lindbergh Field, the city’s major airport, to pick-up Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during his first visit to the city.  Ragsdale said, “Having Dr. King here had meaning to me.  It was the greatest thing associated with my life.”  On a sweep through West Coast states to bring attention to widespread housing discrimination, a rather exhausted King stopped off at NAACP branch headquarters at 2601 Imperial Avenue to meet with Ragsdale and his staff.  They discussed a fair housing bill pending in Congress.  After speaking at two venues in the city to an estimated 3,500 people, branch officials escorted King back to Lindbergh Field.

In December 1964, NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins came to town and denounced California’s Proposition 14, a measure designed to nullify the Rumford Fair Housing Act.  Despite national and local NAACP opposition, the measure was overwhelmingly approved by the state’s voters.  It was later declared unconstitutional by the California State Supreme Court.

In 1965 Wilkins returned to the city to slam the San Diego school board’s handling of racial tensions in the local schools and continuing de facto segregation, both of which made newspaper headlines and forced board officials to address problems in the district.

Notwithstanding NAACP branch leader Jack Kimbrough’s brilliant maneuvering to desegregate a U.S. Grant Hotel restaurant in 1948, reports of racial discrimination there continued over the next twenty years.  Those reports ceased on the night of January 30, 1968 when the San Diego NAACP, lead by president Tom Johnson, confronted hotel management over its sorry history of hiring black workers.  Johnson threatened to have the National Council of Churches (NCC) cancel a scheduled conference if the hotel failed to agree to demands to improve its hiring practices.  Management relented in the face of Johnson’s candor and determination, as well as the prospect of embarrassing demonstrations and the potential loss of significant revenue if the NCC pulled its conference from San Diego.

Johnson’s leadership of the local NAACP in the late 1960s and early 1970s reflected both the growing wealth and prosperity of the San Diego black community and the bipartisan nature of the struggle for racial justice.  President Johnson was a trailblazing Republican business executive who was the first African American to own an FM radio station in California.  It was reported that late in his tenure he was recommended for a position in the Nixon Administration which did not pan out.

Johnson was succeeded by Charles E. Reid who gained attention in early 1971 when he announced that the San Diego NAACP planned to survey hotels and motels in the city to determine their hiring practices.  If their bias could be proven, he vowed to request that the Republican National Committee, which was in charge of the upcoming Republican National Convention in San Diego in 1972, to refrain from renting rooms for its conventioneers at those places.

Reid pursued education as well as protest to improve the lives of local African Americans.  In the summer of 1971 he led an effort to combat growing underemployment among local black youth by persuading the branch to participate in a federally funded program to train people to use computers to create and maintain an employment data bank.  In 1974 the branch staged its first annual awards banquet; and in 1975 it held a ceremony to honor former branch leaders and life members.

In the 1980s the San Diego NAACP offered financial and legal assistance to Sagon Penn who was involved in a controversial altercation with police that resulted in the death of an officer.  Under the capable leadership of the late Judge Daniel Weber the local branch was on the winning side of the fight for district rather than city-wide elections. During the tenure of President Curtis Moring, the branch filed a racial discrimination complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that temporarily halted the operating license renewal of KFMB-TV.

The San Diego NAACP’s campaign against racial injustice continues into the 21st Century.  It joined with other community groups to demand a thorough investigation of the police shooting of unarmed former pro football player Demetrius DuBose.  It lobbied for the naming of two elementary schools in honor of former branch presidents Dr. Walter Porter, who helped launch the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, and Jack Kimbrough.   The branch co-sponsored a rally at California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s downtown San Diego office in support of Assembly Bill 1531 to mitigate the harmful effects of California’s high school exit exam.  The branch arranged the local version of the ACT-SO Competition, focused attention on instances of racial profiling and police brutality; convened numerous community forums to educate the public on a wide rage of issues featuring experts and politicians, and took a stand on many matters of local concern like redlining, issues impacting Latinos, and the denial of tenure to Professor Pat Washington at San Diego State University.

Over the past few decades the San Diego NAACP had to contend with such challenges as powerful conservative administrations at both the national and state level; anti-affirmative action and anti-minority ballot initiatives; a controversial black neoconservative as president of the local Urban League (Clarence Pendleton).  The branch was also affected by troubles at NAACP national headquarter’s which suffered resource-depleting lawsuits, scandal, and accusations of mismanagement.  Through it all, however, the San Diego branch of the NAACP has persevered and been a reliable and forceful voice for the abused and the disenfranchised, ever faithful to the formidable but necessary mission its proud founders undertook eighty-eight years ago.