• A black family posing for a photo

      (Photos – View of the Scoville Bridge, Dam and surrounding area. Photograph by A.C. Vroman, circa 1905. Insert: Prince Family group portrait. Photograph courtesy of Pasadena Museum of History)

      With the advent of Jim Crow laws across the southern states after the Civil War, many former slave families sought prosperity and peace in the North and West. The Great Migration that followed the Reconstruction era caused the movement of millions of people and significantly changed the demographic make-up of Northern cities.

      By Brian Biery

      In the South, Blacks faced lives where they were restricted to menial jobs, endured vigilante violence, were prevented from owning property and frequently barred from voting. While they certainly could not imagine what they would encounter in the West and North, many determined it was worth the risk and left families and history behind to take a chance on living in safe neighborhoods, having the opportunity to start one’s own business and to buy a home. As the scholar Emmett J. Scott wrote, “They were willing to make almost any sacrifice to obtain a railroad ticket and they left with the intention of staying.”

      One such family was led by Samuel Prince. Prince departed from Huntington, Tennessee in 1884 for California where he eventually was employed by Wilcox Realty in Hollywood. After establishing himself financially, he sent for his sons, William, Frank and Charles, to join him as they were still living in Tennessee with their step-mother. The boys traveled to California via train on the Southern Pacific Railroad arriving a day and a half late due to flooding in Arizona. Charles, who was nine years old, was immediately enrolled in school, while William (15) and Frank (13) found odd jobs in downtown Los Angeles.

      One Black family in Pasadena

      At that time there was only one Black family in Pasadena. The previous year an ambitious Joseph Holmes had driven a herd of cattle from Nebraska to Los Angeles, and with the proceeds of that sale he bought a vineyard in Pasadena. He subsequently built a house on Vernon Avenue which was to become the foundation of a culturally rich neighborhood filled with African, Mexican and Japanese American families. Decades later these families would be asked to leave under eminent domain by the State of California and the City of Pasadena for the construction of the 710 freeway.

      Moving to Pasadena

      When Holmes learned that the Prince boys had settled in Los Angeles, he urged William and Frank to move to Pasadena to seek work. As a result of his invitation, William moved to Pasadena in 1886 and then Frank joined him the following year. Their first lodging was a rented room on the third floor of the Grand Hotel, which was to become the Dodsworth Building located at the southwest corner of Fair Oaks Avenue and Colorado Boulevard (now the Cheesecake Factory). Charles also moved shortly thereafter and began his schooling at Wilson School, which was then sited on the corner of Marengo Avenue and Walnut Street.

      Pasadena: From acceptance to segregation

      a black family posing for a photo in black and white

      Prince Family group portrait. Photographer: unknown. Date: 19- – (Photo courtesy of Pasadena Museum of History)

      All three young men contributed enormously to the community of Pasadena over the following decades as they were able to accomplish many of the goals that their father had laid out in his quest for a better life in the West. William and Frank were employed by Pasadena National Bank and First National Bank, respectively, where they worked for over 30 years. After studying law and labor, Charles landed a position as a messenger in the California State Assembly. In addition, William and Frank started their own business called Pioneer Fuel and Feed. The business sold “Missouri Hatched Baby Chicks, Chick Feed, Growing Mash, Laying Mash, Scratch, Garden Tools,…” and a variety of other building, farm and garden supplies and materials needed by the rapidly growing community.

      After the turn of the century, the African American population in Pasadena exploded, rising from about 250 Black residents in 1900 to nearly 2,000 by 1915. In the early years of The Great Migration there was an atmosphere of tolerance that greeted newcomers from the South. Many of Pasadena’s early settlers were from the Midwest and New England; some had served in the Union army and others had been outspoken abolitionists during the Civil War. As time passed after the end of the war and the number of Blacks increased; however, attitudes towards welcome and acceptance dimmed. Incidents of racism and segregation in public places increased significantly during the first part of the 20th century.

      First African Methodist Episcopal Church

      The Princes were deeply involved and committed to the First African Methodist Episcopal Church; they helped to move it from its original location at the corner of Villa Street and Fair Oaks Avenue to 191 N. Vernon Avenue in 1909. Tragically, soon after construction of the church started in its new location, there was an attempted arson at the parsonage. Frank recalled later that, “The workmen…found excelsior and kerosene spread out on the premises, but ignition had not taken place.” William lived across the street on Kensington Place so he helped to organize a group of parishioners to stand guard over the church grounds at night with rifles.

      ‘Negro Tax Payers’ and Voters’

      About five years later, in 1914, the City of Pasadena built a public swimming pool in the Arroyo Seco called the Brookside Plunge. Soon after it opened, the City determined that the pool would only be open to Blacks and other People of Color on Wednesday afternoons. In a thoughtless manner the City named the day ‘International Day’ to give the appearance of being inclusive. William and other prominent members of the Black community formed the ‘Negro Tax Payers’ and Voters’ Association’ and hired lawyers to fight to desegregate the Brookside Plunge. This fight continued for nearly 30 years and served as a catalyst in the founding the Pasadena Chapter of the NAACP, of which William Prince was an original member.

      As business owners, church elders, trusted neighbors and civic leaders, the Prince brothers left an indelible mark on Pasadena. Undoubtedly one of their most popular activities was as singers in the Crown City Quartette, of which Frank and Charles were long-time members. With Jason Wilson and James Miller Sr. they entertained folks in Pasadena and neighboring cities for nearly 40 years. And the record of their descendants is just as impressive, with children and grandchildren serving as school teachers, school administrators, social workers, an occupational therapist, a dietician, a caterer, an orchestra leader, a pharmacist, and many other valuable occupations. They loved Pasadena, even if it was not always kind to them. And they demonstrated their appreciation for the city and the opportunities it provided by contributing to the creation of exceptional religious and civic institutions that continue to inspire and guide residents to this day.


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