Laura E. Gómez, director of UCLA School of Law’s Critical Race Studies recognized that official proclamations condemning our own past were “definitely part of this larger trend…the desire in this present moment of national reckoning with our past racism…” Los Angeles Times, October 15, 2020.
By Jerry Friedman
The larger trend of that national moment did not come to the City of South Pasadena until this year when on February 22, 2022, the City Council approved a resolution condemning the City of South Pasadena’s history as a Sundown Town, along with its Past Practices of Institutionalized Racism.
South Pasadena City Council unanimously approved Resolution No. 7750, condemning the City’s history as a Sundown Town and its Past Practices of Institutionalized Racism and adopting several courses of action.
When the City of Pasadena incorporated, it enacted laws to prohibit the use of alcohol. As a result, those businesses were forced to relocate, and many set up shop south of Pasadena beyond those regulations. Two years later in 1888, five-hundred or so residents decided to incorporate into the City of South Pasadena and quickly implemented similar prohibitions against alcohol. In a real sense the town was formed as a mechanism to exclude, or as the town’s own web page suggested, the City was born out of a desire the founders had to control their own territory.
These ‘founders’ were white property owners. Newspapers predictably reflected and reinforced that bias in articles for the literate public while churches hosted black face minstrel shows presenting distorted stereotypes to audiences, many of whom had never had significant contact with an actual black person. For more than 100 years, ‘non-whites’ were prohibited in one manner or another from owning property, running businesses or renting in South Pasadena. Of course, provisions were made in the laws to allow for non-whites to be in South Pasadena – they could do ‘menial work’ or even live in as ‘help’ for a white family.
In 1911 a plan was developed for an orphan home for black children in the nearby neighborhood of Lincoln Park. The City of South Pasadena quickly moved to ban ‘orphan homes’ but crafted the law to exclude the existing Boys and Girls Club Society which had a white only orphanage. The acting City Attorney recommended the ordinance even though he admitted it might not hold up to judicial review.
About that same time an incident developed around a small parcel of land that had been purchased by an East Indian man named Isaacs. For some unknown reason, the restrictive covenants and discriminatory laws applied to Blacks, Asians, Mexicans and other “non-Caucasian” peoples but did not apply to Native Americans. Evidently Mr. Isaacs was permitted to purchase the land under the mistaken notion he was a Native American. Here it gets a little foggy as one account has it that ‘Reports began to circulate’ that Mr. Issacs intended to build a residence there, but some cynically thought it was a ploy to motivate local whites to make a generous offer and buy Issacs out. Other accounts have it that Issacs was looking to buy and build on property previously owned by an un-named black family. The South Pasadena Record reported on September 26, 1913 that, “There is marked opposition to the entrance of colored persons into South Pasadena residence districts, which as yet, are practically free from such settlers.” The LA Times reported, on November 3, 1911, that citizens were “aroused” and making effort to prevent “selling to colored people.” After two years of continued opposition without success, the LA Times reported that the “house was destroyed by fire, claimed by some to be of incendiary origin.”
South Pasadenans Inc
During the 1920’s the Ku Klux Klan was openly recruiting in South Pasadena for “100% Americans” to join their cause. They used the facilities of the YMCA in Los Angeles to agitate for segregation and build a movement for the expulsion of non-whites. A myriad of policies were deployed “prohibiting people of color from moving into” and “disrupting” the “racially homogeneous cities.” In South Pasadena, the non-profit “South Pasadenans Inc.” (sic) was formed by the ‘civic minded’ there with the goal of “maintaining the present racial character of the population” and “preserving values” of the community. On December 26, 1941, the South Pasadena Review reported that the “South Pasadenans Inc” had “the purpose of sponsoring an improvement program set up as a major objective the establishment of race restrictions on property.” It had hundreds of members and enlisted local businesses to engage in racially discriminatory practices. The Land Escrow & Safe Deposit Company, whose local manager was Thurlow Connor, was a proponent of these racist ideas and policies and clearly understood that many would see them as discriminatory. He was quoted by the South Pasadena Review, touting his plan to restrict ownership of property to whites, “for $8.00 a parcel.” The Supreme Court had ruled that property use could be racially restricted, and he used that to help justify his plan. A “Race restriction committee” was formed and employed 12 members to proselytize the land owners in the City’s 80 apportioned districts to promote new race restrictions in their deeds. Selling fear of integration and plummeting property values, one by one the property owners adopted restrictive covenants. Once all the landowners in a district signed on to the whites only law it became binding policy for that district. The campaign succeeded one district at a time until the entirety of South Pasadena was covered by racist restrictions. There were some families of color living in South Pasadena at that time, but since the restrictive race policies relied on land transfers or the sale of property to non-whites, they had no effect on current owners who declined to adapt to the new covenant.
E. O. Anders, a member of the Chamber of Commerce
In 1941, Japan attacked the United States and decimated Pearl Harbor. The Nation was gearing up for WWII while South Pasadena was still fully engaged in developing even more restrictive practices as it effectively became a white enclave. Federal mandates relocated 165 people of Japanese descent from South Pasadena shortly after the war broke out, which resulted in 17 modest homes becoming vacant. E. O. Anders, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, argued that few white people would be interested in the older homes which were at the low end of the market, and that made them accessible to “undesirables” and “colored people.” Anders, a former realtor, put forward a plan to improve the properties and raise the market value in order to “remove the danger of surrounding property values being lowered due to an influx of undesirables.” South Pasadena Review, April 3, 1942.
Courts can change laws but they have little authority over people’s attitudes
In 1947, South Pasadena’s system of restrictive covenants came under legal challenge. Ernest Chamberlain demanded in court that the “Caucasian race only” restriction be removed from his deed for property on Indiana Avenue. He also asked the court to rule that “the City of South Pasadena had no right” to impose race-based restrictions on property. His case was taken up by the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Jewish Congress (AJC), and The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The majority of South Pasadena’s residents were not interested in abandoning racial discrimination. A group formed to raise money to defend the discriminatory policies of the City. The California Superior Court dismissed that case for lack of standing, which left the legality of the policies in place.
A few months later, a case from St. Louis regarding racially restrictive covenants made its way to the Supreme Court. Shelley v. Kraemer was settled, and in 1948 racist property deeds were ruled unconstitutional in the United States. The legal foundation on which the restrictions were built came to an end. The ruling did not remove, however, the thousands of racial references in land deeds, transfer agreements, and City documents, although it did make them unenforceable.
Courts can change laws but they have little authority over people’s attitudes. Resistance to change came in many forms. Realtors would simply refuse to show houses in South Pasadena to people of color. Businesses refused service to non-whites. The laws and aggressive policing essentially created a sundown town with a nightfall curfew for non-white workers during the 1940’s, including in some reports an ‘air-raid’ style siren set off every day before sundown. By the 1950’s, a small number of non-whites had managed to move into South Pasadena, but it remained essentially an all-white town.
In 1964, Manuel Servin, a Mexican-American professor at USC, managed to buy a house in South Pasadena, even though Mexican Americans were specifically restricted from doing so. Native Americans had no restrictions placed on them and City officials mistakenly approved his purchase in South Pasadena.
Shortly thereafter, in the mid-sixties the Federal government provided funding for affordable housing with the Altos de Monterey development which brought more racial diversity to the area. Many communities adjacent to South Pasadena did not share the same racist past. El Sereno, Highland Park and Alhambra were far more multi-racial. This created the basis of still more examples of racially divisive attitudes in residents and more law suits against the City of South Pasadena.
The policies regulating the use of the Orange Grove Plunge became an instrument for racial division. Built in 1939, the pool was operated by the City of South Pasadena without any residence restrictions for many years. In 1955, a black woman named Susan McClain and her white friends were denied entry on the basis that they were not residents of South Pasadena. The ticket clerk testified in court that she knew they were not residents of South Pasadena “because there were no Black families living in the town at that time.” The law suit failed; McCain was barred from the community pool.
In the wake of that victory, The City of South Pasadena quickly deployed a ‘resident identification card’ for admittance to the Plunge. Non-white residents reported getting extra scrutiny for entry even with the official cards in their possession.
The Orange Grove Plunge was replaced after the City opened a pool at the high school in 1978. The City claimed the old Plunge needed too much repair, yet many residents believe this simply allowed tighter control over who could enjoy the pool.
In 1973, the South Pasadena City Council elected to close two roads that connected South Pasadena and El Sereno. The wooden barrier didn’t last long; the City of Los Angeles sued and won a court order to have the barrier removed. South Pasadena appealed its loss and found a much friendlier response in the California Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of South Pasadena’s border wall. In 1976,the South Pasadena City Council decided to close the streets once again, this time for a six month “trial” period. The City anticipated data would show a reduction in traffic accidents, auto thefts, and property crimes. The South Pasadena Review reported that crime, in the area being considered, accounted for only 7% of all auto thefts and 3% of non-injury traffic incidents that occurred in South Pasadena. Regardless of the lack of supporting evidence and in disregard for many sustained protests in the community, the City of South Pasadena persisted in its drive to close the border with El Sereno. The Los Angeles Times covered the controversy with many articles, yet the pressure did not result in opening the border. South Pasadena defended itself in court as Richard E. Garcia, a local Attorney, sued the City based on prohibitions outlined in the 14th amendment. Garcia argued that the barrier created classes, that were in fact racial classifications. South Pasadena prevailed and the wooden structure was replaced by a pedestrian park. Many residents living adjacent to the park felt the form or design of the barrier didn’t change its function. Some said it was a pretty clear sign they weren’t wanted in South Pasadena.
In 2002, in spite of almost 30 years of sustained public pressure, the South Pasadena City Council ‘re-considered’ removing the barrier, but voted 4-1 to keep it and even to ‘improve’ it. The Los Angeles Times wrote of the obstructed thoroughfares in South Pasadena: “They become cultural barriers of humiliation that linger in the memories of children, who grow up wondering why they weren’t wanted in a neighborhood on the other side of a wall.”
Compared to other local sundown towns, South Pasadena held out a little longer before finally denouncing and condemning its historical systems and policies and cultural norms that had been used to fashion South Pasadena into a ‘Sundown Town.’ It held onto this heritage and often fought for it for 74 long and event-filled years after the Supreme Court had made its decision. Underlying the 100 years of prejudicial laws were the attitudes of the individuals behind them. The South Pasadenans Inc., the Chamber of Commerce, the Race Restriction committees, the realtors, the police, the title and deed companies, the bankers, the lawyers and the politicians who fought to develop and defend these policies reflected the racists who dominated the political landscape of South Pasadena for over 100 years. It may sound simplistic, but it needs to be stated: It is racist people that make and support racist laws, policies and practices. Laws supporting racism can be struck down, ‘official documents’ can be scrubbed of evidence, history can be un-written, but what impact does that have on the racism that thrived there for so long?
Currently, while the City of South Pasadena is attempting to legally move from its past, racists are still agitating there, trying to promote an agenda of race-based hate and separation. Fewer in number, 2018 saw them reduced to creeping in the shadows, targeting the South Pasadena High School with ‘stickers’ to promote their fear. In 2020, similar expressions of white nationalist fear were distributed as slogans found on leaflets, and nails were placed in the driveways of South Pasadena residents who exhibited support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Today, most residents of South Pasadena would not support the racist laws and policies of the past, but clearly there is still much more work to be done. Understanding the past is a critical part of the process of reflection and growth. The City of South Pasadena lagged behind and did not take a lead role. Now, more than ever it’s up to the residents of South Pasadena to push the City toward a new and different future that better represents the current population.
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