Mi Casa Es Mi Casa

How Fullerton resident Alex Bernal's 1943 battle against housing discrimination helped change the course of American civil rights

Ross issued his ruling on Aug. 23, after four days of testimony from the two sides: The Bernals could stay in their house, and the plaintiffs had to pay their legal fees. Ross wrote in an opinion that housing covenants “have a tendency to be . . . injurious to the public good and society; violative of the fundamental form and concepts of democratic principles” and that he agreed with Marcus’ contention that such discrimination violated the Fifth and 14th amendments. Taking note of the ethnic stock of most of Sunnyside’s residents, Ross gave them a dose of their own venom. “I do feel there is a paranoia among the German people,” he remarked in court. “I don’t think Hitler is the only one. I would rather have people of the type of the Bernals living next door to me than Germans of the paranoiac type now living in Germany.”

The local press didn’t pay attention to Bernal’s victory; the Fullerton News-Tribune devoted just a 200-word story to the ruling. But the Bernal case received international attention. The Mexican consul, noting the Good Neighbor Policy between Mexico and the United States at the time, said the decision “proved that the politics of inter-American rapprochement isn’t an utopia, but a reality.” United Press put the story on its wire, and Time wrote a brief report complete with pictures of a suited Alex, his wife, and daughters Maria Theresa and Irene, everyone smiling—the all-American family that had “moved across the tracks to stay.” Time also dramatized the Bernal story in its nationally syndicated radio program, March of Time. And the case even received mention in American Me, a 1949 book that was one of the first positive portrayals of Mexicans in American publishing.

Meanwhile, a Los Angeles-based African-American weekly, the California Eagle, splashed the Bernal decision across its front page, with headlines proclaiming, “California Judge Jolts Nation,” “Race Property Bars Held Illegal!” and “Race Housing Bars are Falling!” The Eagle, along with other African-American organizations, had long tried unsuccessfully to fight housing covenants in Los Angeles against blacks; the newspaper saw the Bernal victory as crucial to its cause, contrasting it to the “stolid silence of city and county officials concerning race restrictions on the city’s housing.”

Maria Theresa and Irene holding their father's secret album
John Gilhooley
Maria Theresa and Irene holding their father's secret album
Sharon Kennedy and her mother, Natalie, in the offices of the Observer
Kimberly Valenzuela
Sharon Kennedy and her mother, Natalie, in the offices of the Observer

“This decision,” the paper concluded, “may be an important instrument in helping to solve the serious wartime-housing situation in the Los Angeles area as it applies to Mexicans and especially to Negro people.”

But the case wasn’t finished. On Sept. 20, Hagenstein filed a motion taking exception to Ross’ ruling. He argued that the 14th Amendment didn’t apply to the Bernals, as they were Mexicans, and mentioned again that Mexicans would bring down housing prices. Two weeks later, he filed another motion, now seeking to vacate Ross’ decision; Hagenstein cited case precedents in arguing for the legality of housing covenants.

The judge was not swayed. In his final ruling on Nov. 15, Ross wrote that he felt that if he enforced housing covenants, a higher court would eventually find them unconstitutional. His bigger concern, however, was that it was against the philosophy “of the United States and of the state of California to enforce a restriction on occupancy based solely on nationality of the persons against whom the restrictions are sought. This is especially true when the nationality affected is that of a friendly neighbor and when one particular nationality is named.”

*     *     *

In April 1967, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Loren Miller sat down for an interview with Lawrence de Graaf that is now part of the collection at Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History. Miller would pass away a couple of months later, but he was already a legendary figure in the civil-rights movement for attacking the very sort of housing covenants that Bernal and Marcus had defeated 25 years earlier. It was Miller who, along with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, in 1948 successfully argued Shelley v. Kraemer before the nation’s highest court, a decision that ended housing covenants nationwide. It was Miller who brought national attention to the issue in 1945 with what’s commonly called the Sugar Hill case; like Doss v. Bernal, it involved white neighbors suing to remove African-Americans from their neighborhood, in this instance African-American movie stars such as Hattie McDaniel and Ethel Waters who lived in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. And it was Miller who had argued the successful California Supreme Court appeal of Fairchild v. Raines, a 1944 case involving a Pasadena African-American family that historians usually cite as the first legal finding against housing covenants.

Miller was also a historian of civil-rights lawsuits—his 1966 book, The Petitioners: The Story of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Negro, is a beautifully written chronology of the African-American legal experience. The judge knew the importance of the cases he had tried as a lawyer. But ever the humble judicial officer, he told de Graaf that it was the judge in the Sugar Hill case, Thurmond Clarke, who deserved the most credit for ending housing covenants, as he claimed that the decision was the first time someone had successfully cited the 14th Amendment in fighting segregation in the courts. “Unfortunately for him and for his place in history,” said Miller, the case didn’t go further than Los Angeles Superior Court. “[Clarke is] entitled to a great deal of credit for his courage and his foresight in looking ahead and correctly gauging the trend of constitutional decisions.”

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