"Soul food and hard work is keeping me here," says Warren Bussey with a laugh. The 103-year-old Santa Ana resident recently received a certificate of recognition from the city as a belated birthday present. The oldest African-American alive in Orange County today is one of about 500 or so locals above the century mark. "How am I able to live so long a life and my health allows me to get up and get around?" he asks. "I just feel that the man got me here for some kind of reason."
The centenarian walks briskly without the slightest hunch before taking a seat in the front yard of his home. Bussey's sharp memories serve as a portal to OC's black past, having lived in the county since 1946. He speaks in loud booms, slowed only by pensive pauses when recounting a rich life that began on Nov. 21, 1913, in Bobo, a small town near Tenaha, Texas. There, Bussey's parents worked the farmland they owned there while raising a family of 12. (Longevity runs in Bussey's blood; both his mother and grandmother lived past 100.)
But Bussey left Bobo behind for Dallas when he was called into service for World War II. He completed basic training and became a marksman at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, at a time when the United States Army still segregated its soldiers by color. But one day, while working as an instructor on the rifle range, Bussey's hands and feet froze from the cold. The frostbite proved serious enough to land him in the hospital. The Army transferred Bussey to George Air Force Base in Victorville, California, then to a hospital in Palm Springs when his injuries didn't fully heal.
When WWII ended in 1945, Bussey earned an honorable discharge and returned to civilian life. "I had a brother living in Fullerton, and I came out and stayed with him until around 1946," Bussey recalls. In the 2009 book A Different Shade of Orange: Voices of Orange County, California, Black Pioneers, Bussey described Fullerton as having been more prejudiced than East Texas. Back in those days, the city had few black residents, all of whom lived on East Truslow Avenue, including Bussey.
Neighboring Brea was worse. Not only did a housing covenant prevent blacks from renting and owning property, but Brea was also a "Sundown Town," where blacks were expected to leave the city before dusk—or else. "I think that was a bad deal because I feel everybody should have a right to go, come and stay wherever and whenever they want," Bussey says. "I just tried to stay out of that area."
Santa Ana seemed more welcoming; its proximity to the Tustin and El Toro Marine bases made it OC's small chocolate city. Bussey moved there in 1947; with help from the GI Bill, he put a $600 down payment on a home. The following year, he and a friend started Bussey Maintenance, a janitorial-services company. But the city was no stranger to racism throughout the 1950s and '60s. "When I was going in and out of these people's homes for work, at that time, blacks had to go in through the back door," Bussey recalls. "Downtown, we'd go in the stores and . . . cafés down there [through] the back door."
Bussey Maintenance grew to include six trucks and 40 employees, and his household expanded, too. "I also met a lady friend, and we finally got married," Bussey says of his late wife, Mamie Eva.
In 1955, Mamie opened Jimmy's Café, a soul food restaurant, on Fourth Street, with chitlins, corn bread, biscuits and the like on the menu. Bussey coined the phrase "hard work and soul food" while branching out from those two businesses to own a shoeshine stand and upholstery shop. The full-page ad he bought in the Santa Ana Register one year marked the first for an African-American businessman in OC. "I was really lucky with everything that I touched at that time," he says.
Bussey's standing in the community made him a mediator of sorts for police relations. Among the Santa Ana Police Department's top brass whom he knew well was then-Police Chief Edward Allen. Bussey bailed black folks out of jail, including more than a few arrested by "Mr. Red," a ginger-haired cop with a bad reputation in the community. "He hated black people," Bussey claims.
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Aside from his many business ventures, Bussey helped to start a Prince Hall chapter of the Freemasons, named for the abolitionist who fought in the American Revolution but couldn't join the whites-only Masonic lodges at the time. In 1958, the Wiley L. Kimbrough Lodge No. 91 officially opened, a humble building in the shadow of the city jail that remains the only majority-black chapter in Orange County. Bussey is the sole charter member who still lives in Santa Ana. Throughout the decades, he became a Grand Inspector General 33rd Degree Freemason and only in the past three years has his regular attendance at meetings tapered off.
After 44 years of hard work, Bussey retired in 1984 at the age of 71. By then, he was a widower, his wife having passed away after 35 years of marriage, and Bussey has stayed single since. "My wife would always tell me, 'You ain't never gonna get no other woman to treat you like I treat you,' so I guess I stuck with that," he says with a chuckle. They never had children together, though he has two from previous relationships.
The modern-day Methuselah gets up from his chair in his yard and walks to his garage door, lifting it up with strength. "The aches and pain bother me, but I don't give up," he says. "I still get up around here and exercise, work on my yard and my antique cars." Parked in the driveway is a 1957 Chevy 5100 truck, but inside the garage is his most prized classic: a 1930 Ford Model A that he says he drove during Santa Ana's first Black History Parade in 1957.
After more than 70 years in OC, Bussey is woven into our black history, and his presence here is as important as ever. Earlier this year, he told his life story to students at Valley High School in Santa Ana, once one of OC's blackest high schools. Last week, an entourage of fellow black Freemasons accompanied Bussey as he happily received a certificate of recognition from the City Council to a standing ovation from the packed chambers. "It really made me feel good," he says. "Orange County, I'd say, is 100 percent better than it was."