The First History Book About OC's African-American Community Tells Tales of Segregation, Triumph
Black and Proud
The first history book about Orange County’s African-American community tells tales of segregation and triumph
Up until the 1980s, the lengthiest mention of blacks in Orange County history books was a paragraph about invading Caribbean islanders. In 1965’s Orange County Through Four Centuries, author Leo Friis retells an incident on the home front during World War II, when Orange County farmers tried to bolster a decimated work force by importing about 1,600 Jamaicans for crop-picking in La Habra and Irvine.
“Most of them were large, burly negroes who spoke with an Oxford accent and who posed a special problem because their way of life was not understood,” Friis wrote. “Their numbers, appearance and manners were strange and frightening” to county residents. The farmers quickly sent the Jamaicans packing, but not before the men had gone on strike to protest bad working conditions. “Probably everyone was relieved when they went home.”
Things had drastically changed just two decades later. Consider the above photo of heavyweight-boxing legend Joe Louis and Tommy Enomoto, the first Asian-American reporter for then-Santa Ana Register, taken while Louis was visiting the Santa Ana’s small but growing African-American community. By then, county residents could accept minorities in some positions. But even as Louis mugged for photos, segregation battles wound their way through courts that changed the county forever.
These anecdotes sum up the status of African-Americans in Orange County: usually forgotten, nearly invisible—but nevertheless present and proud, willing to stand up for their rights. Those are the messages drawn from A Different Shade of Orange: Voices of Orange County, California, Black Pioneers. And the book itself is a landmark: the first thorough telling of the OC African-American experience after decades of neglect by historians.
A Different Shade of Orange comes from the dozens of interviews with African-American residents of the county conducted over the past three decades by Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Oral and Public History, a project that continues to this day. After a couple of heartfelt prefaces by three of OC’s most prominent African-Americans—Cal State Fullerton President Milton Gordon, UC Irvine Chancellor Michael Drake and North Orange County Community College District head Jerome Hunter—the book begins with a jarring declaration: “‘Black people in Orange County? There aren’t any black people in Orange County.’”
Editors Robert A. Johnson and Charlene M. Riggins note that such words have been uttered throughout Orange County’s existence, “and those words are still being heard.” The county’s African-American community has always been ridiculously minuscule in comparison to other similar metropolitan areas (the 2000 Census counted only 60,000—about 2 percent of OC’s total population of 3 million), but families nonetheless moved here seeking the good life. And, as Johnson and Riggins find, most earned it despite encountering obstacles.
The book is divided into two sections: recollections of living in Santa Ana (the historical center of the county’s African-American community) before and during the civil-rights movement and the memories of those who lived in other cities after the expansion of South County. The Santa Ana section is more fascinating because it shows a schizophrenic reaction to a group that the rest of the country was lynching at the time. African-Americans couldn’t shop in certain stores, but they didn’t attend segregated schools like Mexicans did. They couldn’t swim in pools on the same days as whites, but the beaches were fine. When Zeph Jones—whose family had to sit in the segregated part of movie theaters, while he was elected senior-class president at Santa Ana High in 1950—visited North Carolina in 1965 and saw separate restrooms for blacks and whites, it stunned him. “Heck, after I’d been in California all my life and never had run into nothing too bad, you know, nothing like that,” he recalled. “Anyway, it makes you feel, God dang, like you’re not a human being. Gee, it’s terrible.”
But small victories emerge through the interviews—lawsuits that ended segregated restaurants and housing, pride in buying new homes, the creation of groups such as the Orange County Black Historical Society, and many, many other accomplishments. In a strange apology, Johnson and Riggins admit too many of the interviews they selected focus on “exceptional people. But this should be expected of people in many areas who had the grit and courage to move to Orange County and deal with being black in a white milieu, and also have the intelligence and education to compete as equals in school and the workforce in the highly competitive Orange County society.”
Not all parts of the county’s black history get addressed because of the format of A Different Shade of Orange, but Johnson and Riggins aptly deal with them by inserting boxes throughout the narratives with crucial information—the segregationist origins of Santa Ana’s ritzy Floral Park neighborhood, for instance, and Brea’s existence as a sundown town (cities that wouldn’t allow blacks to stay in town after sunset—a Southern phenomenon). Johnson also doesn’t mention that he’s working on a history of the county’s African-American community that will undoubtedly expand and contextualize the lives of his protagonists. But A Different Shade of Orange succeeds magnificently: an easy, important, crucial read.
The most inspiring part involves a civil-rights battle that few remember. Lincoln and Dorothy Mulkey were a young military couple who tried to rent an apartment in Santa Ana, only to find out that landlord Neil Reitman wouldn’t accept them as tenants because of their race. Reitman had every right to discriminate: The year before, Proposition 14 overturned the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which outlawed housing discrimination in California. The Mulkeys took their story to the ACLU, which advised them to sue Reitman. The resulting case, Mulkey v. Reitman, went to the Supreme Court in 1967, which found in the Mulkeys’ favor and overturned Prop. 14, effectively outlawing housing discrimination in the United States.
“I knew the changes were right around the corner,” Dorothy Mulkey—who still lives in Santa Ana—told interviewers about her decision to take on so momentous a challenge as a 23-year-old. “And I also knew that someone had to initiate those changes, that in Orange County, which is a Republican county even now, things weren’t going to happen unless someone pushed the right buttons. So why shouldn’t it be me?”
A Different Shade of Orange: Voices of Orange County, California, Black Pioneers was edited by Robert A. Johnson and Charlene M. Riggins; Center for Oral and Public History, Cal State Fullerton. Paperback, 346 pages, $24.
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