It was near midnight when someone crept around the back of the house at 433 Missouri Ave., Placentia. In their hands were homemade Molotov cocktails—likely wine bottles filled with gasoline. They lit the first bomb but threw it too high; it sailed over the house and blew apart on the front lawn. But a second device was thrown at a much shallower angle, allowing it to burst through a window and explode near a bed. Flaming gasoline struck the bed linens and drapes. Two young girls had been sleeping there. Fifteen-year-old Jean Ann woke up first and cried out, then raced to her parents while her sister Pamela, 10, lay terrified beneath the bed sheets.
This was the welcoming Gerald Harris and his family, the first African Americans to live in Placentia, received when they moved into their new home. It was August 1956. Dwight Eisenhower was cruising to an easy presidential re-election; Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams spit on a spectator mocking him at Fenway Park; and buying a house was a difficult, often dangerous thing to do for African Americans throughout the nation.
Though it wasn’t called it at the time, the firebombing of the Harris household was what Cal State Fullerton history professor Tyler Parry deems a “legitimate act of domestic terrorism.” Not one of Placentia’s 3,000 residents in July 1956 had been African American, and someone wanted it to stay that way.
Terrorism directed toward black people throughout the United States was frighteningly common during our nation’s history, especially in the first half of the 20th century. Lynchings, race riots and bombings were all too common, especially as the federal government began to enact civil-rights legislation that dismantled the old Jim Crow barriers to voting, working and home ownership.
Though newspapers around the state reported on the bombing, it didn’t take long for the story to run its course. The Los Angeles Times reported the day after the incident that Placentia Police Chief Albert Simmen “vowed to work 24 hours a day until he arrests those responsible,” but there were no arrests, indictments, trials or convictions. Indeed, whoever threw the bombs apparently vanished into the night. Today, the bombing is largely forgotten, rarely mentioned outside local history books that focus on the experiences of African Americans, and even then, it’s only in passing.
But missing from even these discussions of the bombing is any mention of what became of the Harris family. Though Gerald, 35 at the time and the father of seven children, including the two girls who were nearly killed in the attack, said in the Register two days after the bombing, “I’ll never leave in a million years,” he and his family did depart the city. In fact, voter-registration records indicate they were out by 1960.
Records of the family’s movements after 1956 are fragmented, and I could locate no living member of the household who experienced the firebombing. Those records that do exist paint a complicated image of a family that still had further hardships to come. But what African American family has ever had an easy life?
* * * * *
Gerald Harris was born on July 15, 1921, in the tiny town of Jacksonville, Texas. Located in Cherokee County in East Texas, Jacksonville at that time considered itself the “tomato capital of the world.” The eldest of six children, Harris stayed in Texas for the first two decades of his life.
In the summer of 1939, Harris apparently received a two-year prison sentence for burglary, according to Texas criminal-justice records. It’s unclear exactly how much of this sentence he served (the 1940 census lists Harris as living at home and working as a cook), and the details of how and why this happened are lost to history. But it’s also important to remember he was both poor and living in a rural East Texas town that, because of Jim Crow, had robbed him of his humanity before he took his first breath. During Harris’ early life, the state government passed laws segregating public schools, libraries and transportation, as well as outlawing interracial marriage.
In any case, Harris married Catherine Grimes in Pima, Arizona, on Sept. 5, 1942. His draft-registration card, filled out seven months prior, listed him as 6 feet tall and 178 pounds. It’s unclear whether Harris (or his father, who was just 17 years older than him and also registered for the draft in 1942) served in World War II, but by 1946, Gerald and Catherine had continued moving west. Pamela was born in Los Angeles.
Little is known as to why Harris and his family chose to move to Placentia in 1956. It couldn’t have been an easy decision. In 1950, just 889 of the more than 216,000 people living in all of Orange County were African American. And as far as Placentia was concerned, zero African Americans were living there.
Though not really considered an official “sundown town”—a place where African Americans were told, either through signs or word of mouth, to leave once night fell or face potential violent retribution—historian and author James Loewen considered any town with few or no African American residents to be a sundown town. By that definition, Placentia was definitely such a place in early 1956. At that time, the quiet residential and agricultural community’s entire police department employed, at most, eight officers.
In August 1956, the Harrises signed papers to buy a home on Missouri Avenue, near Orangethorpe. The selling price, according to historian Robert Johnson, was $13,000. At the time, Gerald worked as a mechanic at the Craig Shipbuilding Co. in Long Beach. He told reporters that he and his wife used their life’s savings for the down payment and had signed first and second mortgages.
Donald Joseph and his family, who were also African American, moved into the same neighborhood, though on nearby Kansas Avenue. Word got out fast. In fact, the Register reported on Aug. 3, 1956, that residents were already asking Simmen to stop them.
“Several people came in and complained to me about the fact that negroes were going to move into the tract and asked what they could do about it and if I could do anything about it,” Simmen told the Register. “I told them there was nothing in the law to prevent anyone from buying a home in the area, and it was my duty to uphold the law and protect the life and property of everyone regardless of race, creed or color.”
Simmen, who previously served as police chief of Elsinore (now Lake Elsinore), had taken over the Placentia job in late 1953. He seemed to know that violence was in the air because in that same Register article, he warned anyone trying anything that “you’ll see me.”
The warning didn’t work. According to Johnson, on Aug. 14, 1956, the Harris and Joseph families told police that someone had broken into their new homes and poured concrete down all the drains. The intruders had also poured motor oil on their kitchen floors, busted windows, sliced up the carpeting and burned crosses on both families’ front lawns. (Much of the information on the events leading up to the firebombing comes from a new book Johnson’s working on; he graciously agreed to provide me with a copy of the chapter dealing with the Placentia bombing.)
As Johnson notes in his unpublished book, all of that vandalism would be considered a “hate crime” today, though no one used that term back then. And none of it dissuaded either family from moving in.
“The police chief stated that he would be questioning three women in regard to alleged bombing threats and secret meetings somewhere in the tract,” Johnson wrote. “He also stated that the families would be given every protection available.” Then, on Aug. 16, 1956, the Register reported that Simmen had interviewed an astonishing “50 to 60” people who had made some sort of threat against the two families, but the police chief also believed that “the issue has already reached a peak and the people have the bitterness out of their system.”
He couldn’t have been more wrong.
* * * * *
The firebombing took place at midnight on Aug. 20, 1956—just a couple of days after the Harris family had moved in. Johnson, in his unpublished manuscript, vividly described the chaos and terror that shook the household immediately after the bomb detonated in Pamela and Jean Ann’s bedroom.
“While Mrs. Harris was carrying Pam out of the room, Mr. Harris went to the kitchen, filled a pan and a bucket with water, raced to the children’s bedroom, and threw water on the burning drapes,” Johnson wrote. “Using the pan and bucket, the Harrises finally extinguished the fire. Pam, who was badly frightened, refused to go back into her bedroom. Mrs. Harris spent the remainder of the night reading her Bible. She left the Bible open to a verse, ‘David trusteth in the Lord.’”
It’s remarkable that no one was injured. Outside, neighbors gathered around the house. Many offered assistance; a few even offered Harris weapons.
“[The neighbors] have been wonderful to us,” Harris later told a reporter for the Long Beach Independent. “Some of them offered us shelter after that bombing. Some even offered us guns to protect our children. But we don’t need guns.” A photo accompanying the Independent’s Aug. 22, 1956, story showed Gerald and Pamela sitting in the burned bedroom, while Jean Ann stood outside, peering through the hole in the window made by the firebomb.
Immediately after the terrorist attack, Simmen told a United Press reporter that his department would look around the clock until they arrested those responsible. He also placed a 24-hour guard on the Harris house; it was apparently still in place weeks later, when Simmen attended a Placentia City Council meeting and told Thomas Neuson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that it wasn’t necessary for the NAACP to provide extra security for Harris (who received a standing ovation at the meeting). But not everyone present had the best interests of the Harris family—and African Americans in general—at heart.
“One city official commented that one of the mistakes made in the past was that they had ‘generally gone too fast,’” Johnson wrote in his unpublished manuscript. “We can assume that the official meant that the integration process should be slowed down.”
Despite all the people the Placentia PD interviewed who had allegedly threatened the Harris family before the firebombing, I could find no evidence that Simmen or his department ever arrested anyone for the attack. Two years later, the Placentia City Council gave Simmen a choice: resign or get fired. Simmen refused to step down, and the council sacked him on the last day of 1958. “Mayor [Ray] Pound said poor morale in the department and lack of leadership of the seven-man police force was the basis for Simmen’s removal,” the Los Angeles Times reported on Jan. 1, 1959. The chief’s supporters, including his wife, immediately called for a recall of the entire City Council, but that didn’t happen, either.
Very little is known about what became of the Harris family after the bombing. They stayed on Missouri Avenue for a few years, but Gerald’s 1960 voter registration lists a Santa Ana address. Records indicate that he died just two years later at the age of 41. I could not locate a cause. He’s buried in Jacksonville City Cemetery, in the Texas town of his birth. Catherine remarried; she died in 2004.
I could find no record of what became of Jean Ann. As for Pamela, who was just 10 at the time of the bombing, she died in Los Angeles in 2002 at the age of 56. The coroner classified her death as an accident; the official report on her death listed “upper gastrointestinal hemorrhage” as the primary cause, followed by “esophageal varices,” “hepatic cirrhosis” and “chronic alcoholism.”
The house at 433 Missouri Ave. is long gone. The Placentia City Council condemned it in 1965, along with 32 other homes in the neighborhood. “This was to make way for the construction of a proposed 57 freeway and to rid this city of what Mayor Victor Michel described as an ‘attractive nuisance,’” Johnson wrote in his unpublished manuscript. “The mayor was referring to the ‘condemned substandard and hazardous’ vacant homes in the path of the freeway.”
* * * * *
So why is so little known about the bombing today? There are a few reasons. Because of segregated and racist housing laws, African Americans have never been a large group collectively in California. As a result, black people largely live in isolated enclaves, and their narratives and stories about what their lives are like are often ignored. Besides, the official story of California is one of racial harmony.
“The common narrative we’re told is that when you cross the border into California, racism disappears,” says Parry. “But Jim Crow did exist here, and segregation was very real. California was very much a part of what was happening anywhere else.”
Before Parry moved to California, he did graduate work in South Carolina. There, he found that many cities had begun placing markers at spots where acts of racist violence had occurred. “I found it interesting that there’s at least a recognition that something terrible happened there,” he says. But here, though acts like the Placentia bombing did take place, not only is there no marker on the spot, but much of the neighborhood where it happened has literally been paved over, as well.
Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center says the number of active hate groups in the U.S. is at a 20-year high, with 1,020 of them spread across the country. The number of groups rose 7 percent between 2017 and 2018. Of these groups, 148 are considered white-supremacist hate groups—up from 100 just a year before.
In a November 2018 report, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) found that the number of terror attacks from extremist right-wing groups quadrupled from 2016 to 2017. During the same time, they also rose 43 percent in Europe. Between 2007 and 2011, there were five or fewer such attacks in the U.S. each year. In 2017, according to CSIS, there were 31.
Despite what at least one member of the Placentia City Council wished, the integration of the town did not slow down after the 1956 firebombing. If anything, it accelerated. By 1960, there were 176 African Americans living there (out of a total population of 6,780). The Harris family didn’t stay in the neighborhood as long as they initially told reporters, but they did stay long enough to make clear they wouldn’t flee from terroristic violence.
Those who did choose to follow the Harris family did not have it easy.
In 1957, the physician and Olympic diving champion Dr. Sammy Lee made preparations to move to Santa Ana. As he was doing so, he received an anonymous phone call. “You know what happened in Placentia,” the caller said, according to historian Scott Kurashige’s 2008 book The Shifting Grounds of Race. “The same can happen to you.”
Lee moved anyway, but many whites were moving now, too. In fact, as Johnson pointed out, both in his unpublished book and in A Different Shade of Orange, which he co-wrote with Charlene Riggins in 2009, white people left Placentia’s Kansas-Missouri neighborhood as fast as black families moved in. By 1960, when Marine Corps Sergeant John Frank Smith bought a house on Kansas Avenue, all the white residents were gone.
“[It was] 100 percent black,” Smith said in an oral history Johnson recorded of him that he later included in A Different Shade of Orange. “There were no white people living there. That’s the only place that had black people living here in Placentia.”
Smith was a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and he later became a Placentia police officer and eventually an Orange County Superior Court clerk. He and his family lived on Kansas Avenue for a few years, and then in 1968 bought a new house in northern Placentia. Like the Harris family a decade earlier, Smith encountered trouble from his white neighbors the instant he arrived.
At first, it was just people staring at him while he unloaded furniture from a moving van. Later, they started throwing rocks at his house, shattering his windows. Smith’s wife asked if they should move. “No,” Smith told her, according to his oral history. “We’ve got to have some place to live, and we’re going to live here, regardless.”
Not long after, while Smith was seeding his lawn, eight men walked up to him. “We don’t want no [plural n-word] living here,” one of the men told Smith. “When [plural n-word] and colored people move into a white neighborhood, they make our property value go down. You got two weeks to get out of here.”
Smith said he told the men that his family had to live somewhere. Then another man started poking Smith, repeating the threat that his family had two weeks to leave. After Smith told the man to keep his hands to himself, the man slapped Smith, which prompted him to draw his service revolver, which he’d started keeping in his back pocket for just such an occasion.
* * * * *
By then, there were new institutions forming to help minorities who wanted to move into previously all-white neighborhoods. The Orange County Council for Equal Opportunity had formed in June 1956, just a couple of months prior to the Placentia bombing. Its mission was to “discuss and act constructively upon problems of discrimination and prejudice against negroes, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and other minority people of Orange County in the spirit of goodwill and fair play,” according to a June 14, 1956, Tustin News article. Another was the Orange County Human Relations Commission, which formed in 1971 to “build mutual understanding among residents and to eliminate prejudice, intolerance and discrimination.”
While helpful, these organizations continue to struggle against racist forces. Most county residents may have forgotten (or, more likely, never even learned about) the 1956 Placentia bombing, but the white supremacy that fueled it lives on—in Orange County and around the nation, through cops shooting unarmed black people, racial profiling, and a huge gap in home ownership between white and black families that persists to this day.
The question isn’t if what happened in Placentia 63 years ago could happen again. It’s when.
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.