Percy H. Steele, Jr., and the Urban League: Race Relations and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Post-World War II San Diego

Article excerpt

"Colored people [in San Diego] are not allowed in restaurants, hotels, nor to drink soda water in drugstores, nor can they rent bathing suits at any bathing house or beach in this city," confided E. J. Gentry to James Weldon Johnson, national field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Gentry, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, which had organized in 1919, concluded that San Diego, despite its minute black population and reputation for racial tolerance, "is a very prejudice[d] city," an opinion shared by many black San Diegans. Nor were the racial restrictions that Gentry described isolated incidents, for African Americans also faced overt discrimination in their quest to secure housing, employment, and professional training. African American women, for example, waged a protracted, and ultimately successful struggle to enroll in nurses' training programs., They challenged the long-standing policy of the San Diego County Hospital School of Nursing, which had banned black females from admission until 1927, and thereafter enforced a rigid policy of racial segregation. Similarly, numerous restaurants and public establishments refused to serve African American clientele until the late 1940s. (1)

Like their counterparts in numerous American cities, black San Diegans were angered by the professed racial egalitarianism of their city and the grim and ugly reality of second-class citizenship. Black San Diegans demanded full-fledged citizenship. They were emboldened by the cries of black leaders such as A. Philip Randolph, who instructed African Americans nationally to demand full equality, and Robert Vann, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American newspaper, who implored blacks to fight racism at home as well as fascism abroad. They were also inspired by the pledge of president Franklin D. Roosevelt to halt most forms of discrimination in the nation's defense industries. World War II thus represented a watershed in black San Diego in several important respects. The war not only increased the size of San Diego's black community dramatically, as southern black migrants came to work in the wartime defense industries, but the global conflict also raised the aspirations of African Americans and triggered a new racial militancy in San Diego's African American community. In many cities the local NAACP branch fought for civil rights, but in San Diego it was the Urban League that played the pivotal role after World War II in pushing for civil rights and full inclusion into the city's burgeoning economy. And unlike Urban League affiliates in other western cites, the San Diego Urban League offered services not only to African Americans, but also to Latinos, and they consciously attempted to improve the status of these workers in several of their employment programs. (2)

During the Second World War, writes Gerald Nash, San Diego "was transformed from a sleepy Navy town into a major metropolitan region." Exclusive of military personnel, San Diego's population had grown by 190,000 between 1941 and 1945, a staggering 147 percent increase. An additional 130,000 servicemen and women also moved to San Diego during the war, swelling the population even further. This population boom, which other West Coast cities also experienced, placed enormous strains on San Diego's resources and infrastructure. Housing, schools, public transportation, recreation facilities, and social services were pressed to accommodate a considerably larger clientele than they had been designed to serve. Yet San Diego, concludes Nash, coped with the wartime crisis remarkably well, in part because the city had been accustomed to dealing with a large transient population of military personnel and because the U.S. Navy played a large role in municipal affairs. (3)

As was the case in other major West Coast cities, and also in the territory of Hawaii, World War II altered both San Diego's economy and its race relations. …