Confronting Long Beach's Racist Past

Peter Hardeman Burnett (1807-1895), first Gove...
Peter Hardeman Burnett (1807-1895), first Governor of California 1849-51. This picture was taken in his later years, when he served as president of Pacific Bank. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Flag of the Ku Klux Klan Español: Bandera de K...
Flag of the Ku Klux Klan Español: Bandera de Ku Klux Klan Français : Drapeau du Ku Klux Klan Deitsch: Faahne vun Ku Klux Klan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The terrorist attack in South Carolina which resulted in the murder of several attending church is once again bringing the issue of racism in America to the forefront. While Long Beach is so far ahead of other cities in supporting diversity, our history is replete with racism, particularly directed toward African Americans and others of a "different color."

Long Beach came into being as a planned community focused on attracting Christian, whites when William Wilmore acquired acreage from the Bixby's in the late 1880s. Wilmore, who was English, literally stumbled upon the area when he was traveling to the teachers colony in Pasadena. Struck by the beauty of its beach, Wilmore went to work for the California Immigrant Union as a manager. The CIU had been formed by the railroads and other business tycoons, such as the Bixby's, to attract Christian, white folk to immigrate from the east coast and Europe to California in order to replace the Chinese who had built the railroads and were no longer wanted.

Wilmore hired a civil engineer to map out a city and set about to advertise plots of land that could be farmed adjacent to the area known then as "American Colony"and then "Wilmore City." In 1884 it was renamed "Long Beach" and with the help of the railroads, the city boomed.

Little has been written about the large influx of civil war veterans to Long Beach or the fact that Long Beach was one of the only city to have a "Blue and Grey"veterans club that celebrated both Union and Confederate Veterans.

Long Beach was also the home to a large and active Klu Klux Klan in the early 1920s that openly recruited police and elected officials as members. The KKK held rallies at the Municipal Auditorium and 26,000 marched along Ocean down to Bixby Park. The KKK even raised funds to start a ""white hospital" (Long Beach Community Hospital) as an alternative to the public Seaside Hospital and the Catholic St. Mary Hospital.

There are news accounts of the KKK terrorizing young blacks but they spent most of their energies focused on eradicating the influence of alcohol which they attributed to "Romanism" or "Catholic Peril", and trying to convince locals to keep "America for Americans".

WWII brought the largest influx of African Americans to the city to fill wartime jobs. Douglas Aircraft plant boasted that it was a "melting pot" of workers and  it did not experience the racial conflicts of other factories. However, it took a Presidential Executive Order to mandate the equal treatment "during the war"of all workers in wartime industries.

Black workers coming to Long Beach were confronted with the racism of a city that only allowed them to rent in the "Negro"section of the town, that to this day continues to have the highest rate of crime.

After the war and through the 1960s, new housing developments included restrictive covenants preventing the purchase of homes in Long Beach (and Lakewood) by anyone except whites. Employment opportunities all but vanished for Blacks.

It took until 1970 for Long Beach to elect an African American male (James Wilson) and 1992 to elect an African American woman (Doris Topsy Elvord) to city council.

Long Beach like Charleston, South Carolina had its own "confederate flag"moment in 2014 when it was disclosed that a local elementary school -- Burnett -- had been named in honor of Peter Burnett, a former California governor who backed slavery and the extermination of Native Americans.

The public rallied for a name change and the school now bears the name of the first African American woman elected to the Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education: Bobbie Smith.

Long Beach has come along way but still we need to be mindful that racism doesn't need a flag to be destructive in a community. Until we address the lack of job opportunities, the drop out rate and the crime in certain areas of our city, we haven't moved quite enough in the right direction.