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The roots of racism run deep in San Diego, but so do the roots of resistance. VOSD’s resident historian, contributor Randy Dotinga, uncovered the forgotten stories of two pioneering black teachers in San Diego.
In the fall of 1945, just a few weeks after the end of World War II, 1,900 Pacific Beach residents announced they’d had quite enough of “dictator methods we’ve fought two wars to put a stop to,” the San Diego Union reported. They demanded that the San Diego school board kick out a junior high school teacher in their neighborhood because he was black, and that quite simply wouldn’t do.
These outraged locals are the villains in the story of San Diego’s first black teachers. But there are heroes too – including a woman who died just five years ago at the age of 102 – and a powerful ally with a familiar name who refused to crumble under pressure.
Black residents began arriving in San Diego centuries ago with the Spanish colonialists, historians say, and ex-slaves moved here during the 19th century along with the white Southerners who turned San Diego County into a pro-slavery, anti-Lincoln stronghold.
In the 20th century, segregation and red-lining forced blacks into southeastern San Diego neighborhoods, and they faced racism everywhere. “Colored people are not allowed in restaurants, nor to drink soda water in drugstores, nor can they rent bathing suits at any bathing house or beach in this city,” wrote the local NAACP president in 1924.
Thanks to a push by black activists, jobs slowly opened up to black residents. The first black policeman was hired in 1931, and the first black nurse at the county hospital in 1927. Despite pressure, San Diego schools didn’t have a black teacher until they hired 27-year-old Blossom Lorraine Van Lowe in 1942 to teach at Memorial Junior High in Logan Heights. Even that didn’t happen easily: The district was forced to open up hiring amid an influx of new students and a shortage of male teachers due to the war.
Van Lowe was the model candidate. She was a native Californian with degrees from San Diego City College and Columbia University. She had even attended Memorial Junior High as a child.
But even still, many felt the need to justify her presence. “We Like Our Negro Teacher” read the headline of one story in a black magazine, written by one of her colleagues. “She is an intelligent, quiet and well-poised young woman who has shown unusual tact and discrimination in what might have been a difficult situation for a less-talented person,” the female colleague wrote.
The article very subtly acknowledged the difficulties faced by Van Lowe: “There were forty white teachers in the school,” the colleague wrote.
Van Lowe was not quick to acknowledge those difficulties either.
“The only time, that I felt that I was discriminated against because of race was when I was not chosen to sing in the glee club at high school,” she said. “I always wanted to be a teacher because I liked school … I feel grateful that I had perseverance to stick to my aim in life.
But she also acknowledged the pressure of being San Diego’s first black teacher, saying that her job “is an opening wedge for other qualified Negro teachers, especially if I make good.” She believed that “to counteract the teaching of white supremacy for so many decades, Negroes must be taught to esteem themselves and their race,” the article noted.
Three years later, San Diego’s black teachers learned just how deep-rooted racism could be here. That’s when parents rebelled over the hiring of teacher William B. Payne at Pacific Beach Junior High.
They didn’t accuse him of being unqualified, at least not directly. Like Van Lowe, Payne was overqualified. He had a degree from the Sorbonne University in Paris, and had taught at the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). Instead, they insisted he didn’t belong at a seaside school with only a few black students.
Will Crawford, who served as superintendent of San Diego schools from 1934-1954, refused to give in. He praised Payne at a board meeting, according to The San Diego Union, and said teachers are “appointed on the basis of training, experience and character. They are employed regardless of race, color or creed, in keeping with the principles of democracy.”
With Crawford standing firm, the protesting parents appealed to state officials to step in. The state refused.
Payne went on to teach at San Diego High for 23 years and worked at the administration at San Diego City College and SDSU. San Diego’s Crawford High School is named after the district superintendent, who died in 1955.
After Van Lowe and Payne broke the race barrier, San Diego did not exactly usher in a progressive hiring wave of African-American teachers. Only 4 percent of the district’s current teachers are black, according to state Department of Education data. Of the district’s student body, 8 percent are black.
San Diego Unified has had two black superintendents, including Bertha Pendleton, who was the first black person, as well as the first woman, to hold the position.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber is currently pushing to overturn Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in state hiring. One of her reasons for doing so is to increase diversity in the classroom, she has said.
Blossom Lorraine Van Lowe Gholston taught here until she left in 1971 for Colorado, where she tutored and continued to teach. She died in 2015 at the age of 102. Her online obituary leads with a Bible verse: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”