Mallie Robinson and her five children came to California in search of something better, only to find more of the same. When the Robinsons relocated from Cairo, Georgia to a family home on Pepper Street in Pasadena in 1922, their white neighbors greeted them with a flaming cross on their front lawn. Mallie discovered that most jobs were closed to Black women, aside from domestic work, while her children attended segregated schools. They were also barred from Pasadena’s public pool. The Plunge finally reopened to African Americans in 1930, but only for one day a week. Tuesday was known as “Negro Day,” when the Robinsons were allowed to swim alongside other people of color. That evening, the city drained the pool and filled it with fresh water for white swimmers on Wednesday. “Pasadena regarded us as intruders,” recalled one of Mallie Robinson’s children, a young man named Jackie.
Pasadena is now eager to claim Jackie Robinson, the sports legend who broke professional baseball’s color barrier, as one of its own. A community center and a city park are named for him, and two mammoth brass sculptures to Jackie and his brother Mack, an Olympic medalist, occupy a central courtyard across from Pasadena City Hall. Yet nowhere in in the city’s landscape are markers or acknowledgements to what Jackie and his family endured, when Pasadena largely closed itself to African Americans. The wealthiest city in the nation when Jackie Robinson was growing up, Pasadena was also one of the most rigorously segregated.
Pasadena was no outlier among California cities, as Lynn M. Hudson explains in her urgent new book, West of Jim Crow. Although officials in Pasadena policed the color line with particular vigilance, they represented a mere sliver of the segregationist apparatus in twentieth-century California. Hudson brilliantly illustrates how this vast network – including city and state officials, politicians, lawyers, policemen, and everyday citizens – turned California into a bastion of Jim Crow segregation and a hotspot for anti-Black violence. But she also documents the numerous ways in which African Americans fought back. From a certain perspective, the virulent force of white supremacy in California can be seen as a testament to the remarkable achievements and prominence of Black men and women in public life.
California’s history of race-based segregation, of course, runs deep. Modern California – now one of the most outwardly liberal and cosmopolitan states in the nation – was built upon the forced relocation and dispossession of multiple ethnic groups. That history includes the seizure of vast amounts of land from Indigenous inhabitants and Mexican rancheros in the nineteenth century. And it includes the violent removal of Chinese immigrants from their communities across the state, as well as a sixty-year ban on migration from China, beginning in 1882. The hostility that Black Californians faced (and face still) belongs to this longer history.
Hudson’s canvas is broad – one of the many reasons her work will appeal to scholars, students, and general readers alike. West of Jim Crow spans the antebellum era up to the start of the Civil Rights movement, with a focus on the Black struggle for justice in the early to mid-twentieth century. Hudson ranges across space and time to cover a diverse range of moments in California’s Black history: San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, the building of all-Black town in the Central Valley, the African American anti-lynching campaign, the rise of Ku Klux Klan in the Inland Empire, and the long fight against segregation in Pasadena.
The Black struggle for racial justice in California is as old as the state itself. By the early 1850s, hundreds of enslaved African Americans had been forcibly imported to work the gold diggings around Sacramento. When many of them won their freedom later in the decade, they still faced a raft of discriminatory laws and practices. African Americans could not legally testify against whites in courts of law, nor could they marry across the color line. They were also routinely barred from streetcars and viciously parodied in San Francisco’s popular minstrel shows.
Against all odds, some early Black Californians prospered. Biddy Mason, a former slave from the plantation belt, personified hard-won fortune for this first generation of African American migrants. Born into slavery in Georgia, Mason was forcibly transported across the country, before she finally won freedom for herself and thirteen others in a Los Angeles courtroom in 1856. First as a nurse and midwife, then as a real estate entrepreneur, Mason built a business enterprise that made her one of the wealthiest women of color in the American West. Her success seeded a family fortune estimated at $300,000 by the turn of the century. At that point, Los Angeles had one of the highest proportions of Black homeowners of any city in the country. Yet as the Black community grew in numbers and affluence, it encountered mounting hostility and discrimination.
The story of racial struggle in California is largely one of self-empowered Black women like Mason. Generations of female leaders – Delilah Beasley, Josephine Allensworth, Carlotta Bass, Ruby Williams, and Edna Griffin, among many others – endowed their communities with strength and vision. Hudson, the author of an excellent biography on the San Francisco businesswoman, Mammy Pleasant, is well-equipped to recover these women’s contributions. She does so by placing them within the larger networks in which they operated, rather than rendering them as individual biographies. The effect is to highlight the cumulative power of Black women’s organizing. They never struggled alone.
Hudson locates influential Black women in places that historians typically overlook. Allensworth, the first and only all-Black municipality in California, was often advertised as a retirement community for Buffalo Soldiers. The town’s founder, Army veteran Allen Allensworth, embodied the masculine initiative that he hoped would propel his Central Valley settlement to prosperity. But it was the women of Allensworth who deserve much of the credit for the town’s survival in the 1910s and 20s. Some of the most successful businesses in Allensworth, including the hotel and boardinghouses, were owned and operated by women. Women also constituted the leadership of Allensworth’s church, and they taught generations of students in the schoolhouse. Their lessons in Black history proved transformative. “It was really the first time I’d ever heard nice things said about black people from a historical perspective,” one former student recalled. The moral was a simple but powerful one: “There was nothing inferior about me. I was pretty hard to stop from there on in” (115).
Scholars might quibble with certain aspects of the book, including its terminology. Hudson affixes the label “Jim Crow” to virtually all acts of anti-Black discrimination, beginning with the Reconstruction period. Most historians, however, generally date the start of the Jim Crow era to the late nineteenth century, when the former Confederate states adopted a series of laws to segregate and disenfranchise their Black populations. The term “Jim Crow Law” doesn’t appear in print until the 1890s. This isn’t to suggest that the racism African Americans faced in 1870s California was somehow less damaging. But Hudson would have been wise to explain why the term, which otherwise appears anachronistic, should have purchase for this earlier period. In doing so, she might have convincingly extended not only the geography of the Jim Crow era but the chronology as well.
Minor critiques aside, West of Jim Crow is among the best introductions to Black California history yet written. It should be read alongside the seminal works of Albert Broussard, Quintard Taylor, Stacey Smith, Mark Brilliant, Lonnie Bunch, Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, Douglas Flamming, Scott Kurashige, and Josh Sides. Because many of their books are more tightly focused – centered on particular cities or on a few decades of state history – Hudson’s ambitious and wide-ranging work will appeal especially to those looking for a primer on the subject. West of Jim Crow is an elegant synthesis that will doubtlessly stand the test of time.
Jackie Robinson never forgot the trauma or humiliation of his segregated childhood in Pasadena. For Black families like his, the city’s affluence and upscale public services weren’t points of civic pride; they were reminders of what had been denied them. Even apparent victories for African Americans could be transformed into defeats. After a protracted court battle, Pasadena was finally forced to open its public pool to people of color by 1947. But rather than integrate, the city instead chose to drain its pool of funding, as it had been drained of water after “Negro Day” every week. If white families couldn’t have the pool to themselves, no one would. The Plunge, once the most popular public pool in California, deteriorated. And Jim Crow lived on.
Kevin Waite is an assistant professor of American history at Durham University in the UK. His first book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in April 2021. With funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he co-directs a collaborative research grant on the life and times of Biddy Mason.