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The challenge of seeking racial harmony in the 1950s

A look at bygone days

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In 2007, Indira Hale Tucker and Aaron L. Day compiled The Heritage of African Americans in Long Beach: Over 100 Years in association with the African American Heritage Society of Long Beach. Their extraordinary work included contributions from many in Long Beach’s and Signal Hill’s African-American community. But many things could only be touched upon, including some of the racial tensions the pioneer African Americans experienced. I decided to add more to the story. I am currently working on a book that will explore the role of African Americans from the city’s beginnings up to the history presented in Tucker and Day’s work. Here is a sample.

amazon.com
The Heritage of African Americans in Long Beach: Over 100 Years

No blacks in my neighborhood
Racial tensions seized the nation in the 1950s, with many minority groups fighting for their civil rights. Though many today tend to think all the struggles were going on in the south, there was plenty happening right here in Long Beach, Signal Hill and nearby areas.

In June 1958, vandals caused $7,500 in damage to carpets and flooring in a nine-room, two-story, Colonial-style home at 4240 Cerritos. Why? The new owners were black.

The $50,000 home, built in 1948, had been purchased the previous month in the upscale, all-white Bixby Knolls neighborhood. Charles and Ruby Terry and their seven children, ranging in age from 14 months to 13 years, were preparing to move into their house when a decorating contractor discovered the vandalism. The entire house was saturated with water from a garden hose that had been connected and allowed to run in an upstairs bedroom. A trail of stains marked wall-to-wall carpeting where bleach had been dribbled, and a large section of carpeting in the living room was ripped up.

Terry and his wife said they had received indirect threats and direct suggestions from some residents in the area to sell out. A representative of a group of neighbors made urgent offers to repurchase the home from the Terrys “at a profit.” The Terrys said the former owner, Jack Ferguson, a service-station operator, had been threatened with a boycott of his business when it was found he had sold his home to blacks. Ferguson was quite frightened after he completed the deal and moved to Lake Tahoe. Terry, who had been a flight surgeon at the Long Beach Air Force Base from 1950 to 1956 before entering private practice, was sure there had been much misunderstanding. He and his family were not trying to break the color line in the neighborhood; they just were attempting to find a home.

On June 24, 1958, residents of the exclusive Bixby Knolls district condemned the vandalism to the Terry’s home and demanded an immediate police investigation. Though the Bixby Knolls homeowners had displayed a decided cold shoulder to integration of their neighborhood, they were vitriolic in condemning the vandalism. Police were able to determine the culprit was an adult, but who remained an unanswered question.

After the Terrys moved into their home, the vandalism continued. On Aug. 31, 1958, a rock about the size of a baseball was tossed through one of their windows. Only drawn curtains prevented the glass from hitting three of the children and a babysitter who were in the room. The perpetrator was never found.

Long Beach race-relations groups
Because of the vandalism directed at Terry and his family, civic leaders formed the City Human Relations Committee to improve racial harmony in Long Beach. Established in July 1958, the committee was formed to seek solutions to the causes of racial tension. They were not alone in seeking remedies. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was also out to stop tensions.

On Sept. 21, 1958, the NAACP told of new incidents in the Bixby Knolls controversy over Terry. Two men in business suits had mounted a telephone pole outside Terry’s office, presumably to tap his phone. In checking with the phone company, the NAACP found that no telephone employees were working on the lines at the time of the sighting. Also, a letter circulated to Bixby Knolls residents claimed the movement of African Americans into white neighborhoods was a communist plot. The letter asked residents to jot down the license number of any black motorists who visited homes in the neighborhood.

Police brutality
The NAACP also asked the Long Beach City Council to investigate numerous reports of police brutality in the city. The president of the Long Beach Bar Association confirmed these alleged reports, saying he had received repeated complaints of mistreatment of citizens by Long Beach police. In one instance, two African-American women, one the wife of local doctor J.O. Garland, were arrested downtown following a traffic violation. Jayda Whittier was stopped for a right-turn violation and running a red light. It was later found she had no vehicle registration or driver’s license. During the course of the arrest and booking, Helen Garland, Jayda’s mother, was allegedly unnecessarily manhandled and suffered a heart attack.

Garland said she was arrested by an officer giving her daughter a ticket in front of a downtown bank. She said after the officer stopped her daughter’s car, she walked up and asked what was wrong. She was told by the policeman to keep out of it, that it was none of her business. Garland said the officer then threatened to arrest her. She explained she was the girl’s mother and was not trying to interfere. Garland went on to say that, during the course of writing the ticket, the officer called her daughter, Jayda, a dummy. Garland objected to the name calling and was then arrested after advising her daughter to read the ticket before signing it.

Taken to the police station in a patrol car, Garland was booked and then told to walk up four flights of stairs to the jail. Severe heart pains struck halfway through her climb. When she arrived at the cell block, she fainted. As she regained consciousness, she found an officer dragging her into a cell. Eventually, she convinced a jail matron that she suffered from a heart ailment and should be taken to a hospital.
Police Chief William Dovey complicated matters even further by stating that constitutional rights of citizens kept police from doing their job. This was enough for Garland to file a complaint against the Long Beach Police Department. Garland was not one to be intimidated. As a graduate of Radcliffe College, former director of minority problems for the State of Michigan, president of the Long Beach Urban League and member of the Los Angeles County Conference on Human Relations, she sued the city for $50,000.

Garland’s account touched off a demand from the local branch of the NAACP for action against police found guilty of terrorist actions. On Aug. 12, 1958, after only a 30-second discussion, the city council voted unanimously to receive and file City Manager Sam Vickers’ report stating there was “positively no evidence” of brutal treatment in the arrest of Garland. The report stated the only time the arrested woman was physically touched was when she was carried into the police matron’s office after collapsing at the jail entrance. The report went on to add that officer Barnhart was physically a very rugged-looking individual with a stern appearance; his natural demeanor may have upset Garland. The report ended with this statement: “In summary, it is my considered opinion that officer Barnhart did not act in any improper manner while arresting Mrs. Garland or during the subsequent booking at the police station. The Garland family has questioned his judgment in making the arrest, but they have not presented any evidence that officer Barnhart acted in a manner unbecoming to an officer or engaged in brutal treatment of Mrs. Garland.” (Press-Telegram Aug. 13, 1958)

Garland had much to be angry about besides the verdict. Since 1957, her husband, Dr. J. O. Garland, had been “shaken down” for $400 a month by two Long Beach police officers under threat of framing J.O. on an abortion charge. A graduate of Bishop College and Howard Medical School, J.O. had practiced medicine in the Long Beach community since 1947. He had also served for 18 years as physician in the Muskogee, Mich. community. Upon leaving Michigan, the governor presented him with an award commending him for his service. His career had been untarnished until now. The Garlands, however, weren’t sure how deep the extortion reached within the police department and waited until Dovey had retired. Their opportunity came when new Police Chief William Mooney took over in 1960.

The surprise arrest of homicide detectives Harry Finch Jr. and James Thiele a few days after Police Chief William Mooney took over from his predecessor was the No. 1 news story in 1960. Garland, knowing he was innocent, had gone to the new police chief with his story. In June 1961, Finch and Thiele were convicted of extortion, but appeals kept them out of prison until November 1964. Along the way, they implicated many other police officers with bribery and extortion claims, Dovey, however, though implicated, was not charged.

Unfortunately, Dr. Jay Otto Garland did not live to see Finch and Thiele go to prison. The Texas-born native and World War I veteran passed away from pneumonia on Nov. 14, 1963, eight days after he came down with the flu. He was 80 years of age.

This is just a sample of our community’s vibrant African American history. There will be more to tell as my research continues.

Burnett is a former Long Beach librarian who, during her 25 years of researching local history, has uncovered many forgotten stories about Southern California that she has published in nine books. She has degrees from UC Irvine, UCLA and Cal State Long Beach. For more information, visit claudineburnettbooks.com.

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The challenge of seeking racial harmony in the 1950s