|In this 1946 photograph, an interracial group of picketers line the front of the Tribune building-owned by the family of Republican Senator William Knowland. Their protest centers on Knowland's refusal to support low-income housing in the Oakland Hills. As I.L.W.U. and C.I.O. union members understood, minorities had a great need for government-subsidized public housing.|
The reason was not poverty, but racial discrimination by real-estate agents who would not sell African Americans homes in neighborhoods covered by restrictive housing covenants. The situation was similar in Southern California. In Los Angeles during 1946, African Americans accounted for 7 percent of the city's population, yet filed 46 percent of all the applications for the city's public housing.
By 1946, housing shortages were especially acute on the West Coast. During wartime, the state's population had swelled. For the past five years, all economic activity had been redirected to wartime needs. In addition, a tremendous migration had taken place between 1940 and 1945, when four million African Americans left behind agricultural labor in the South to pursue factory work on behalf of the war effort. A great majority of these workers came to California. African American women who earned $3.50 a week as domestic servants in the South could earn $48 a week in the aircraft plants of Los Angeles.
In Northern California, where the majority of wartime shipyards were located, the numbers were equally dramatic. Moore's Drydock in Oakland had 600 employees in 1936, swelling to 35,000 in 1944. In Richmond, Kaiser Shipyards did not even exist in 1940, but was employing 100,000 people three years later. Because President Roosevelt had outlawed racial discrimination in wartime factory plants, African Americans left their homes around the country to obtain these jobs. In the East Bay alone, the population of African Americans grew by 400 percent during the war years, from 14,000 to 60,000 residents. In 1945, 70 percent of all African American wage-earners in the Bay Area worked in one industry: shipyards. The pattern was identical in Southern California's aircraft industry. The state as a whole saw its population rise during the war years by 272 percent.
At war's end, there were 10 million war-plant workers to reabsorb into the work force, and another 12 million soldiers coming home, many of whom would stay in California. But where were they all to live? The options, already tight for returning veterans, were almost miniscule for African Americans. In 1946, California's real-estate developers and housing communities enforced a little-known contract of exclusion called "housing covenants." This meant that real-estate agents and home owners had signed a contract forbidding them to sell homes to African Americans, Asians, Latinos, and Jews. Many fought restrictive housing covenants in court on a piece-meal basis. When local judges ruled that AfricanAmericans could not be excluded from one community on the basis of these covenants, real- estate developer would simply go off and build another all-white community.
As one field worker for the California chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. remembers, segregation in the south was "de jure"-the result of discriminatory laws. In Northern and Western states such as California, segregation was "de facto-the result of residential housing patterns.
When Anna and Henry Law, a Los Angeles-based African American couple, were found guilty of violating a restrictive covenant in the deed of their home, they joined their case with others in a class-action suit that traveled all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1948, the Supreme Court found restrictive covenants in violation of the 14th amendment. That same year, an alliance of union activists, white liberals, and African American residents elected pharmacist William Byron Rumsford as state Assemblyman serving the Oakland/Berkeley district. With his 1948 victory, Rumsford became Northern California's first African American to serve in the California legislature. He would be instrumental in continuing the civil rights struggle to end housing discrimination, passing the Rumsford Fair Housing Act of 1963.