As the Monterey county branch of the NAACP enters its 80th year, the activists who helped build Seaside into a center of black power look back on the fight for equality.

Left to right: Mel Mason, Mae Johnson, Alice Jordan, Helen Rucker, Charlie Mae Knight, Ruthie Watts.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday commemoration compels the nation to revisit the life and work of the civil rights leader, while Black History Month shines a light on major black figures of the past like Harriet Tubman, Langston Hughes, Frederick Douglass, Malcom X, Louis Armstrong, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jackie Robinson.

But maybe not as well known to many: Seaside is home to a deep team of black activists, and white and non-white allies, who, starting in the 1950s, risked and worked and won major victories for equality. Some are gone, but many are alive and still working on various fronts in that unfinished business.

“These folks don’t talk about themselves,” says Mel Mason, 69, a longtime community organizer and current president of the local NAACP Monterey County Branch. “I didn’t understand the significance of those people until later.”

The local NAACP will celebrate its 80th year at a membership banquet on Feb. 4 at the Hyatt, featuring national NAACP president and CEO Ben Jealous, who was born and raised in Pacific Grove. Monterey County is a different place – more fair, accepting and accessible – than it would have been if it weren’t for the work of the obscure heroes who fought for acceptance and equality in decades past. In the midst of all the commemoration, their stories remind us who we’ve been, who we are today, and why.

A Place to Call Home

Mason moved to Seaside in 1956 with his mother when he was 13.

“I was growing up in Kentucky at the height of Jim Crow segregation,” he says. “Separate but unequal everything. I believed I was coming to heaven [here] – no racism, everyone the same.”

Instead, he found that in Seaside, “everything to the left of La Salle,” a neighborhood then called Ord Terrace, didn’t allow blacks, non-whites and Jews. That was in accord with deed covenants, conditions attached to house titles that restricted their sale to minorities, stubbornly adhered to by some realtors and title companies even though they were ruled illegal by the Supreme Court in 1948. They “protected” Carmel, Pacific Grove, most of Monterey and chunks of Seaside, especially from minorities who were moving here by way of Fort Ord. Mason and his mom were not alone in encountering them.

Lenora Bean is a secretary at Seaside’s New Hope Baptist Church and has been with that church for 45 years. She and her husband arrived on the Peninsula from L.A. in 1952 when it was a landscape of “sand fleas and sticks.”

“There were places [that] didn’t want to sell houses to black people, even in Marina and Del Rey Oaks,” she says. “My husband applied to the Monterey Realty Board for membership and they turned him down. He was in World War II… and he wasn’t good enough.”

Carol Lynn McKibben, Ph.D., a Stanford University historian and director of the Seaside History Project, has chronicled much of Seaside’s past in two books: in the Seaside edition of the nation-spanning Images of America series, and Racial Beachhead: Diversity and Democracy in a Military Town.

In Beachhead, she cites a clause in the title company of Del Monte Properties: “Said premises shall not… be occupied or used by Asiatics, Negroes, or any person born in the Turkish Empire, nor any lineal descendant of such person, except that persons of said races may be employed as household servants.”

As more people of color moved here, Sand City and Del Rey Oaks, McKibben writes, seceded from Monterey by incorporating. The Ord Terrace neighborhood tried the same, but failed.

Bobbie and Morris McDaniel, of Seaside, first moved to the Peninsula in 1958; then were then stationed elsewhere, and returned in 1979.

“I turned down 20 good assignments to get back here,” Morris says by phone. “I like the weather. It’s not too hot and not too cold. I don’t care too much for four seasons.”

“And it’s beautiful,” his wife prompts in the background.

“And it’s a pretty place,” he says.

He says that when he and Bobbie were looking for a place to rent during their first stint, at one duplex they had the keys in hand and were going next door to the landlord to accept the place, but were told it had “just been rented.”

“The neighbor called the owner,” he postulates, and told him, “‘There are some black folks here.’”

A 1963 Monterey Peninsula Herald story cited a survey of real estate listings at the time, finding that 30 percent restricted children, 55 percent restricted pets, and 63 percent included racial restrictions. They broke it down further: Racial restrictions on one-bedroom furnished rentals were found in 73 percent of Monterey’s listings, 67 percent of Carmel’s and 56 percent of Seaside’s. Among one-bedroom unfurnished rentals, 100 percent of Pacific Grove’s listings contained racial restrictions.

Mason tells an instructive story about the secretive nature of deed covenants from Richard Nance, then president of the NAACP and pastor of First Baptist Church, the oldest black church in Central California. “He was good friends with folks from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church – they were progressive women,” Mason says. “He called them his St. Mary’s soldiers.”

Rev. Nance told the women the NAACP planned to fight racial discrimination in the P.G. neighborhood above Congress Avenue known as the Triangle, but they didn’t believe there was such a thing in “America’s Last Hometown.” He sent black people to houses with For Sale signs; they were told, “Oh gosh, if only you had just gotten here a little earlier. It’s just been sold.” Then the reverend sent in the white women from St. Mary’s and they were shown the house.

“They were absolutely incensed,” Mason laughs, “and joined the NAACP.”

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity

Finding a place to live wasn’t the only struggle for those early black residents, who were mostly from the South and mostly military stationed at Fort Ord. Once off-base, jobs were elusive.

Helen Rucker, originally from Louisiana, moved to Seaside from Oakland in 1964. At the time she possessed librarian and some teaching credentials, but when she went to apply for a job at the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District, she was told, “We don’t have no job for you.” She wasn’t even given an application.

Cecil Bindel, a white man whom Mason calls one of the greatest local NAACP presidents of the 1960s (now in his 90s living in a local retirement community), saw how this happened.

“[Bindel] went to the school district,” Mason says. “He watched as various black people, with educations, with credentials, applied [for jobs], and he saw that the district personnel waited until the black people left, and they would crumple up the applications.”

Charlie Mae Knight, Ed.D., worked in education on the Peninsula for 17 years and in the Bay Area for 18 years, retiring after stints as an administrator in the MPUSD and superintendent in other school districts. The ceiling for work was much lower when she came to the Peninsula in the 1950s.

“The only place we could work [then] was June Simpson’s restaurant in Carmel, who was known to hire blacks,” she says. “We worked at June’s or Fort Ord laundry or domestic service, and that was just about it. It was dismal.”

Examples of other injustice surfaced regularly. Mason remembers that in his youth, though he was a basketball star at Monterey High, police singled him out among his white teammates and put him in jail for breaking curfew. It happened once in Carmel and once in Pacific Grove, he says; both times his parents had to get him out. His white teammates were left unmolested.

And there were examples of ugliness. Rucker recalls during a march in Monterey from Custom House Plaza to Colton Hall, in remembrance of the four little black girls killed in 1963 by a racist terrorist’s bomb in a Birmingham church, motorists honked their horns and yelled obscenities.

“I was used to it in Louisiana,” she says. “But in California?”

Allies Join Forces

The U.S. military was integrated nearly instantly in 1948 under President Harry Truman’s Executive Orders 9980 and 9981, which prohibited discrimination based on race, religion or national origin in, respectively, the civil service and the military. That order to integrate would affect all military bases, especially Fort Ord, then a major training base.

Local mayors contested it, but it was not to be undone. Black and minority enrollment went up, and soldiers came here, bringing their wives and families.

In the military, rank counted above than race. So when black officers, NCOs and enlisted men (and their wives and families) stepped off base, they carried with them the expectation of receiving equal treatment. They had come from epicenters of black culture in the South and had lived through Jim Crow segregation and overt racism, they had traveled the world and seen other countries, and they were educated.

“We had great black leaders like Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who was a mentor of Martin Luther King, Jr., and [education pioneer] Mary McLeod Bethune,” says retired educator Mae Johnson. “They had a vision of what America was going to look like, and we had to prepare for it. Education was about life. [Our teachers] didn’t allow us to waste time. There was a purpose.”

Those folks also had in their arsenal the momentum of the Civil Rights Movement, which was forcing the hand of institutional racism on multiple fronts and turning bystanders into activists. Coalitions formed here among groups like the NAACP, black churches, fraternities and sororities, white progressives, other minorities, civic groups like the Kiwanis, and community groups like the Committee on Human Rights.

“We all decided what was best for our community,” says Ewalker James, who is still active in Seaside’s cultural life. “I served in the Korean War and in Vietnam; we knew what life was all about. We were well versed in freedom.”

The Committee on Human Rights included local civil rights figures like Rev. H.H. Lusk of Bethel Baptist Church and John Bean, who was instrumental in winning Seaside incorporation, and a great number of white activists like Lisa Haussermann and Seaside’s first City Attorney Saul Weingarten. One of the first orders of business was to bust the employment barrier.

In 1963, after meetings in the Community Room of Monterey Public Library, they got to work on a campaign that enlisted letters, key contacts, legal challenges and public persuasion to get local businesses to hire black people.

Marie A. Sweet was one of those people. She and her friend Ivy Jean Johnson were the first black tellers at a Seaside bank, Crocker Citizen National, which once sat across the street from today’s Mi Pueblo on Fremont.

“A high schooler could do that job,” Sweet says, “but if you were African American, you had to be super-qualified.”

Sweet says that some customers, upon seeing her, would move to a window with a white teller; many new customers, though, opened accounts at the bank because of the hires.

Within 18 months of forming, according to a Monterey Peninsula Herald story, the Committee on Human Rights had helped place 100 black people in jobs on the Peninsula that “formerly employed few or no Negroes.”

When Helen Rucker was refused even an application for a job with the school district, she says she went to Seaside and walked up Broadway and asked the first black man she encountered for the whereabouts of the nearest NAACP.

She eventually got to Cecil Bindel, then president of the local NAACP, who called the president of the school board and got Rucker an interview.

“The director of the personnel interviewed me with his back to me,” Rucker says, and demonstrates in her own swivel chair. “Well, I got the job anyway.”

The Citizens’ League for Progress and NAACP worked with the Employment Development Department, MPUSD and MPC to find qualified black job candidates for positions. Many of Seaside’s old guard civil rights activists credit Charlie Mae Knight, then Director of Special Projects with MPUSD, for integrating the school district in its hiring practices, described less as racist than ignorant.

“Cecil Bindel asked a superintendent [Don Whittington] about the lack of black teachers in Seaside,” Knight says. “Don said ‘We would hire them but we can’t find them.’ He didn’t know about historical black colleges in the South. I said, ‘I think I can find them if you let me go.’”

She was given the OK, and criss-crossed the South, recruiting teachers from the black colleges, many of whom would later hold positions of power.

“The Peninsula became the place to be in the Civil Rights Movement,” Knight says. “We put on the Multicultural Education Conferences; we were the trailblazers in the state.”

As the mistress of ceremonies at the recent Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration at a packed Oldemeyer Center, she introduced local dignitaries like Mayor Felix Bachofner and LULAC president Carlos Ramos. But her introduction of Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, came with a poignant prologue as she talked about Sam’s father, the late State Sen. Fred Farr.

“I practically raised Sam,” she told the audience. “[Fred] was one of the few white people we could turn to.” A lawyer, he helped the cause with legal representation and referrals to secure lines of credit for housing.

In reply, Rep. Farr told the assembled, “My father said [Knight] is going to come back and change this place. And she did.”

White people were instrumental in unlocking housing for early black families. To get around the racial deed covenants, whites in solidarity would buy a home from an owner who upheld the convenant, then sell it to a black family. A fellow officer, a white man, helped the McDaniels finally rent a house in Monterey. After being rejected for inclusion in the Monterey Realty Board, John Bean applied again and was accepted, becoming the first black member in the organization. In 1964, the Del Monte Properties Co., under pressure, rescinded its racial restrictions.

Mason says, “Rev. Nance ended up buying a house in what used to be the Triangle, and that’s where he passed away [last summer], in that house.”

The National NAACP worked the publicity machinery to shame cities into action. They drafted a letter asking city councils to form committees to ferret out racist practices in their cities and the local branch sent the letters to Peninsula city councils, and to newspapers, including the Seaside Post. The city councils declined. But after pressure from a now-galvanized and mobilized community, they capitulated. In 1966, Seaside formed the committee that was asked for.

A swift and powerful blow against housing discrimination, according to Racial Beachhead, came from President Johnson’s administration, which created the Department of Housing and Urban Development and offered municipalities federal dollars for development, with rules against discrimination. The city of Seaside pounced on the opportunity, and received enough fed money to develop three major neighborhoods: Noche Buena, Del Monte Heights and Hannon.

“This was the same federal government that redlined black communities in the 1960s,” McKibben says. “They could mandate integration and tie it to money for infrastructure development. The two went hand in hand.”

The 1960s were a heady moment in time for the country and for Seaside, a time of struggle and solidarity, selflessness and individual courage, when everyone kept their eyes on the prize.

But the most poignant victories, according to McKibben, would come later, in the 1970s and ’80s.

Movin’ on Up

“When I first came here, I applied at Pacific Bell and they said I was too old,” says Lorena Bean. She was 29.

By the time Rucker was running the after-hours library program at Martin Luther King Middle School (renamed shortly after King’s assassination), telephone company employees were volunteering to help kids learn English.

Black people, in concert with a multicultural coalition of neighbors, gained more clout in the 1970s and ’80s, which saw the election of the first black mayor, Oscar Lawson (1976-78), followed by a succession of black mayors; the rise of political heavyweights Don Jordan and Mel Mason; the first black city manager, Stanley Hall (1978-80); the first black Chief of Police, Virgil Epperson (1975-89); the first black woman elected to City Council, Pearl Carey (1974-82); and the first black superintendent of MPUSD, Billy DeBerry.

In 1979, when Seaside mayor Lou Haddad fired Stanley Hall, because, according to Morris McDaniel, “he didn’t like or want him,” the community rose up and recalled Haddad. The city’s power balance had shifted seismically.

Black activists had become power players, instrumental in founding the Monterey Jazz Festival and Monterey Bay Blues Festival, ethnic celebrations and debutante balls, Oldemeyer Center and city parks. They pushed forward church functions, Black History Month events like the unofficial black holiday known as Juneteenth. Mason’s Seaside Cultural Arts Group, started in 1974, brings a component of the Bach Festival to town each year.

It was a Harlem Renaissance in the social, political and cultural life of the city. Former model and longtime activist Ruthie Watts has constructed a photo and art display at Seaside City Hall’s Avery Gallery that captures the political momentum of this time. But since the heyday, that dynamic has since moved again, and swiftly.

“Everything changed when Fort Ord closed [in the early ‘90s],” Rucker says. “No more middle class. They left. They could sell their house here and buy a house outright in Louisiana and still have money to put in the bank. Seaside’s never been more than 35 percent black. Now it’s less than 10 percent.

“You’re catching us in old age.”

Several of the early activists, ill or recovering from illness, were not able to walk in the last MLK Jr. march. Yet others are carrying on, as best they can.

Tony Goodrich, 42, is the current president of the local chapter of the Pan Hellenic Council, the black Greek collective known as the “Divine Nine,” charged with uplifting the black community. But membership here is small and not so active because there are fewer black residents, and they are busy. Though the Council put on the big MLK march earlier this month, Goodrich is unsure what they will do for Black History Month.

“It’s difficult because of our work schedules,” Goodrich, the father of three children, says. “I work in transportation sales. When a client is on the phone, they have to be taken care of. I have to put food on the table, my man.”

Helen Rucker sits in the Seaside office of her nonprofit, Citizens for Transparency in Government, which began as a Barack Obama campaign support headquarters – an elder stateswoman of a fading black dynasty, ramping up a voter registration drive.

She gingerly types some information on a laptop into the website of the Monterey County Elections department to check that she is registered to vote. She says she’s opposed to the county supervisor candidacy of Byrl Smith, a conservative black woman and wife of the late Supervisor Jerry Smith, but supports voting in general.

“People in my generation died for the right to vote,” she says. “Makes you feel part of this great country to vote.”

She ends the visit by saying that she’s going to a “water meeting.”

“The mayors are meeting to take over the water from the Water Board,” she says pleasantly. “Just another fight. There’ll be others.”

The NAACP Monterey County Branch celebrates its 80th year at the Annual Life Membership Banquet 6pm Saturday, Feb. 4, at the Hyatt Monterey, 1 Old Golf Course Road, Monterey. $75. 277-4760, www.montereynaacp.org. Carol Lynn McKibbens’ books can be purchased at Museum of Monterey. Ruthie Watts’ Black History Month exhibit is on view at Seaside City Hall’s Avery Gallery, 440 Harcourt St., Seaside. CSUMB is planning a slate of Black History Month events; go to www.csumb.edu

Walter Ryce has been an arts writer, calendar editor, culture columnist, sometime photographer, and one-time web content coordinator for the Monterey County Weekly. He began working at the paper, which is based in his hometown of Seaside, in 2007.

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