The Influence of African American Ladies in Early San Diego

In 1860, the African American population in California was slightly more than 1%. In fact, the San Diego census for 1860 reported only four African American persons:

Thomas Smith, cook, born in Bermuda

John Williams, cook, born in Manila

Jefsce Torres, born in North Carolina

Anna Freeman, born in California

By post-Civil War, free Blacks and newly freed slaves came to San Diego for reasons similar to other immigrants – to start a new life, for economic gain, and to experience more freedom supposedly offered by the far western frontier. Although the freedom was somewhat overstated, the West offered much more freedom in comparison to the South. Additionally, some were drawn to opportunities available from the Gold Rush.

By 1880, Alonzo Horton’s Newtown was flourishing, but only three African-Americans were listed in the census. However, by 1890, at least 289 persons of color were listed. Most of them lived in Victorian cottages along 16th and 17th Streets.

Due to the influx of immigrants who arrived with the laying of the tracks for the California Southern Rail, by 1888, the Mayor declared that the Stingaree was “ crowded with whites, blacks, women, and Chinamen.” Clearly, the African-American population was expanding and moving into areas of Newtown closer to business. Additionally, a vibrant nightlife in the downtown sector was established by the 1920s and 30s, which included the Hotel Douglas, the Creole Palace, the Crossroads Jazz Club, the Club Romance, the Club Royale and Moonglow.

The ladies definitely made their presence known, adding ingenuity, expertise and flair to early San Diego. Some notables included Rebecca Craft, Anna B. Brown, Florence Zolicoffer, Eleanora Hubbard and Lillian Grant.

Rebecca Craft is significantly responsible for altering the quality of life for African Americans in San Diego in the first half of the 20th century. She was born in 1887 in Kentucky and educated at what is now Kentucky State University. In 1910, she and her husband moved to San Diego, and settled in what is now Logan Heights. Although she was trained and had experience as a teacher, she was denied employment as most women of color were in the labor or service industry. Consequently, she devoted her time towards the improvement of living conditions for other African Americans. She founded the Baptist Young Peoples Union, the Negro Women’s Civic League, and pushed for African-American teachers to be employed. She additionally pushed for equality in the San Diego Police Department, which ultimately resulted in the hiring of Arthur Hill, one of San Diego’s earliest Black policemen. Rebecca was an activist and an inspiration to the entire community.

Anna B. Brown, a very well known business person, worked as a partner with George A. Ramsey, the unofficial mayor of the Black community and the owner of the Douglas Hotel and the Creole Palace. She managed numerous hotels in the downtown area, including the Brighton, the Yesmar, and the Anita, and owned several “boarding houses.” Anna Brown is the true embodiment of the self-made African American woman of her times, and one of the most visible African American women in early San Diego.

Florence Zolicoffer worked diligently to further the cause of equality and to instill a sense of community within the Black population. One of her methods was to further Black businesses and businesses which catered to the Black community. The Colored Directories of the 1920s and 1930s were an important means of doing so, but many were published by a company based in Los Angeles.

For several years, Mrs. Zolicoffer and her husband, Edward, produced the San Diego directory. Mrs. Zolicoffer was additionally very active in social organizations and church groups. She and her husband were very influential in fostering community businesses and community pride. An example of shops that served the Black community were beauty salons and barber shops which provided products specifically marketed to African Americans, such as gels, creams, straighteners and combs. One of businesses listed in Mrs. Zolicoffer’s San Diego Colored Directory was the salon of Mrs. Eleonora Hubbard.

Eleanora and her husband, Ocie, were born in Texas, married in 1920 and first appeared in the San Diego Directory in 1921. The couple first lived at 658 Third Street. Mr. Hubbard began working for the City Operating Department at a job he would hold until 1943. In 1926, the Hubbards moved into a single story residence at 320 16th Street, which they purchased from Thomas and Rebecca Johnson. Mrs. Hubbard originally opened her beauty salon out of her house. Mrs. Hubbard’s establishment was later listed in the Colored Directory next to Dr. Jack Kimbrough, as doctors and dentists were often in the same buildings as salons and barber shops.

Mrs. Hubbard was a graduate of the prestigious Poro College of St. Louis, founded by Edith Malone, expressly to train Black hairdressers. She was not only trained in hair care, but also in deportment, appearance and business in the Poro Systems. Mrs. Hubbard brought her knowledge and skills to San Diego, where she amassed a large and faithful clientele in her Whithubbard Salon. She served the community for more than 20 years.

Her success as a businesswoman earned her a spot in the Colored Directory’s “Who’s Who,” as being one of the few suppliers of “desired shade of face powder and cream.”

Lillian Grant was born in Lafayette, Louisiana in 1914. She moved to San Diego in 1932, where her excellent managerial skills were put to use and where she was known to be scrupulously honest. Lillian not only maintained , but also owned a number of income properties, which was rare for Black women at this time. She also was said to hold money for local African Americans when bank services were limited to Blacks.

By 1942 she owned a large rooming house at 1437 J Street, where prominent jazz musicians Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole were reputed to have stayed. By 1943, Ms. Grant had acquired all the properties from 1431 – 1463 J Street. This real estate investment became the largest continuously owned black housing unit in downtown San Diego.

Determined, intelligent and resourceful, these ladies were a vital part of rapidly developing early San Diego.