Community Life South Of the Tracks: Black’s in Monrovia’s History

Ostyre Jones Club cropped with caption 2

Members of Anna H. Jones Women’s Club in 1971. From Peter Ostrye’s book Monrovia, A Centennial Review

By Susie Ling

This is second in a series on the history of African Americans in Monrovia. All are welcomed to a lecture on Sunday, 29 March, 2 pm at the Monrovia Historical Museum.

It was in the 1910s that the African Americans – and Mexicans – of Monrovia became segregated south of the tracks. Housing was restricted between Myrtle and Shamrock, and south the Pacific Electric tracks on Olive Avenue.

Betty Fisher Thomas, granddaughter of Julian Fisher, remembers growing up in the Black-side of town in the 1940-50s, “But we had everything in our community. We didn’t want for much. You could go to the Lyric Theater and sit with your friends. We had people who were wonderful seamstresses. They even had a Black quilting club. There were the Masons and the Eastern Stars. We were a self-contained community with barbers, construction workers, carpenterS.” Thomas remembers that the land lots south of Huntington Drive were large. “Everybody kept livestock. We had chicken, ducks, a pigeon cage, rabbits, and then every now and then, a turkey. The Durams had two cows and four pigs. Everybody had a garden on Cypress and Cherry.”

Many African Americans came to California for economic opportunity. Jessica Blount Valentine remembers her sharecropping parents during the Depression, “In Mississippi, we didn’t have anything fancy. It makes me cry to remember, but one Christmas, my parents shared a box of raisins amongst us four children. But we were never hungry.” When the Blounts came to Monrovia, Jessica’s father found work in the foundry and her mother became a domestic servant. Within a year, her parents drove back to Mississippi in a brand new Oldsmobile to pick up the children they had temporarily left in Prentiss.

In Monrovia, many Black women found work as domestic servants for White families north of Foothill Boulevard, and in Bradbury, Arcadia, San Marino, and Sierra Madre. “Daddy always had two jobs at the same time,” remembers Larry Spicer. Men worked in construction, automobile and aerospace industries, and as entrepreneurs to support their families. Gene Washington Sr. came from Georgia after World War 2 and was a glass engineer for Aerojet and a professional drummer working in Hollywood. “My uncle had a dry cleaners and Mr. Hollaway opened a barber shop on Huntington Drive,” remembers Atlas Bullock. There grew real estate businesses, groceries, restaurants, and service stations.

The African American churches are a critical element in this history. Historical institutions in Monrovia include the Shiloh AME Zion Church on Canyon, the Second Baptist Church on Shamrock, and the Bethel AME Church on Lime Avenue. There were and are smaller predominantly-Black churches including Gethsemane CME church formerly on Huntington Drive, Seventh Day Adventist formerly on the corner of Maple and Ivy, and a Holiness Church that moved many times.

“That’s the church all eight of us were raised in,” said Dr. Paul Price, Associate Dean at Pasadena City College, about Shiloh. “My mother loves to sit in the 2nd pew on the left every Sunday.” Mother Price came to Monrovia after World War II as part of the chain migration of Bournes. She married into another large Monrovia family; her husband was the youngest of sixteen children. Mother Price became a nurse after attending Citrus Community College and worked for the City of Hope for 30 years. Shiloh AME has been her sanctuary for about half a century.

The Second Baptist Church was established on Royal Oaks in 1902 by pioneers including Willy and Pinky Watkins. Monrovia’s Second Baptist Church received a generous five hundred dollars from the First Baptist Church of Monrovia. In turn, Second Baptist Church helped the Methodists at Bethel AME in their early 1920s fundraising.

Blacks in Monrovia had their own chapters of NAACP, Junior NAACP, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. In 1932, Anna H. Jones Colored Women’s Club was organized as part of the National Council of Colored Women’s Clubs Inc. Anna H. Jones Club still encourages educational achievement as does the Monrovia-Duarte Black Alumni Association.

There were also a lot of sports. Starting in the late 1950s, there were some fierce Monrovia vs. Duarte tackle football games at Huntington Elementary each Thanksgiving. “We started at eight in the morning and went to sundown,” remembers Mikey Montgomery. There were some other tensions between the youth of Monrovia, Duarte and Pasadena.

By the 1960s and 1970s, segregation became less pronounced. Others Blacks had tried before, but Robert Bartlett was the first to be elected on Monrovia City Council in 1974. Larry Spicer, born in Monrovia and currently on City Council said, “The African American community in Monrovia was a very close knit family. Everybody knew one another. You want to see Monrovia change and improve, but you don’t want it to lose its family orientation. You don’t want to lose its rich history.”

Part 3 of this series focuses on racial restrictions and the struggle for social justice in Monrovia.


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