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It was January 1957. For days, Jewell Hooper and her older sister Carrine had been driving up and down El Cajon Boulevard in search of a motel. Carrine’s husband had just moved the family to San Diego to start a job at Convair, an aircraft manufacturer. So it was up to the two sisters to find the family a better place to stay until they could move into a permanent place.
They were living at the St. James Hotel downtown. But refugees from the Hungarian Revolution were also staying there, and they had been shooting dirty glances at Hooper and her family for weeks. The family wanted a suite with a kitchen so they wouldn’t have to eat all their meals in public and get sideways glances there, too. So the sisters tried El Cajon Boulevard, which was lined with motels.
Not a single motel would rent them a room, despite the vacancy signs in the windows. Finally, one manager put it plainly. He had seen them driving back and forth in their Chevrolet for days.
“He said, ‘Lady, I don’t know where you’re from, but I’ve seen you and this other lady going up and down this street every day. You’re never going to find a vacancy here,’” Hooper remembered. “He asked if we knew where Market Street is, and I told him yes. He said, ‘Well you go south of Market Street and look for something.’ And we did. And we found a unit that day.”
It was a cruel realization for Hooper and her family, who had arrived in San Diego from the segregated black neighborhoods of southeastern Washington, D.C. with hopes for their new home. Not long before they left, a friend had told them that in San Diego, black families could live anyplace they liked, if they had the money.
“That was the biggest lie that was ever told,” Hooper, now 91, said Monday while sitting in the living room of her one-story home in Valencia Park, one of San Diego’s historically black, southeastern neighborhoods. “We didn’t have a clue.”
But they soon found out that San Diego, too, was a segregated city, and that there were both explicit restrictions and unspoken understandings on where African-American families could live.
Southeastern San Diego’s black neighborhoods are becoming less black. Their African-American residents are leaving and being replaced by Latinos, a shift that is already transforming the tenor of community life there and that could someday alter its politics, too.
But while longtime black residents of southeastern San Diego lament the outflux of their community’s concentrated black population, Hooper — who has lived there for half a century — sees the trend another way. She views it as the correction of a course that for decades limited local African-Americans mostly to living in the oldest neighborhoods of southeastern San Diego.
Racially discriminatory housing practices helped define San Diego’s demographic landscape. In many of its neighborhoods, restrictions on who could buy homes were explicitly written into a property’s deeds by a community’s developer. Racially restrictive covenants, as they’re called, were prominent and strictly enforced in communities like La Jolla, Clairemont and elsewhere.
They read something like this one, from a home built in 1939 in the La Jolla Hermosa development: “No part of said property, or any buildings thereon, shall be used or occupied by any person not belonging to the Caucasian race, either as owner, lessee, licensee, tenant, or in any other capacity than that of servant or employee.”
In the early to mid-20th century, white residents and developers believed that the arrival of black, Mexican, or Jewish families to their neighborhoods could drive down property values, an attitude driven partly by personal prejudices and partly by larger societal ones, said Cristin McVey, a lecturer in sociology at the University of California, San Diego.
The Home Owners’ Loan Corp., for example, a federal agency created during the Great Depression to assess the risk of offering mortgages in neighborhoods across the country, considered the presence of ethnic minorities as a potentially higher risk for defaulting.
“Restrictive covenants were like the racial precursors to modern homeowners’ associations,” McVey said. “People were concerned with protecting the value of their property,” and they believed the presence of racial minorities would damage them.
Researchers have found racially restrictive clauses written into property deeds across the city, from La Jolla to Mission Hills to City Heights. They even existed in southeastern San Diego neighborhoods, dating to the early 20th century when those neighborhoods were white-populated suburbs — before industrial manufacturers arrived and drove wealthier white families north, creating a vacuum for lower-income or minority families to move in.
That language is still written into many property deeds, since they’re passed on from one property owner to the next, McVey said. But by the 1960s, a series of laws and court rulings had made restrictive covenants illegal to enforce, and today, real estate title companies tell prospective homebuyers that any language in a deed that discriminates based on race, gender, or otherwise, is void, even if it’s still there.
But those changes came too late for Hooper, her family, and thousands of black families that moved to San Diego during several decades, starting before the Great Depression.
“We knew where we could live and where we shouldn’t even try,” she said. “We couldn’t try north of Market, and for a long time east of 47th Street.” Hooper was solidly middle class. In Washington, she had worked for the federal government for 13 years. Her brother-in-law was a well-paid engineer. Soon after the family arrived in 1957, Hooper’s sister moved into a duplex in the Glenclift development near Market Street and 47th Street.
But the black population was slowly spreading farther north and east, into neighborhoods historically populated by white families — places like Emerald Hills and Valencia Park, which today are considered the centers of black San Diego but that once also had racial restrictions attached to them.
Hooper’s sister bought a house in Valencia Park in 1959, sometime after the first black family purchased a home in the neighborhood because the father looked white, Hooper said. Neighbors thought the black woman and children were housekeepers — an exception allowed by some restrictive covenants. But they soon realized the truth.
Hooper tried to buy a house herself in 1964, but was denied, so she rented a room in a friend’s house in Logan Heights. When she married in 1965, she and her husband bought a house in Broadway Heights near the eastern city limits.
She finally moved into her sister’s house in Valencia Park in the 1970s, after both women had divorced. She saw the neighborhood through some of its turbulent lows starting in the 1980s, when it was plagued by poverty and violence. She still lives there today, amid an ever-shrinking black population and a surging Latino population.
“Now, we’re declining,” Hooper said of her black neighbors. “We’re disappearing. Our professionals, especially, our doctors and lawyers, are gone.” African-Americans now make up the third largest ethnic minority in southeastern San Diego’s Fourth City Council District, behind Latinos and Asians. Two decades ago, they were the largest minority group.
“But that’s okay. The families that left, they left because they could,” she said. “I never thought to leave. Where would I go? People ought to live wherever they want to live.”