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Leon Williams was a trailblazer for equality in local government institutions. He was the city of San Diego’s first black councilman and first black member elected to the county Board of Supervisors. / Photo by Sam Hodgson
Leon Williams was a trailblazer for equality in local government institutions. He was the city of San Diego’s first black councilman and first black member elected to the county Board of Supervisors. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

When Leon Williams did it in 1947, it was still almost unheard of in San Diego. He, an African-American, bought a house north of Market Street. It was on E Street in Golden Hill, a white neighborhood. Its deed said it could be sold only to whites.

“I had an aggressive real estate guy,” he said. He put in a down payment and lived in the house for months before he could convince a bank to finance him. His military service helped him convince Bank of America.

Leon Williams became a seminal figure in San Diego’s political history, opening the door to greater diversity in San Diego’s white institutions. He was among a handful of black students — he estimates between 10 and 15 — when he enrolled at San Diego State College in the early 1940s. In 1969, he was appointed the first African-American to serve on the San Diego City Council (he was later elected), and in 1982, the first African-American elected to the county Board of Supervisors.

We sat down with Williams this week to hear his reflections about San Diego’s political history, the struggles for minority gains over the years and how he thinks the City Council’s decisions during his tenure helped perpetuate minority neighborhoods’ economic decline.

How did you first get involved in promoting greater diversity in San Diego?

When I was at San Diego State I got involved in the open housing movement. Segregation was pretty strong in those days. We’d go around and ask people to put stickers in their windows that said ‘My neighbor can be anybody.’

Did you encounter hostility?

Sometimes.

But it wasn’t a bad thing to do in those days, to ask people to put a sticker in their door.

We went all over the city, which wasn’t sprawled out then. It was primarily around here. This (Golden Hill) was a segregated neighborhood. Black people were pretty much limited to the southeast area.

Once you graduated from college what did you do?

I was a social worker at the county department of public welfare. Then I worked for the San Diego County Sheriff. Then I got recruited to be director of a youth program at the Urban League, which was a principal agency in the struggle against segregation, providing opportunities and training programs, especially for blacks.

And then you got appointed to the City Council in 1969.

There was a vacancy in the Fourth District, which was southeast San Diego.

But I had this job and I didn’t necessarily want to leave. City Council pay was only $5,000 in those days, and it was really a full-time job. But people prevailed upon me to consider it, and I did.

There was a convention, like a conference, at Southcrest Park near 40th street in southeast. There was a group that called itself BOMB: Black, Oriental, Mexican Brothers. They hosted it. There were hundreds of people there. I went over there and talked. Several people gave presentations. And BOMB selected me, went whole hog for me, and told the City Council and the press. And I got appointed.

Why did they choose you?

I don’t know.

You didn’t want the job?

I did want it. But there was a lot of pressure. We were all working on civil rights. Martin Luther King and those kids had been bitten by dogs in the South. Kids were sitting at lunch counters and having cigarettes stuck in their necks. I thought, Christ’s sake, if they can do that, I can do this. I can at least do this. That was a significant part of the motivation even though it was a financial sacrifice.

Black, Oriental, Mexican Brothers. You don’t really hear about that kind of cross-ethnic coalition in San Diego anymore. Was that more common then?

Before that, it was more or less accepted that white people had the power. Asians as well as Hispanics and blacks, we knew where the power was, and there was no significant feeling that we were going to be able to penetrate that. But there was a rising feeling with the civil rights movement that we were going to change it.

How did your relationships with these communities influence you once you were on the City Council?

A substantial part of my effort was to create responsibility within the council that all the people within the city deserved equal attention from the city and equal service.

Both the blacks and the Latinos were naïve for the most part. They’d say to me, “You’re down there, you take care of it.” And I’d say to them, “You’ve got to stand up! You’ve got to come down to the council when decisions are being made that affect you. People in La Jolla, if they want their curbs painted red, they would bring 50 people to the chamber and make presentations and say we want this and we want that.”

In the black community or the Hispanic, they’d say, “Well I can’t take time off to go to the City Council meetings. I’ve got to work!” And I would say, “Well, you see that service station down there? What if somebody wants to put one next door to you? If your work is more important than coming down to the council, and next year there’s a service station next to your house, what does that do to the value of your house?”

That was happening, you know.

Putting service stations in the black community?

When the white folks moved, they got conditional use permits or zone changes to put something in the community that, from anybody’s honest point of view, was incompatible with the neighborhood.

How did you try to address that?

I initiated CCDC (the Centre City Development Corp.) and SEDC (the Southeastern Economic Development Corp.), because there was a need. Downtown San Diego was really very run down, and nobody wanted to go down there. At one time, most of the markets were right on 12th Avenue, but all that had gone. There was Marston’s downtown, Hamilton’s, Whitney’s, major outlets. Fashion stores were right downtown. That had all gone. To Mission Valley and other places, as the city spread out.

The Union-Tribune decided to move. I was the only no vote on granting them a conditional use permit to move into Mission Valley.

CCDC was primarily to try to maintain some economic viability on this side of Interstate 8, because everything was going north of it.

The psychology was that north was better. Everybody with economic power was moving north. The frowning was on anything south, because the whole notion was there goes the neighborhood. If there were quote-unquote undesirable Hispanics and blacks, the fight-flight response began to develop in the white people who had the power and privilege. They were leaving and taking that power and privilege with them.

What happened?

My council members were saying, who are you to decide? That’s private business, let them do what they want.

I took the position that as the community and as the council, we have to try to maintain a viable city, and downtown was important for that.

CCDC has come under scrutiny in part because people believe all the money’s staying downtown, when it could be going to other communities.

Well, the only reason they have all those communities was because they didn’t maintain downtown and the older communities. If they’d maintained the older communities a lot of those newer communities would not have been necessary. That would have meant to have created the image in people’s minds that they could live closer together, among each other just as human beings, and have more viable and more satisfactory communities in closer proximity to each other.

That’s the vision I had that didn’t work. That meant changing other people’s imaginations, other people’s visions of what San Diego could be.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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