In 1961, George D. McKinney wanted to buy a home in Spring Valley. But when he tried to get a loan, he said, neighbors protested to McKinney’s bank. They didn’t want black neighbors. The bank caved, and denied the loan.

“That wouldn’t happen today,” said McKinney, a bishop who founded St. Stephen’s Cathedral Church of God in Christ in Valencia Park more than 50 years ago.

San Diego’s racist housing policies in the middle of last century forced blacks into the city’s southeastern neighborhoods. In turn, the area, which now is San Diego’s Fourth City Council District, became the seat of black political power in the region.

Over time, San Diego’s housing policies changed. So have the district’s demographics. Black residents currently make up less than one-fifth of District 4’s population. More Hispanic and Asian residents live in District 4 than black people.

But political power in the district still resides with the black community. That will soon change, residents and observers say. The demographics make it not a matter of if, but when.

“Once that happens, black folks, if they don’t have their stuff together, they’re gonna get lost in this city,” said Mario Lewis, owner of Imperial Barber Shop in Encanto.

Lewis has tried to do his part. He started his business in 2006 with one barber: himself. Now Lewis has eight barbers, one stylist and has expanded next door. The shop and its surrounding businesses grew into a gathering spot.

But Lewis wanted to do more. Three years ago, District 4’s Lincoln High won a state basketball championship, but came home to no celebration. Lewis and friends decided to host a banquet for the team to build community spirit.

Soon after, Courtney Graham, a customer and best friend of one of Lewis’ barbers, was gunned down outside his home in Oak Park. Graham’s death prompted Lewis and others to knock on 3,500 doors over the next 2 ½ years to spread an anti-violence message. Marches, rallies and awareness campaigns for other community issues, such as healthier eating, followed. The group, which calls itself 100 Strong, aims to be an institution and model in the community.

“Everyone is talking about diversity, diversity, diversity,” Lewis said. “How are we going to get true diversity when people can’t take care of themselves?”

Lewis estimated the district’s black population has about a decade left of political dominance before the overwhelming numbers of other minority groups translates into political power.

It might happen even sooner. The four candidates who are considered the front-runners in this council election are black. But Tom Shepard, a political consultant who ran Mayor Bob Filner’s campaign, said the district’s Hispanic and Asian populations began showing signs of strength in the November election.

“I was surprised that a more prominent Latino candidate didn’t emerge,” said Shepard, who is unaligned in the race. “I think one would have had a chance.”

Newer residents, particularly those who have emigrated from other countries, take time to build up community institutions and wield their numerical strength at the ballot box, Shepard said.

That’s especially true in low-turnout elections like the special council election is expected to be, he said. The District 4 race will be the only one on the ballot and it takes place just two weeks after another special election for a state Senate seat. If turnout mirrors the district’s June 2010 primary election, then less than a quarter of eligible voters will cast ballots.

Black churches have a long history of leadership in the community, so they’re expected to play a major role in getting people to the polls later this month.

McKinney is also using his influence to help his parishioners adjust to the community’s changing demographics. His church offers services in Spanish twice a week.

“If I were narrow-minded, then the people would be narrow-minded,” McKinney said. “We’re coming to the place of understanding some of the things of what this means.”

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

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Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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