By Pat Sherman
With the arrival of Black History Month, local historian Karen Huff-Willis is quick to remind people that African Americans have been part of San Diego’s tapestry since 1542, when Juan Cabrillo landed at San Diego Bay.
“There were people of African descent aboard one of the ships, the slaves,” says Huff-Willis, former chair of the San Diego Black Historical Society and director of the San Diego Black Film Festival.
However, it wasn’t until the 1920s and ‘30s when a large number of African Americans began arriving in San Diego. From that influx, a portion of downtown San Diego blossomed, showcasing the food, music, art and culture of African Americans. It became known as the “Harlem of the West.” Places such as Creole Palace at Market Street and Third Avenue featured performances by Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat King Cole.
“It was a very respectable community, very reminiscent of Harlem in New York,” Huff-Willis says. “There were a lot of whites who had heard about this and would venture over to Creole Palace. I think culture always tends to bridge a gap."
The San Diego History Center is asking the public to help identify 500 photographs documenting San Diego’s
black community from the 1940s to the 1980s (including those pictured here). The photos were donated by the family of commercial photographer Norman Bayard, who died in 1986. View the photos at sandiegohistory.org.
Timeline of San Diego’s African American history
1848: Nate Harrison, the county’s first permanent black resident, arrives and builds a cabin on a 160-acre farm on the western slope of Palomar Mountain.
1890: City of San Diego’s black population reaches 290.
1897-1909: African American entrepreneur Edward Anderson operates the IXL Laundry, a trash collection service, hog farm and mortuary.
1920-1940: San Diego’s “Harlem of the West” community flourishes.
1948: Negro League baseball star and San Diego High alum John Ritchey breaks the Pacific Coast League’s color line, playing with the San Diego Padres.
1969: Leon Williams becomes San Diego’s first African American city council member.
1970: Reverend George Walker Smith founds the Catfish Club as a place for people of different races and political stripes to meet.
1985: John Delotch becomes San Diego’s first African American fire chief.
Source: San Diego History Center
In honor of Black History Month, WorldBeat Cultural Center in Balboa Park will host its 30th annual Tribute to the Reggae Legends concert at Valley View Casino Center (formerly the Sports Arena) February 21. The event will pay homage to Gregory Isaacs and Sugar Minott, both of whom died last year. Scheduled to perform (among many others) are Freddie McGregor and Bunny Wailer, the latter of which played alongside Bob Marley and Peter Tosh in The Wailers.
“That’s huge,” says WorldBeat founder, Makeda “Dread” Cheatom. “Bunny has not played in years."
Commemorating its 20th anniversary, the Heritage Parade and Festival at Market Creek Plaza in Southeast San Diego is being expanded to three days, including a black-tie gala February 25, the parade and festival February 26 and a gospel service and concert February 27.
Also taking place February 25-27, the 19th annual Kuumba Fest at the San Diego Repertory Theatre will feature three plays, a fashion show, an Apollo Theater-style talent contest, hip-hop performances and a gospel finale.
This year’s Kuumba Fest, dubbed “Black to Conscious,” got its start in 1993 as a method of keeping at-risk youth out of gangs by showcasing their lives on stage. Today, that theme of empowerment has expanded to include events for the entire family, infused with lessons in African history, healthy eating, life choices and goal-setting.
“Our battle cry is self-determination-to define and create for yourself instead of allowing others to name, define and create for you,” says Kuumba Fest founder Daj-ahn Blevins.
During the talent competition on February 26, people of all ages have a chance to compete for cash and prizes.“If the audience loves you, they clap. If they don’t like you, they boo you off the stage,” Blevins says. “There’s a little lesson in there. If you can take the pressure of 700 kids potentially booing you, you can take the pressure of not hitting that joint, not becoming a drug addict or a dropout."
History Month events
30th annual Tribute to the Reggae
Legends/Bob Marley Day
Venue: Valley View Casino Center
(San Diego Sports Arena)
Info: 619.230.1127, tributetothelegends.com
20th annual Heritage Day
Festival and Parade
Date: February 26, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Venue: Parade starts 10:30 a.m. at the corner
of Imperial and Willie James Jones avenues in
the Lincoln Park area of Southeast San Diego.
African Mental Liberation Film Festival
Date: February 26 and 27
Venue: WorldBeat Cultural Center,
Admission: Free (pre-registration requested)
19th Annual Kuumba Fest
Date: February 25-27
Venue: San Diego Repertory
Info: 619.252.6314, kuumbafestsd.com